Dealing With a Toddler’s Violent Temper Tantrums – How to Handle a Child Who’s Out of Control
Summary – Sometimes it’s not about solving a problem but about rolling with the punches…literally. How I rode out four hard years of tough tantrums from toddler, to preschool, to kindergarten.
As much of a fan I am of modern parenting techniques and philosophies they also assume a certain basic level of civility and compliance on the part of the child. No one really talks about what happens when your child just walks away from their timeout. Seriously, what would you do if you child simple refused to take a time out. And not only refused to stay in time out but ran away? And then when you went to get them they spat at you. Or how about bit your arm or cold cocked you in the jaw? Or maybe just fought with every fiber in their body and just punched, kicked and squirmed their way out? What then? Take away their treat? Take away their video? Have them talk about their feelings?
Fortunately my daughter was never quite at that level but she did have very physical tantrums for nearly the first five years of her life. These were full on meltdowns with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. To mix it up she also included a bit of hitting, kicking and trashing of the house. Oh, and they lasted for ten to twenty minutes. May I add that we never once gave in to a tantrum. Never, ever. We were absolutely unwavering on this so it was not about her thinking that a tantrum would result in anything positive. It never worked. Not ever. We simply continued what we were doing and made it clear that when she was done that she could join us. No interaction until the tantrum was done. Did I mention we never gave in to a tantrum?
These tantrums were also completely random. It wasn’t connected to not getting a toy or her favorite treat. After the tantrum, we would reflect and try to find a trigger, but the perceived trigger was not sufficient to cause such extreme behavior. Also, the same trigger never proceeded a tantrum at any other time. In other words, we were trying to find causation in what was actually correlation.
Well, let me make add a caveat to that statement. Most meltdowns happened after a lot of stimulation or during big life transitions. But this information is so vague, and so comically obvious, as to be useless for trouble shooting cause and effect issues.
So with no real way to prevent them, the only thing we could do is ride them out. Fortunately they mostly happened at home.
One of the first really big ones that made it very clear on how dangerous a violent tantrum could be was when we were coming back home after a day out around town. She was perhaps 18 months old at the time and she just started to fall apart in the car on the way home. I had her in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other.
That was the first mistake.
She was kicking and screaming so bad that I had to put her down quickly so I could keep my balance and get the groceries to the counter. I chose to put her on our swivel rocker that we bought to make nursing easier.
That was the second mistake.
As I put down the groceries, I look back and see that she had stood up. Still weeping and wailing, she threw her weight back as hard as she could. Normally this would just flip a rocker like this and she would land on the floor. However, our rocker sits in front of our living room window. As the rocker went back full force I saw her head smash through the window. It paused for a microsecond, and then as the glass started falling on the driveway, the rocker went back into position and pulled her head safely inside the house. I was stunned and my daughter was obviously cognizant that she had royally fucked up because she suddenly stopped crying. I swept her off the chair and combed through her hair. Not a scratch. We were unbelievable lucky. It also taught me a very important lesson. When she’s out of control I will need to physically control her to keep her, ourselves, and our house safe. So that’s what I did.
When she was just a toddler, although really big and strong for her age, it wasn’t that difficult. Sometimes I’d put her on my lap facing away from me. I’d then bring one leg over to pin down her’s and then cross my arms over her chest and hold the opposite wrists. I would essentially wear her out until I felt the tension leave her body and she stopped screaming. Then I’d release her back into civil society. This worked pretty good until she got taller and stronger and it got too difficult to keep her from head butting my face. After you almost crack a few teeth or nearly bite off your tongue it’s time to try something new.
The second method was basically a father-daughter wrestling match.
One of the most memorable tantrums happened when she was three. My partner was celebrating her birthday with a party at the house. She had decorated the yard and put out plenty of chairs and food. Things we fine for a while until our daughter started acting up. Acting up often involved walking up to my partner and slapping, punching and poking her. Sometimes she’d repeatedly charge my partner with arms raised as if to hit her. Often she was laughing as she did it. My partner would grab her wrist mid-swing, look her straight in the face and in a very serious and stern tone say “stop that, it’s not ok to hit my body, you need to stop now or you need to leave!”
