Temper tantrums are new to me as a grandma. But suddenly, I’m witnessing them with my two of my granddaughters: my 13-year old and her two-year-old cousin. The 13-year old never had tantrums when she was going through the “terrible twos” and the two-year-old always had a sweet disposition. But a transformation happened this year when both girls celebrated their milestone birthdays — their personalities changed from “Sweetie Pie” to “Sourpuss.”
The nicknames refer to one of my favorite picture books, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, about a little girl who visits her grandparents and they’re never sure who’s come to visit because her moods can change so quickly. I’m experiencing the same unpredictability with my two granddaughters.
My weekly Sunday morning Skype sessions with the two-year-old used to be filled with laughter, singing, and games. One of our favorites was singing “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” Sophia jumped on her bed while I sang and then on cue, she’d fall down and pretend to call the doctor who warned: “No more monkeys jumping on the bed.” Now she just throws herself on the bed and cries inconsolably. I feel sorry for my daughter-in-law who has to live with this new stage on a daily basis and I feel a bit helpless as I try to engage the little one with new games and songs.
Last week my husband and I took the 13-year old and her 9-year old sister on a five-day vacation. I was caught off-guard when the older one didn’t want to go on a hike in the majestic Redwood forest near our resort. Nor did she want to have her picture taken. She’s always enjoyed hiking and loved posing for the camera. I quickly realized I needed to work with her moods and attitudes.
Despite the spectacular views and easy trail, the first fifteen minutes were just complaints: “How much longer do we have to hike?” and “I’m hungry, when can we stop and have our picnic?” Then I had an idea — “Let’s see who can take the silliest picture!” I spotted a fallen tree trunk with a large hole in it and said: “See how far your arm can go in!”
She stuck her arm in and I said: “Oh no, the tree is eating Juliet!” then snapped a picture with my iPhone. She thought that was hilarious and wanted to send the photo to her mom. She texted: “The tree ate Juliet. I’m so sad. We had such great times together” and added three sad-faced emoticons.
My daughter texted back: “Oh no! Can you cut her arm off to save her?!”
“No, it swallowed her up gradually.”
“Did you at least save her shoes for Amelia?”
“Yes, I pulled them off at the last second.”
At this point, all three of us were cracking up and everyone’s mood had lifted. Suddenly, “Sweetie Pie” was back and the rest of the hike was a pleasure. She spotted an enormous spider web glistening in the sun and recognized all the historic events in a timeline on the rings of an ancient Redwood tree.
Tips for Taming Tantrums
To understand the “why” behind teenage temper tantrums, it’s important to recognize two of the normal aspects of adolescence: self-centeredness and entitlement. Teens have a strong desire to advocate for themselves because, at this age, their world revolves around them and their needs. They also feel entitled to get those needs met. You could make the same statement about two-year-olds but add on that they don’t have the words to express their needs yet, making it even more frustrating for them.
Remember not to take it personally. Teens and toddlers sometimes say things that are rude, spiteful, and angry that can really hurt. It can be hard to keep your perspective when that happens. Quietly let the teen or toddler know that you didn’t enjoy the remark or attitude, but don’t let it escalate into an emotional outburst.
Practice staying calm. This too shall pass is a mantra I must continually repeat to myself. Life is full of stages in a child’s development and your child is a work in progress.
Wait until the tantrum is over before trying to talk about it. After the blow-up is over, you can show her a better way to respond that gives her influence.
Acknowledge positive behavior. Show your teen or toddler what she’s doing specifically, that builds trust or improves communication between you.
“To be successful as an adult,” says parenting expert Dr. Michael Kramer, “your child will have to be able to identify and advocate for her own needs and persist in the face of adversity. Realize that when your teen is pushing (albeit inappropriately), she is practicing behaviors that, when refined, are very useful life skills to have as an adult.”