“I thought you all should know that the world is ending,” my friend wrote in his Facebook status. “The reason the world is ending is because I broke the bananas and poured the yogurt on top instead of slicing the bananas and mixing the yogurt into them.”
My friend’s 6-year-old boy had asked for some bananas and yogurt for breakfast. Unfortunately, my friend was not aware that his wife always slices the bananas and mixes them with yogurt, nor could he anticipate the hell that would be unleashed when he broke the bananas and poured the yogurt. Oh, the humanity!
Another friend once posted a photo of his 5-year-old son with tears streaming down his face, mouth wide open, drool pooling around his bottom lip, clearly mid-meltdown. The caption: “This is my punishment for arriving at the breakfast table earlier than usual.” Apparently the 5-year-old and his two older brothers always eat breakfast together before mom and dad get up. My friend woke up early one morning, interrupted the boys’ routine, and promptly brought the world to a crashing halt.
I have a friend whose daughter is three months older than my oldest. When our girls were seven, we took them to a concert. My friend’s daughter had recently started riding in a booster seat without the belt-adjusting back. My daughter, a full head shorter, still had the back on her booster. Within a matter of minutes, my daughter went from asking when she’d get to take the back off her booster, to arguing with me about buckling up so we wouldn’t be late, to a full-fledged crying episode that climaxed with, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE THE SHORTEST PERSON IN THE CAR!!”
We laugh about that incident now. It wasn’t so funny at the time, what with the world ending and all.
I know what you’re probably thinking. Those kids are spoiled little monsters! My kids would never behave/have never behaved that way.
If your kids are still adorable babies or toddlers, bless your little cotton socks. Maybe you’ll get lucky and have an older child who would never throw a tantrum about something as irrational as being the shortest person in the car. But don’t count on it.
And if you have kids who are already grown and don’t remember your kids ever behaving that way, I get it. But I don’t necessarily buy it. I mean, I believe you don’t remember it, but I don’t believe that means they never did it. Maybe some kids never cry irrationally over random things. It’s possible. But I truly believe that we have the same selective amnesia with child-rearing as we do with the pain of childbirth. I think we forget most of the senseless, annoying, mind-numbing crying or whining our kids do. The major milestones and important lessons learned, we remember. The random, oh-my-God-my-child-is-a-raving-lunatic moments, most of us forget.
It’s possible that I’m delusional. But I’ve known too many kids who throw irrational fits to think that it’s just my own inept parenting that causes them. And as for spoiled? Nope. No more than any other first-world kids, who are inherently spoiled by their environment. As far as parenting goes, these kids have boundaries and limits and responsible parents who teach them manners and hold them accountable for their actions.
And that’s the conundrum, isn’t it?
It’s one thing to address a child whining or crying to get something they want. That’s easy. You just don’t give in. You let them know that throwing a fit to get something won’t work, that you will ignore any and all tantrums to get what they want, and then you stick to your guns.
But what do you do with a kid who’s throwing a fit about being the shortest person in the car? Or whose world is ending because they can’t find their favorite Hot Wheels car? Or whose bananas got broken instead of sliced? These aren’t fits of manipulation. They’re the emotional explosions of humans who haven’t yet learned how to cope with the world not being the way they imagine it should be.
It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard. Just use simple logic, right? My daughter won’t always be the shortest person in the car. The Hot Wheels car didn’t sprout wings and fly away. Bananas taste the same whether they are broken or sliced. For some kids, logic and reason work wonders. But for others, trying to reason with them is like trying to throw a paper airplane at a fan. It doesn’t even make a dent.
Compassion is a good option, at least as far as not scarring your child for life. But I haven’t had much luck with compassion stopping an actual meltdown. They’re usually too wrapped up in their histrionics to hear my words of love and understanding. Again, the paper-plane-at-the-fan thing.
Sometimes humor helps. I’ve stopped a fit right in its tracks many a time by crossing my eyes and talking in a silly voice. But sometimes it just makes the poor kid madder.
Some may go the punishment route, but I’ve never felt that punishing a child for being emotionally out of control really makes sense. They’re not doing it on purpose. Taking a “time out” to calm down can be helpful and appropriate. But it’s hard to implement that without turning it into a punishment, especially when the parenting superpowers aren’t working and the wailing really does start to bring out the edge in your voice.
For our kids, I developed a Tragedy Scale—a 1 through 10 system to help gauge how fit-worthy a situation really is. A 1 would be something mildly disappointing, and a 10 would be something legitimately devastating, where it really would seem like their world was ending.
Your kid’s Tragedy Scale might look different, but here’s what we came up with for ours:
- We only have the elbow macaroni noodles, not the spiral ones.
- I drop my ice cream cone, but we still have more ice cream to replace it.
- My favorite shirt gets a hole in it.
- I drop my ice cream cone, and we don’t have any more ice cream to replace it.
- I can’t find my favorite blanket or stuffed animal at bedtime.
- I stub my toe really hard.
- I crash my bike and scrape my knee.
- I crash my bike, pop a tire, and scrape both knees and elbows really badly.
- I crash my bike, pop both tires, bend the frame, and break both legs.
- A tornado blows down my house and my whole family perishes.
We agree that a 1 would maybe warrant a teeny-tiny expression of disappointment, a 5 would warrant a moderate complaint and perhaps a couple of tears, and a 10 would warrant a full-fledged screaming, crying fit. Then we gauge the severity of a situation based on the list.
Someone broke the bananas instead of cutting them? That’s a 1, not a 10. Not being able to find your toy? From an adult perspective, that might be a 1, but to the kid it might be a 3 or 4. But even a kid can recognize that losing a toy is not a 9 or a 10, based on the list. I’ve told my kids, “You’re having a 10 response to something that’s maybe a 3. Let’s take a few breaths and bring it down a few notches.”
Sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a big emotional outburst has more to do with being hungry, eating the wrong foods, not getting enough sleep, or needing to go to the bathroom than the actual situation at hand. Sometimes there’s something totally unrelated that they’re upset about but don’t realize it.
The thing I’ve found most surprising about the world ending is that it happens at much older ages than one would expect. Everyone knows that a 3-year-old’s world ends on a regular basis, but you don’t expect it at six, or seven, or nine. But it happens. People don’t admit it because no one else talks about it, but older children do have emotional outbursts in private where you would swear the world was ending. And sometimes they look and sound an awful lot like a toddler tantrum.
Being a human is complicated. Adults get overwhelmed and emotional sometimes—why do we expect our kids to have it more together than we do?
So don’t worry if the world ends many, many times throughout your kids’ childhoods. It’s normal. They’ll outgrow it. Try the 1-10 scale. It might help.
And if your kids ask for bananas and yogurt, for pity’s sake, ask how they want them sliced. You’ll save yourself some sanity—and you might just save the world.