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Compassion for Tantrums

December 11, 2010

Monday night, Michael had one of the worst tantrums I’d ever seen him have. He really doesn’t have awful tantrums, as I think he releases a lot of emotion through regular crying, so this one really caught my attention. He and Phillip were having an interaction over an orange on the other side of the kitchen, when Michael had an unexpected explosion, and then crumpled to the floor in heart-wrenching tears. My immediate reaction was one of deep compassion for him. I recognized his powerful need to cry and be heard, and I scooped him into my arms as he did so. We sorted it all out, and then it was over. But that immediate reaction I had, like my heart had just been tugged forcefully, was a strong enough feeling that I took note of it. Perhaps because this isn’t the normal reaction I hear parents have when their child has a tantrum?

The next day, when I was alone with him, brushing my hair in the bathroom, Michael had an even bigger explosion than the night before. He was tantrumming like I had never seen, stamping his feet so hard on the the ground that he was essentially jumping up and down with his feet tucking right under his bottom with each jump. I knew it took a strong force of emotion to make a person move like that. My heart melted for him. I don’t even remember what the catalyst was for the caprice in his behavior, or if it was even detectable. But I knew something had caused this painful emotion to well up within him, and then it clicked. I had done this to him.

My mind flashed back to the day before. I was having an exceptionally bad day. I hadn’t had such a bad day emotionally, in fact, for about a year. I was completely instable (which I’m thinking was a combination of PMS and not having eaten well that day), and my poor little boy not only had to witness it, but was also an unfortunate recipient of some of my foul mood. My out-of-control anger was mounting and I felt myself slipping away under its power. I was almost entirely consumed by this emotion, which felt like a forest fire running through my body. When it reached its peak, I felt, for a fleeting moment, that I was possessed by my Dad’s worst temper (he had a terrible temper), and I found myself screaming at a little boy, curled up on the floor, crying fearfully, with his eyes closed tight. It was at that moment, being reminded of how I felt when my Dad lost his temper, that I snapped out of it. I started sobbing and apologizing profusely. Michael jumped into my arms and we cried together.

I knew this explained his unusually strong tantrums. Not that I needed an excuse to feel compassion for him. I know it always sucks to have a tantrum, and I never get mad at him for it. I’ve learned to have compassion on myself for my own out-of-control emotions, which I know are not my fault. People see uncontrolled tempers as a weakness of character. I can tell you that I am, in fact, a very patient person who’s body is very sensitive and easily thrown out of balance. Being angry is not my nature. Yelling and screaming are not fun for me. Perhaps most adults are capable of keeping their emotions in check, but there are those for whom this becomes ten or twenty times more difficult when their body becomes unbalanced. And nowise should anyone expect a small child to have mastered emotional discipline. It is no easy task! Especially when you consider that small children, like sensitive adults, can be thrown out of balance quite easily.

Something else about this episode spoke volumes to me. When I recognized my dad’s temper inside of my own body, I realized that his outrageous temper could very well have been as painful for him as mine is for me. In fact, when I thought about my recent discovery of how food affects sugar-sensitive people like myself, it suddenly dawned on me where I got my sugar-sensitivity from: my dad. He probably didn’t know that those plates full of cookies and bowls full of ice cream weren’t just going to make him overweight and unhealthy, and helping to cause an early death, but that they could also be a major cause of his anger issues. As a child, I never knew he felt any remorse for his outbursts on us. He never apologized to us, which apparently was also a difficult thing for him. Only recently did my mom tell my sister and me how bad he felt about it. I grew up loathing him much of the time because I thought he didn’t feel any remorse for scaring us or hitting us. If only I knew how he had felt…if only I realized it was possible that he struggled the way I did…

Years ago I forgave my dad. Now, I can actually empathize with him.

Anger is a difficult emotion to deal with. It’s very powerful, but also can be very painful, and is very often misunderstood. We do need to learn to master it, but this is not easy. It is also not always done for the right reasons. Our object should not to be to hide our anger from people in an attempt to save face or avoid unwanted reactions to it (although these could serve as an initial motivator). Rather, our object should be to have control over ourselves, to be our own masters, and to have room for peace and light in our life. Let’s try not to judge those who are struggling with this inevitable aspect of life. We do not know if they are choosing to be angry or if anger simply overcomes them. And either way, anger deprives people of feeling peace. Life is much more difficult to enjoy when you do not have peace. So let’s not judge…especially children…

Instead of reacting with annoyance or anger of your own, could you try listening? Asking? Hugging? Patience? Because I think when people are angry, though it’s so so hard for us to react with love, it’s what they really need. They need a bit of  compassion. Or at the very least, patience.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 10:43 pm

    I agree. ‘tantrums’ or more like an ’emotional breakdown’ as we adults call them. For some reason it’s ok for adults to break down or maybe ‘ok’ is the wrong word but it’s acceptable. Where as if kids have an emotional breakdown is wrong and they are left to toss and turn on the ground, alone. I think it’s wrong to leave a kid to themselves flopping on the ground crying. It’s ALWAYS for a reason…. Hunger, not understanding what’s going on, etc. Why do they have to just deal with it and ‘stop beig a baby’? I feel for kids with tantrums too. My heart melts when Luke has a breakdown and I am the one not understanding. I want to always remember that we can hug and talk it out and figure out why it’s happening.

  2. December 12, 2010 3:09 am

    oh thank you for sharing these thoughts.i can relate so much to your words.
    my babyboy is 9 months now and so his tantrums are very soft, but i often ask myself how will i react if he is grown and there will be a stronger tantrum. i myself have a similar theme with the temper of my dad and i often am scared that it will come through me and my body although i am a quiet person in my mood.
    much love, d.

  3. January 18, 2011 8:40 pm

    Wow, thank you for this! Such food for thought — I am really struggling with my anger lately, much more than any other time in my life (and parenting journey so far). I really want to figure out how to react differently, and to see things through more compassionate eyes, even in the heat of the moment…

    • January 19, 2011 12:01 pm

      It’s hard, and so many things can contribute to those angry outbursts. It can be diet, lack of exercise or sunshine, deficiencies, stress and fatigue, as well as attitude and perspective, not to mention emotional scars from the past.

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