Toddlers have tantrums. It’s just part of the job description. But it is so hard for parents because there is seemingly no logic, progression or pattern to tantrums. I find it hard to know how to predict and defuse a tantrum, they sometimes come out of nowhere. Just a few minutes ago, LG was sweetly sitting in my lap saying “XieXie Mama” as I helped her pull on her clothes in the morning. Then when I tried to change her top, suddenly she was flailing and yelling “Go Away Mama!” Ah I thought, perhaps I should give her more choices, so I pulled out a few options and let her choose. I had forgotten that there was one more option that unfortunately was unacceptable to me: topless. She chose that one.
It’s very easy to become frustrated in this situation. I’m rushing her out of the house so that the crying won’t set off TG who is sleeping in the next room and can’t bear to hear her scream. We’re already late, I need to get her to daycare so I can start my workday and race through the day getting stuff done that I can’t do easily while she’s with me. It’s kind of a recipe for a blowup.
I recently read something that helped me to empathize more with LG. It was a parenting guide, one of those short online articles that I squeezed in a read on a subway ride home. The article explained that tantrums are what happens when toddlers are trying to express themselves and are either not being listened to or not understood.
Wait a second, I thought. This sounds familiar.
In my 11 years in China, I’ve had more than my share of “tantrums.” They usually occur when I’m desperately trying to make myself understood, but my emotions are more raw than my language skills can cope with. And that’s when the tears run wild: when I’ve reached a limit to what I can express, when I’m feeling in a second language things I haven’t even tried to use my first language to explain. I’ve often had the experience of having to switch to English just to express myself in a calm and clear manner. Unfortunately, switching to English means that no one but myself can understand. As you can imagine, it is utterly frustrating experience for myself and everyone around me.
I’m not proud of these tantrums. They erupt over little things and big things, and TG has to bear the brunt of them, because they mostly involve him. I’m not proud to share this fact with my audience, all 8 of you, but I’m doing so because when I recognized my own “tantrums,” I felt a certain empathy for LG. I may not know what it is that she is trying to express, or what exactly she is frustrated about. Many times I may not agree with her point of view, especially when it involves something dangerous like playing with a plastic bag. But I know that feeling of frustration exactly. I know that point where emotions flood and my ability to express myself is drowned in tears. So I try hard not to lose my patience with her, because I know she can’t control these tantrums until she learns how to express her feelings clearly. That empathy has helped me keep my calm as a parent. I don’t know whether she can feel that empathy, but I try to let it show in how I deal with her, even when we don’t agree.