Last night, my son (27 months) was having a typical evening, in a pretty good mood generally but, as usual, resisted having his teeth brushed. I brushed them just a little bit, let him brush them the rest himself, and then it was time for books in bed. He requested some water, which I typically allow. I went to the kitchen and came back with a straw cup/water bottle for him. I usually use this type of cup in the bedroom to avoid spills.
When my son saw the cup, he started a tantrum. I guess he had wanted a sippy cup or regular cup instead, but I still don't know for sure what was wrong with this water. I got in close and started listening. I said, “Brandon doesn’t want this water. This is not the right water,” and this helped him release some more. He picked up the cup and threw it. It seemed to be an effective way to express his emotion, so, as I listened, I picked up the cup, gave it back to him and encouraged him to throw it again. Each time he threw it, he really raged and tantrumed hard. We repeated this many times. I listened, and every time the crying started to subside a little, I gave him the bottle and said, “Let's throw it again.” He really expressed anger throwing the bottle. Sometimes, he threw it really hard and I was like, “Yeah, that's it.”
He was getting sweaty, sometimes his face was a bit purple, and he yawned periodically. I stayed close. He occasionally asked me to hold his hand, and I did. In a very calm voice, I said things like, “I'm right here,” “Mommy's with you,” “You're doing a great/wonderful job,” “Everything is fine,” “Everything's OK,” “I know,” “You're such a brave boy,” “I love you so much,” and sometimes just “Yeah,” to let him know I was close (since his eyes were often closed) and calm but not to interfere too much with words.
A lot of the time he was lying on his back on the floor. At one point, I had my arm out near his feet as he kicked and kicked and kicked at my arm. He told me to move my arm. I wasn't sure whether to move it or not. At first I moved it a little, but then I thought, there's nothing unsafe about my arm being here, so I said, “Mommy's going to stay with Brandon,” and then, when he asked me to move my arm again, I said, “Mommy's arm will stay with Brandon.”
Then, at one point, the tantrum subsided a bit, and I gave him the water bottle to throw. He didn't want to throw it and instead wanted me to open the straw part so he could drink. He didn't seem 100% through the tantrum, but mostly so. I opened it and he drank some water. I thought, oh, maybe he is finished. But actually he was just taking a break and continued his tantrum after his drink.
After a while longer (the whole thing was probably 30 minutes), it subsided, and we were lying on the floor looking into each other's eyes. I started telling him about what I see in his eyes, white and black and brown. He was interested and wanted to look in the mirror at his eyes. We did that for a few minutes, then got in bed to read “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.” He was in a light mood, very engaged, and asking questions. We have read that book many times, but for the first time he asked a bunch of questions, including “Mommy, what does glad mean?” (where the book says, “Some are sad and some are glad and some are very very bad”). I said it means happy and pointed to the picture of the “glad” fish. He said “Yeah!” and smiled. I said I was happy and asked if he was happy and he said “Yeah.” He also wanted to pretend we were fish in the bed and I was the mommy fish pushing the baby fish in the shopping cart (like the picture in the book of the “new” fish). We had a fun time with that and soon he fell asleep easily.
Recently in listening time I had been working on the pressure I put on myself to be perfect at everything I do, in particular parenting. I knew that this tension was getting in my way of connecting, and addressing it in my listening time allowed me to relax more while with Brandon. Brandon had not gone into a big tantrum for a while, and it’s possible that my recent more relaxed vibe with him allowed the trust and connection for this intense session to happen. I felt calm and connected with him during the tantrum. I never took his anger personally, or considered it to be directed at me, and I never wondered whether I should go get a different cup.
Encouraging him to throw the cup I think was helpful. It put the anger on something other than me, and I felt we were partnered. I was helping him release his anger, like I would help a listening partner, without personal investment or guilt getting in the way.
–a mother in Palo Alto, CA