How to Stay Calm When Your Child is a Mess

How to Stay Calm When Your Child is a Mess

Apparently kids have a tendency to throw tantrums, regardless of setting or audience, melting down both in public and the safety of your own home. Of course, it has never happened to me or my child, so I write based only on the things I’ve witnessed other people’s kids do. My kids never do the things I said I’d never let them do before I became a parent, so please do not assume there's any personal experience whatsoever behind what I’m about to say.


I’ve regretfully left a hard-earned cart-full of groceries sitting in the last aisle of the grocery store to calmly walk my child out to the car, his shoes kicked off somewhere along the way, cry all the way home, and beg my husband to return to Macey’s to finish the job (“and don’t forget the shoes!”).

I’ve tried relentlessly to make it work between my son and Target, but after multiple failed attempts, had to cut my losses and bid farewell to my regular therapy sessions there. I’ve hauled us both crying back out to the car before we even get out of the dollar section. I’ve also spent $100 extra dollars, unfortunately not on throw pillows or shoes, but on toys and candy to bribe him through the end of our course. I’ve grit my teeth, pretending to smile, while sitting on the sidelines at countless FUN outings I’ve planned only to console a screaming, crying child who is terrified of water, animals, flies, grass, slides, and other similarly sized forms of human life. I’ve felt every capillary in my face swell with fiery, red shame as I painfully laughed off the next humiliating thing my child chose to do from my list of ‘I will never let my kid do that.’ I’ve been there and I’ve done it all. I’ve thrown empty threats, fed him fruit snacks for dinner, ignored him to the dismay of every ear nearby, and clearly lost my cool in the process. So how do you cope? Sometimes it’s about positive, healthy, and “socially-acceptable” coping strategies –but most of the time it’s not. Every now and then you have the patience and resources to handle it like the reasonable parent you always said you’d be, but other times it’s survival of the fittest and your fight-or-flight response kicks in with no regard for who’s watching, what they’re thinking, or how you said you’d handle something like this when you were watching it unfold pre-parenthood with some other child and his mother. Here is your list of options (some more grounded and mature than others) for staying cool while little ones are a hot mess:
  1. Bribery. – I know, I know. Not the best choice in the long run, but it will buy you time in immediate crises.
  2. Immediate escape. – Leaving the scene of the crime (child in tow) as soon as the tantrum hits is another risky move, possibly encouraging repeat offenses, but will help you and your child handle the issue somewhere without the heat of watchful eyes.
  3. Catch a break. – If you’re at home or out and about with friends/family (aka backup), walk away so you can calm down and don’t re-enter the situation until you can handle it in a way you won’t regret later on.
  4. Empathize. – Remember that your little one feels big emotions and doesn’t always have the vocabulary, patience, or expertise to articulate and express what happened and how it made him feel. Let that spark some patience and understanding as you remember how it makes you feel when your emotions aren’t understood and validated.
  5. Communicate. –Following suit with Option 4, communication can be strained between big humans and little humans because we often do it very differently. Our little ones opt for whining, screaming, thrashing, and crying when bad things spiral downward hard and fast (i.e. “I wanted toast, but you put bread in the toaster?!” or “I only drink out of blue sippy cups on Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m.”). More often than not, toddlers' evolving vocabularies aren’t big enough to keep up, so they resort to what they can do. If you’re able to persist past options 1 through 3, visit number 4 to try and understand what your child is going through and how he must be feeling –and you’re still feeling warm and fuzzy, patient, and grounded—go the extra mile to get down on his level and try to muster up some communication. You’ll do some good now –acting as a calming force and hopefully getting some rational thoughts/actions out of your rabies-driven child—and you’ll actually do some good later, too –improve his coping skills, elaborate his ability to communicate, and expand his toolbox for potential meltdowns down the road.

No matter what option you choose, know you have at least one fellow parent who is standing in your corner, judgment free - me! Go gettum Mama!

Written by Witney Loftin
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