Tantrums: Dealing with Your Child’s Meltdown… and the One in Your Head

Is it too much to ask of a child to take a shower once every week?

Yesterday  I mustered all of my courage and asked (read: beg) one of my younger kids to do just that.

Had I known what would follow, I would have considered letting her enjoy another day in the same clothes she had worn for the last 3 days. Talking about those moments when your kids push your buttons—her tantrum pushed my buttons for a whole, long Hour!

 I can hear Joanne’s Harris  whisper in your ear: “Don’t take her so seriously”, she says, “a little tantrum in real life seems so much bigger online”!

While that assessment may be true for my daughter’s tantrum, no online description can do justice to the 60-minute drama that went on in my very own mind.



“Tantrums are not bad behavior. Tantrums are an expression of emotion that became too much for the child to bear[…] What your child needs is compassion and safe, loving arms to unload in.” (Rebecca Eanes, The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting)

Not to disregard the lessons that the author had gleaned from her parenting experience, my own experience with my children is that while the child feels fairly safe in my company as she’s having her fit, it’s ME  who feels a need to run for shelter, it is me internally begging for her mercy and compassion. My “loving arms” are repeatedly rejected by my daughter, who clearly prefers to continue throwing things across the living room and at her mother.

After all that’s been said and tried with tantrums, here’s something you probably haven’t heard before.

It is the UpsideDown Parenting Makeover for Tantrums. Take it as a “case study” in UpsideDown Parenting, if you will.

The following may come across like a step-by-step manual. And indeed, it often brings a quick, happy ending to massive meltdowns.  However, it is not the details that are important here, but the maneuvering between your child’s hysteria and your own alarms that went off (no alarms went off? You’re either enlightened… or it’s not really a tantrum.)

Okay, so it’s clear to you that a tantrum is happening here, and there’s no way back. 

Step 1: Can you put your finger on the cause of the tantrum? When you try to get an answer from her, is she cooperating with you and providing you with a clue? Once the crying and screaming is full-on, it’s usually more of a detective job of deciphering. The mission may prove to be impossible.

Now, let’s say you somehow figured out where and why this whole tantrum started…

Step 2: Can you address that cause first, and then move on with your original plan (in my case, getting the child in the shower)? For example, when my daughter finally calmed down, I learned that she had serious infections in her recently-pierced ears. She was so concerned that taking off her shirt will cause her pain, and the awful screaming was probably an expression of her anxiety. Had I known, I would have first addressed that concern, and we would have perhaps enjoyed a smooth sail to the shower.

Step 3: Whether or not you know what had ignited the tantrum, is there anything at all that you can do to help pull the child out of their fit? In my example (and remember that I knew nothing about my daughter’s infection), can I just change my plans and give her a shower tomorrow instead? Perhaps I can offer to read her a story after the shower?

Assuming that she heard my suggestions and the fit is still continuing, I continue to…

 Step 4:  I now need to make sure that she is safe… and that everyone and everything around her is safe as well. Did I remove all of the breakable and\or valuable objects?  Am I keeping a safe distance and at the same time being there to provide support?

At this point, you’ve done as much as you could for your child (considering the minimum amount of information you could gather from her) it’s time for…

 Step 5: check in with yourself. In UpsideDown Parenting terminology, this is called Showing Up.

I’m going to lay out my mind here on the page so you can see all the different directions in which it was going, when I was ready to deal with myself. If you were there to see the whole scene and the sound was on mute, you would think that this was another pleasant afternoon at my home. But turn up the volume… and you hear my daughter screaming in a very scary way next to the bathroom. And turn it up some more… and you might be able to hear the thoughts and worries that were racing in the mind of the mother standing at the sink, washing the dishes (that would be me.) So here’s a list of those torturous thoughts of which I took a mental note as I showed up. (This internal observing took place as I was standing in the aforementioned strategic spot that allowed for both support and safety.)

 *it’s too noisy for the neighbors

*God forbid, the neighbors probably think that I’m physically abusing my daughter

*the neighbors will call the authorities

*the neighbors will knock on my door

*my other children, who are witnessing this, will think I’m the worst mother they’ve ever known.

*…you know what, I really feel like I’m the worst mother right now!

*my screaming daughter will be traumatized for life by this whole event

Okay. So being the daughter of a math professor, I like numbers and percentages, and I notice that over 50% of my nightmarish thoughts had to do with… the neighbors!! And only one (!) concerned my daughter. The fact that we live in the crowded center of town and have  next-door neighbors who do not have children yet (or their children are grown) is not a good enough excuse for this ratio. For all I know, they weren’t even at home when this whole thing happened. But they were definitely taking up a lot of space in my mind.

At this point I would have to agree that a tantrum (of any size) in real life seems so much bigger in a mother’s mind!

Now that order has been restored and I’m sitting at my work-corner, I am prepared to take a much deeper look at the way I allow my imaginary\real neighbors to invade the privacy of my mind and my home.  I wonder whether the same exact tantrum would have been a totally different experience for me had I allowed the neighbors to remain in the safety of their home  It’s not that I haven’t been concerned about their (mainly imaginary) reactions before, but it took a whole hour of internal turmoil for me to decide that this is an issue that I must face—and the sooner the better.

And that is the story of how I turned a mother’s meltdown into an opportunity for self-growth, which is what UpsideDown Parenting is about.


Here’s how you can practice Showing Up right now:

Think of one of your children’s recent tantrums. Where did it take place? Who else was there? What was the most troubling concern that popped into your mind when your child was having the tantrum? How much of it had to do with your own reputation? The answer you get may surprise you, and if so, that’s great! It just means that you’re allowing yourself to be authentic.

Next, if you are starting to get curious about this, try to imagine this:  how you would experience that same tantrum if the concern that came up were not an issue for you?


Share your insights with me! Contact me at noga @ upsidedownparenting dot com












Copyright © 2014. Noga Hullman. Images of Noga by Laura Milmeister. Site design by Barak Hullman.

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