I’ve worked in some pretty stressful situations. Not like a war zone or a medical theatre or anything as substantial as that, but heart rate-raising situations where there’s a stack of work to do, an immovable deadline, and few resources to do all of it with. But no stress I’ve encountered in the workplace, comes anywhere close to the sort I’ve experienced somewhere in the depths of the local Target store while my then four-year-old rolled around on the ground, eyes bugging out of her head, frothing at the mouth, screaming at a wineglass-shattering level, executing a Neymar perfect tantrum, because she couldn’t have THAT toy.
I’m exaggerating. A little bit.
But the combination of uncontrollable, inconsolable child chucking a massive tantrum in a public place, and my desolate feeling of utter powerlessness in being able to stop it, created an anxiety in me I’d never quite experienced before.
The tendency to tantrum starts a bit after they turn two and while the “terrible twos” are a bit of a pat parenting cliché, kids asserting their right to independent thought and action at this age is a damn challenging time for a father.
I’d describe my own dad as a pretty hands-off father who let me find my own way in life… except when I or my siblings were either chronically uncooperative or disrespectful. Hated paternal disrespect, did dad, as most do. They were the only times he would “go off”… and he was pretty terrifying to behold at those times.
As you do, I vowed not to be like that when I became a father. I wouldn’t become volcanically angry, I promised myself. Instead, I’d be consistent, measured, rational and fully equipped with modern parenting strategies to deal with anything little people could throw at me.
Fuck that! said the child’s tantrum. Watch this!
Watch your rational response plan crumble into a large puddle of kiddy tears as ‘the tantrum’ publically humiliates you as a BAD parent who hasn’t a clue how to control your child.
What you need to know is that after a while, epic hissy fits teach you a few things you don’t need to read parenting books to find out. While many of the things you learn can also be found in those books or the thousands of online guides to dealing with bad behaviour, it’s your common sense and intuition that will be your best guide.
Firstly, forget embarrassment. If your kid bungs it on in public, you make the whole situation worse by barking at them or, worse, smacking them to make it stop simply because you don’t like disapproving nannas staring at you. Fuck what they think. This means trying to suppress the rapid resort to anger, and that can be very hard for guys. Anger is the loss of control, and kids instantly sniff it out and resist harder. Or you just end up scaring them.
Like a bad cold, tantrums need to run their course. Intervening in an attempt to end the eardrum-destroying noise will generally antagonise the little shit further. When they’re two or three, the ol’ distraction technique – “look at this shiny thing over here!” – will generally work. When they get a bit older, however, they can fixate on THIS shiny thing like a mofo and now you’re trying to dislodge a barnacle. Drop the reasoning and logic routine, they’re impervious to it. Sorry, but you have to see it out.
Threaten to leave without them while feigning complete disinterest in their obsession and you may be waiting 10 minutes, 20 minutes or even an hour (yeah, I did), but eventually they’ll cave and come to the realisation, “Ah shit, he’s serious this time.”
Yes, this requires immense patience, and probably ending up late for something, but you’ve won the first war in the long-running Battle of Wills. Your kid now has a handle on where the boundary might be and how far they can push you. Doesn’t mean they won’t do it again, but tantrums become more manageable over time once they realise you won’t give in just because of their pressure test using his or her available resources, i.e. yelling, kicking and screaming.
Everyone will develop their own tantrum strategies but what is true is that issues around discipline are some of the trickiest a new dad will face. They’re unlike the stresses and anxieties of work, where you know what you’re doing because they challenge your self-perception as a man with a plan, competent and ready to deal with any situation.
Your reactions to uncooperative behaviour by your child can raise serious self-doubt about what sort of parent you are and want to be, and so you need to think a bit about those reactions and consider them a work in progress in becoming a more effective father when the red mist rises in the offspring.