Much is said about the “terrible twos.” That certainly fits. But it’s not just the “twos.” It’s the ones as well. And the threes and fours. But the word “terrible” alliteratively aligns with the word “two,” so it seems catchier. So all parents reading this with toddlers between the ages of one and four no doubt have moments when uncontrollable tantrums become the focus of your universe.
I must confess that it makes me feel like the worst parent in the world. It’s a double-whammy. First of all, I feel like I must be an awful parent for causing the behavior in the first place. Clearly, I think in my mostly grown-up developmental mindset, I have done something to provoke this reaction. The fact that I don’t know what I have done is just further proof of how clueless and disconnected I am, because if I were down with this whole parenting thing, then I would have known not to do whatever I just did to cause my child to explode into a ball of insanity. Other times I do know what it is I did to cause the outburst, and so I assume that I should have done something better or differently. It isn’t a surprise that she pitches a fit over bedtime when she’d rather play, but I turn the responsibility inward, believing that if I had introduced bedtime in a better way, then she wouldn’t respond so poorly.
Secondly, I feel like an awful parent because these fits almost always bring out the worst in me. I lose my temper. I yell. Sometimes I grab her too roughly. A couple of times I’ve popped her on her hand or her bottom. My spouse and I have agreed since long before our pregnancy that we didn’t believe in spanking, but God help me, I would seriously consider it if I didn’t have the firsthand experience of seeing that smacking her hands has only made the tantrums worse. All of this inflames me with guilt. It turns out that I can be just as schizophrenic as she is: her fits can instantly reduce me to states of simmering fury. And I hate myself for it.
The problem at the heart of all of this is that I’m so used to interacting with adults. My sweet little two-and-a-half-year-old is not an adult. She does encounter the world with the same rules of engagement that the rest of us grown-ups do. Oftentimes, this is whimsical and adorable and hilarious. But in this case, it is maddening. So I internalize it, because this would be more appropriate if I were dealing with a rational adult. If I were eating dinner with a colleague, and suddenly he were to start screaming and throwing food, I would think, “What did I do?” and I would try to mollify him by asking questions regarding his feelings and thoughts and attempting to explain myself or the world around us. And if my colleague were to unfairly direct anger and vitriol towards me, I would be rightly justified in expressing anger and disappointment in response.
But Curly Fries is not a rational adult. She’s a toddler, and all of this is – I know this in my brain! – developmentally normal. Her internal experience of the world is based on her struggle to assert her will in an environment that she is rapidly discovering does not bend to her desires. Her desire for autonomy is rapidly outpacing her actual agency and control. And this is naturally frustrating. But her brain does not have the capacity for concrete, rational thought. Her language skills are quite advanced for her age, but that doesn’t matter; she is incapable of reasoning, so she can’t express herself in reasonable ways.
Again, I know all of this in my brain. But in the moment, when the feet and hands and spittle are flying towards me, when her face is turning red from screaming herself breathless, none of this developmental theory means anything. I can discuss the merits and lessons of placing her into Time Out, but in the midst of an epic tantrum, Time Out is meaningless. I put her into Time Out for hitting me, and then she gets up and hits me again – while she’s in Time Out. This isn’t a Dave Brubeck record; I don’t know how to put her into Time Out within Time Out. And then I feel just as developmentally impotent as she no doubt does, and my own frustrations rise to the surface causing me to want to act out – which I sometimes do.
I know that it isn’t just me. I know this partly because I’m a rational human being who knows that all children go through this, and therefore so do all parents. I also know this because I see the same thing happen to my spouse. She is usually a far more pleasant and even-keel person than I am, but she is reduced to a similar fury just as fast as I am in the face of these unbelievable outbursts. I’ve talked with other parents who share their own stories of their otherwise adorable children behaving like tiny monsters. I haven’t heard many other parents express emotions of worthlessness, shame, and rage, but it feels extremely verboten for parents to admit that we sometimes hate our children. Again, this is a completely normal thing for parents to feel towards their children. But in a culture that venerates family values, it feels transgressive at best and evil at worst.
We’ve talked about new methods for disciplining her. We have to hold to Time Out when it’s necessary. We will offer more verbal positive reinforcements. We’ve discussed making a sticker chart and rewards system. And we need to mirror appropriate responses. That’s the hardest part, because I rarely feel calm enough inside to respond calmly. But I think I need discipline for me. I feel completely helpless when she explodes and then I feel worthless as a parent and then I feel ashamed of my anger. I need to discipline myself to not take this behavior so personally, even though it completely destroys all the idealized images of what my perfect child should be like. In those moments when I unfairly need her to behave in a way she isn’t developmentally capable, I need to put my own ego and expectations into Time Out. That’s what being a parent is all about – suspending our egos and expectations – and it manifests in different ways as our children grow. Two years ago it meant letting myself get poop on me. Now it means tolerating and containing these hideous outbursts. We’ll all grow out of this eventually. Right?