We have to be very intentional with our four year old foster son. He needs to know what’s happening tomorrow at night before bed, and first thing in the morning he needs another briefing on the day. Sometimes, if he has a lot of appointments or will be having to do lots of transitions from one activity to another, we will color a visual schedule with him at the beginning of our day. We set timers, we discuss boundaries, we explain step-by-step what’s coming next for every single part of his day in an effort to mitigate tantrums.
Still, the best-laid-plans of mice and foster moms go oft awry, amirite? We went to Chick-Fil-A this weekend. As I sat in the car with my aunt, 4 year old foster son, 19 month old foster daughter, and 7 month old foster son reciting exactly what was about to happen, I knew in my gut It was coming.
“First we’ll go inside and order, then we’ll sit and eat, then we’ll play at the playground for fifteen minutes. How much time is going on the timer, Little Man”
“Fifteen minutes?” His reply was distracted as he stared out the window at the doors to the play area.
Fast word ten minutes and I’m walking away from the table, the 4 year old in my arms kicking my stomach and pounding on my back, leaving my aunt and two other children open-mouthed in shock. Over the course of the next hour, a full blown tantrum takes place. Kicking, hitting, scratching, ripping car seats off their anchors and slamming them against the window–Everything outrageous a 43 lbs person can manage took place in the back seat of my car that hour.
I’d walked away from the table with nothing more than a child and my car keys, and my aunt had been left to manage the other two children as well as a table full of food, two purses and a diaper bag. Another parent had seen my exit and kindly helped my aunt gather the stuff and get the kids to the car. She helped everyone (and everything!) into the front seat with me, and was nice enough to not offer commentary on the tornado taking place in the backseat. Her non-judgement and calm demeanor was powerful and affirming. What was happening with this child was, if not exactly normal, certainly not an apocalyptic event. We would get through it.
Little Man has his own tantrum rhythm. The opening lines sound like sustained whining. He struggles to produce words to describe what he wants or how he’s feeling. The first stanza introduces his Herculean strength and applies it toward escaping. Once the escape attempts are all played out, the next few lines are all about aggression: adults and objects (both large and small) are targets. The last stanza is just heart-wrenching tears and screams for Mommy. As the last cries for Mommy vibrate through the air, something special happens. There’s a pause, and Little Man makes eye contact with me and takes a deep breath in through his nose. He waits until I do the same and then we blow it out together. We take ten deep breaths in utter silence.
The last few notes of Little Man’s Tantrum Tune is just a small voice quietly apologizing for being unsafe and asking if we can go home now.
For fact-based information about tantrums, check out this article from TheScientificParent.org: How to Survive When Your Toddler Throws a Tantrum in Public.