Well, this rarely worked once she crossed that sanity thresh hold. It was like she was possessed. Nothing could penetrate her brain.
Seeing where this was going I took my daughter to her room.
“Once you calm down you can go back outside.”
She charges me and I take her down like a pro wrestler would. I then let her get back up to see if she’s ready to behave like a human being.
She charges again and I take her down. At this point I’ve had enough tantrum experience to know this is going to take a while so I get on my knees and block the door to her room.
“As soon as you stop crying and screaming and fighting you can go back outside.”
I brace myself and take her down a third time – and this time hold her. Now to understand what I mean by take her down, you have to image trying to halt a 35 pound speeding object with flailing appendages. Oh, and this object is also fragile and priceless. Basically irreplaceable. So taking her down is similar to catching a run away shopping cart. You don’t want the groceries to go flying everywhere so you extend your arms and body and then kind of collapse your body to absorb the impact without getting hurt or destroying the groceries.
Now after I take her down and I need to keep control. I form a cage on top of her with my body and just kind wrestle with her. The goal is to wear her out and avoid getting hurt. The hard part is finding the right balance of force. She is kicking, squirming, and flailing with 100% of her strength. I, on the other hand, need to hold back full force so as not to hurt her. It’s quite unfair.
I’m not exaggerating that this tantrum lasted twenty-five minutes. I know it’s finally over when she suddenly stops crying and gets real still.
“So are you ready now?’
“Yeah, I’m ready to go back outside.”
We walk back outside and I see my surf buddy.
“Wow, that was interesting.”
“Yeah, that was a pretty tough one.”
“We could hear her screaming the whole time out here. Pretty intense shit. She’s a trip.”
“Yeah, she’s trippy alright. And you look at her now and she’s completely calm and centered. It’s like it never happened.”
And so that was our tantrum routine until she was five years old, at which point she just stopped. I’m not saying she stopped getting pissy or loopy, but the tantrums just stopped. Go figure.
My mom says I just screamed for the first three months so of my life. I wouldn’t let her hold me and I would kick and scream and squirm to get away if she tried to console me. Apparently I was not the cuddling type. I’m still not. I was pulling myself up and standing by five and half months, walking by nine months and would rock in my bed so vigorously that she took apart my crib and put the mattress on the floor so they wouldn’t have to listen to the squeaking of the springs and the constant banging as I rocked my crib straight into the walls every night to wear myself out enough so I could fall asleep. I would tuck my arms under my pillow and hold it tight. I was face down in a hunched ball like one of those 1950’s civil service videos about surviving a nuclear blast. Then I’d roll my body forward as far as I could and tuck my chin in as if doing a somersault. Then I’d slam back down on my heels.I’d repeat the process for a half and hour or so. I did it so frequently and vigorously and for so long that I still remember what the walls of my crib looked like, the sound of the rocking, and the way I did.
And then I just kind of settled down and stopped doing that.
However I still have remnants of my whacked out nervous system. I wiggle my legs and fidget all the time. If you’re sitting on the couch with me you’ll need to put up with a vibrating mattress. If I’m in the car and it’s not moving, you may noticed it’s shaking instead. I wake up bright and early and ready to take on the world. I have two states, wide awake and sound asleep. There is no transition period. And I’m still loud. I don’t yell, I just talk really loud. A coworker once said my timber was in a range that just cuts through everything in the room which just amplifies the problem. At age seventeen I took apart my bed and put the mattress back on the floor and there it stayed till I was twenty-eight and got a place with my partner. So in many respects not a lot has changed.
So I guess on hindsight, my daughters tantrums kind of do make a little bit of sense considering the source. Perhaps that’s also why I could deal with them so well. While I didn’t understand what was going on in her head intellectually in a way I think I did “understand” what she was going through.
That’s it for now.
File Under – Dealing With Temper Tantrums in Toddlers and Children – Techniques for Kids with Violent Temper Tantrums – How to Help a Toddler Who’s Having a Temper Tantrum – Controlling Temper Tantrums in Children Ages 2 to 5