Dear blog readers, feel free to weigh in here, because I am sorely confused. I am almost ashamed to admit the source of this confusion, but here goes: often I cannot tell the difference between a "temper tantrum" and a passionate display of genuine grief.
Here's what went down in our home this evening:
One little boy, exhausted from waking at 5:30am and not taking his afternoon nap, became very angry at his brother over a spatula that he was not sharing, and screamed and cried himself to sleep on the couch. This is not the incident I want to highlight.... I started waking him up around 6:30 or so, knowing that if he continued to sleep, he would not only miss his opportunity to eat before bedtime, but also be too wide awake to go to sleep at bedtime. Waking a tired toddler at 6:30pm is not easy. So we eased into it; I sat with him for awhile, then let him wallow on the couch while I played memory with his brother, and he eventually came over to watch and even made a few matches of his own.
So I did the unthinkable: I offered him dinner! Big mistake. This boy was not ready to talk about dinner. Until I mentioned that other brother had eaten jelly bread along with the offered ham and sweet potatoes. Jelly bread sounded good, so I offered him a plate with all of the above. This is where the train derails. The boy indicated, to my understanding, that he wanted his bread folded in half. No problem, I can accommodate that. The folded bread popped open a bit, causing severe distress, so I refolded a little harder. Somewhere in here, some unforgivable error was committed, and boy began to scream and cry and push his plate and food away. In a tear-blurred attempt to right the wrong, he ripped the bread, causing greater screaming and crying.
This is where I am confused. Is my son genuinely grieved that his bread is not the way he envisioned it; is this grief that must be acknowledged and comforted? Is my role as his mother to stand by him in his suffering and offer support and consolation?
Is this a big fat ol' tantrum over a piece of jelly bread?
I know what my grandparents' generation would say: It's a tantrum, walk away from it. Don't feed into it, don't give it attention, etc. I get this.
I also wonder if some of the more recently popular parenting philosophies might encourage me to stand by him, console where I can, encourage him to express his emotions appropriately, and make sure he knows that I love and care about him. I kinda get this.
I understand frustration and sadness. I don't want my son to feel abandoned and alone when he is frustrated and sad. Whether I think that the source of his sadness is legitimate or not is not the issue; one can be just as sad over a piece of jelly bread as I might be over the scene I found in their bedroom earlier. [That's a story for another day when I can find some humor or truth in it, but I'll admit that I did cry and I don't think it was a tantrum.] I want my children to know that they can express their emotions to me; I want our home to be a safe place to be happy, sad, confused, and more. A place where we can show our emotions and support each other through all of it.
So, help me... a tantrum or genuine grief? Is it just two ways of naming the same thing? And how do I respond?
Tonight I chose to "ignore" the "tantrum." Now, you all know you can't really ignore a tantrum. The best you can hope for is to pretend to ignore it. I offered choices: You can come to the table and eat when you are calmer. You can come upstairs and get ready for bed with us or you can stay downstairs and cry. Yes, this lasted for a very long time, off and on until bedtime at 8pm. At one point, the boy was sobbing on my bed while I got their room fixed up from the earlier not-going-to-talk-about-it incident, and the other brother told me, "I'm going to go to .... (brother)." He went into the other room and attempted to console his brother. I was humbled. Here I am, expecting a toddler to pull out of his grief without any help from me, and his brother is lovingly working at cheering him up and trying to put a smile on his face.
One last thought before you weigh in: tonight I forgot my most effective strategy for situations like this. One of my favorite ways to handle these moments is prayer. I pray out loud with or for or over my son. I name his grief to the God how knows and loves him and ask for comfort and grace. Very often this calms the torrent of tears and screaming; almost always it helps to calm my own heart.