The Tantrum That Schooled Me: Teaching from Tantrums

The tantrum that schooled me!
The tantrum that schooled me!

Every child throws tantrums. Sometimes they are mild and pass swiftly. Other times they morph into epic meltdowns. In this instance, I weathered a tantrum heard ’round the Seacoast. It was utterly apocalyptic, and taught me and my child an important lesson.

There are moments in parenting that force me to pause. Times where I recognize that I have an opportunity to teach my child, especially when it comes to limits and self regulation.

I work toward discipline that teaches my children, and doesn’t just impose an unrelated consequence. Managing tantrums are a big part of this mantra. First, I had to recognize that a tantrum and a meltdown are really two different things. From there I made it a point to really understand the difference. Recognizing the behavior that your child is presenting will help you manage each appropriately.

A tantrum vs. a meltdown.
A tantrum versus a meltdown.

It happened like this: our family went out for breakfast one Sunday morning. This included my husband and five kids. When you have five kids (under age six) you are a traveling circus. Cue the clowns.

During breakfast, my five-year-old (names have been omitted to protect the innocent), acted very combative. Ultimately we made a swift exit. Her behavior turned into a tantrum over missing out on a preferred seat and wrestling an elusive seat belt buckle.

Within minutes, the tantrum had evolved into an episode of the “Jerry Springer Show.” Highlights included her refusing to sit in her seat or wear a seat belt. Next, she was standing and walking about in my moving minivan. Then came the ever-popular scratching of a sibling and shrieking at sonic boom levels. Normally I ignore tantrums. Naturally, this was something more. It’s important to note that she is not on the Autism Spectrum. Children with spectrum disorders that are sensory-related can experience very profound sensory meltdowns. Parents who weather sensory meltdowns have my most sincere respect and support.

She wasn’t ready to calm down, ignoring my pleas to sit. Instead, she was actually escalating by scratching another child. This was unsafe. I was done. 

“Stop the car,” I said to my husband. My voice was eerily calm. 

Flipping out because she was flipping out seemed counter intuitive. I needed to hold the heck up, and act like the reasonable person I wanted her to become. Right? I was totally winging it. 

Here’s the important part. For a moment, I really did imagine myself extracting her from the van like I was The Terminator. But I would never do that. It served no benefit to either of us. Instead, I heard my low calm voice again.

I don’t know where it came from, but it said this, “I’m sorry you are upset. Riding in the car is a privilege. If you will not sit safely in your seat, you will not ride in this car.” Then we walked home.

We walked home. I watched my husband casually drive away with our other four children. (As though I hoof it every day with a child who looks like they need an exorcism.) People came out of their homes to take in the spectacle. I was followed by a man who stopped his lawnmower to offer assistance as she sat stubbornly sidewalk. Then, motorists rubbernecked as we continued home, my child hollering nearly the entire walk. 

Our experience that day taught her more than any “time out,” scolding, or sticker chart ever could have. I learned a lot, too. If I remove the natural consequences of a child’s bad choices, I am actually enabling poor behavior. Children need to accept the consequences of their behavior. If I don’t teach them this, who will?