Seeing Beyond the Tantrum

Have you ever been surprised by someone else’s outburst? Or worse yet, your own?

When you become a parent and your baby cries, it’s easy to think to yourself, “Okay, Baby needs something.” And the quest begins to figure out:

Does she need her diaper changed?
Is he hungry?
Is she not feeling well?
Did he lose his blankie?

New parents pursue the quest relentlessly, until the crying ceases.

As the child grows and subsequent kids are born, we become less anxious to find the solution as quickly. We start to realize that the crying typically isn’t life-threatening. We may even start to become frustrated with its frequency or the constant demands on our time.

This past month has been a fast-paced month for me, full of demands on my time and attention, both personally and professionally. And my kids have been on Spring Break. As soon as it started, I told them, “I expect some help around here this week.”

Yet one has spent much of the week in bed, not feeling well, and the other, on the couch watching TV.

After working hard on a client project, I came upstairs to find my kitchen sink overflowing with dishes, garbage left on the counters and the recycling bin overflowing.

And my own outburst surprised me.

It was just 2 or 3 hastily shouted, frustrated sentences that served purely to blow off steam. But I hadn’t realized that I’d reached the point of needing to blow off steam.

Was my outburst because I was angry? Of course!

But what was behind it?

The overwhelm.
My need for support.
Frustration over being ignored and unheard.
Which frankly left me feeling unloved.

My daughter is currently going through a stressful time. She’s been stressed about making her college decision, one that will shape the future of her next 4 years. She’s been scared to leave home. She’s been needing her independence, and the opportunity to experience making choices while she still had the safety net of home to cushion her fall.

The outbursts have been many over the past year between us both.

Are they because we don’t love one another? No.

But they are because we have needs that aren’t being met, and we end up feeling unloved.

Last weekend, we visited her top choice of college, Champlain College in Burlington, VT.

I was completely anxious about it ahead of time. It seemed like all we do these days is fight, and I couldn’t imagine a 5-hr car trip there and back being a pleasant experience for either of us, not to mention an overnight stay and everything that went along with that.

But I’d been praying about it, and was committed “not to take the bait,” as they say.

We know how to push one another’s buttons, and I wasn’t going to participate in it. I knew that was the surest way to survive the trip.

I was anxious about how I was going to accomplish that though. I mean, it’s one thing to know it’s the right thing to do. It’s another not to fall into a habit.

Recognizing that her needling and outbursts stem from her stress and overwhelm, I decided that I was going to ask myself frequently throughout the weekend (especially when things were getting difficult between us) one specific question.

What does my daughter need most from me now, in this exact moment?

Not “What’s got into her?” But “What does she need that she feels is lacking?”

To remind myself of that question, I grabbed a little rubber bracelet that I’d gotten a few days before at an event. Not high fashion, but I was pressed for time and the idea just came to me as we were walking out the door.

I promised myself that every time I felt or saw the bracelet, I’d ask myself the question. I’d use it as a trigger to remind me, much like tying a string around my finger when I was a kid.

So, off we went. The trip up there went relatively well in terms of arguing, despite the fact that my 15-year-old GPS decided that taking a ferry over a frozen lake was the fastest way to get there, which we didn’t discover until 9 o’clock at night, when the gas tank was on empty and we had no cell reception. (Remember, I’ve got the Village Idiot phone, not a smart phone here.)

We were in the middle of nowhere, no lights on in any of the houses or store fronts on the street, and no clue how to get there from here. (Thankfully, I still have an atlas in my car, and we were able to figure things out, despite the fact that the print has gotten much smaller in the maps since I bought them 20 years ago.)

But all went well otherwise… We got to the hotel, got settled in and went to bed. Up early the next morning, we got ready for the day and the excitement of visiting the college she was fairly certain was going to be her future home.

As we got in the car and started driving she suddenly noticed the bracelet.

“Really, Mom?! Today of all days, you’re going to wear plastic jewelry?!”

I responded that it was to remind me of something, and not to worry about it, I’d keep it tucked up under my sleeve.

She asked what in an exasperated tone.

Not certain what to say, I went for the truth.

“It’s to remind myself that this weekend is about you, and a tough choice you have to make. It’s to remind myself not to get sucked into to potential arguments. Most of all, it’s to remind myself to ask myself frequently, what you need most from me in this exact moment.”

Nervously, I glanced at her while driving to see her reaction.

“Oh.”

Nothing more.

I tucked the bracelet back under my sleeve, and off we went.

We ended up having one of the best days together that day than we’ve had in a long time. The entire dynamic shifted for both of us in that moment. On the way home late that night, we laughed and talked the entire trip in a way that I hope is reflective of things to come for us.

So, when you’re faced with a tantrum (your own or someone else’s), I encourage you to step back, take a moment, and ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?”

If you can answer that question and address that need instead of the behavior currently confronting you, you’ll come to a much more successful outcome.

As writers, I think this is an interesting dynamic to be aware of too. Asking ourselves these questions would allow us to bring more depth to our narratives, and to create more compelling characters and stories.

About Tara

Tara R. Alemany is a best-selling author and speaker. Her books include “The Plan that Launched a Thousand Books,” “The Character-Based Leader,” “My Love to You Always,” “Celebrating 365 Days of Gratitude,” and her latest title “The Best is Yet to Come.”

In her spare time, Tara is a recognized thought leader who runs Aleweb Social Marketing, does her best to raise her two teenagers, and serves on two Boards of Directors. She is also Chaplain of her local Word Weavers chapter, and is a black belt in Tang Soo Do.

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