When my daughter was a toddler to about four years old she would have episodes of intense emotion. Which I guess is a euphemism for a “tantrum”, but I feel like tantrum implies that it’s an intentional behaviour. Whereas I absolutely believe these outbursts were beyond her control.
Building Up To Melting Down
I’d usually get a bit of warning that a big meltdown was coming. There was usually a build up. She’d be just a bit grizzly, grumpy and sensitive for a few hours. And then when it finally something would trigger her to have a sudden outburst of emotion. It usually came as aggression. And the thing that tipped her over the edge could be so minor, so small.
Usually being told “no” – she couldn’t have or do something she wanted.
And I get why that would seem like she’s “having a tantrum” to get what she wants, but the thing was never really the issue. It was just the tipping point. Like a “Who Sank The Boat” situation. It was a mouse of a problem, but it was just the one thing too many for her to cope with and she’d boil over.
And if we were home (it would usually happen at home) I’d scoop her up, put her in her bedroom, shut the door. But I wouldn’t leave her. I’d shut myself in with her. To keep her safe from hurting herself, and also to keep her brother safe from being hurt by her!
Big Scary Emotions
She’d scream and thrash and sometimes hit me. I’d breathe, stay calm, stay with her – if I had to I’d step out to catch my breath because there’s no point being her calm rock if I’m losing it too. But most of the time I’d almost be relieved that she’d tipped over into “releasing” her frustration. Because the build up of grizzling all day is worst. At least if she’s screaming she’s almost over it.
It would only last maybe five or ten minutes – though it could feel like an absolute life time being caged in with a screaming child. But when she was calming down she’d sometimes whimper out an explanation. Someone was mean to her at kindy. Nobody had played with her that. She missed out on doing something that she wanted to do. Her brother had told her to go away.
Something that would very reasonably break a little persons heart in a way she couldn’t explain or deal with. Or there’d be nothing she could actually articulate was wrong – especially before she had the words to explain herself.
And now she’s older (She’s five and a half years old) she is still sensitive and fiery, but she most of the time very clearly explains to us what she’s feeling before she hits that point of complete overwhelm. She has the words to put to her big scary feelings. But she’s also empathetic, kind, caring, incredibly happy and charmingly affectionate. I’m not giving myself credit for that either, it’s all her.
That is who she is.
She has BIG feelings. Big happy, big sad, big love, big anger, big ups and big downs. I just supported her through the time in her life where she was too little to control how she reacts to those feelings.
She Wasn’t Being Bad
But I am so glad I didn’t respond as though she was being “naughty” when she’d lash out. I had doubts – trust me – I’d think sometimes what on earth am I doing letting her “get away with” hitting me. I should be punishing her. What will she be like when she’s older?! What if I’m wrong?! What if I’m teaching her this is acceptable?!
Also I’m not at all saying that I am perfect. Sometimes my own frustration would bubble up. I’d shout at her when she was shouting at me – usually something like “STOP SCREAMING AT ME!” (At least she was learning irony – right?) And I’m human. And it was a reminder that if I can’t always keep my shit together then how on earth can I expect my child to?!
So if you do have a child like mine who does just feel everything so intensely – hang in there. Hopefully it will get better. And I know it’s so cliche, but they’re really not trying to give you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.
And also it’s so important to take care of yourself. It’s no good supporting them if you’re losing it yourself. So breathe. Step out. Scream into a pillow. Do what you need to do to be able to be there for them. And hope that this is just a phase.