Monday, June 14, 2010

Dispatches from a Tantrum (7.29.08)

The screams are deafening. They pierce my brain, obliterating all thought but the memory of my five-year-old's wide open mouth and furious eyes.

I know there are three tenets of optimistic thinking, but all I can remember is one, this pain is temporary.

Dinner was a battleground. Patience rallied valiantly, then gave up the ghost and let Humor lead a charge. But then Self-Doubt and Worry attacked the left flank with "You're being walked all over," "She needs to take responsibility for her actions," and "She's too old for tantrums," like the whine of sniper fire by my ear. Compassion is still here, but sits quietly, waiting for the storm to abate.

"I DON'T! LIKE! PIZZAAAAAA!" she yells. She knocks down a chair, ("Please pick that up") ignores me, spits raspberries in my direction, ("Don’t spit!") spits again, is ordered to her room, "I WONT!" and thrashes in my arms while I carry her there.

The three-year old sister starts in. "Can I play on the computer?" she asks in her sweetest voice. "Not right now," I reply and she tilts her head back and let loose a yowl, then another, than a breath and another. "No screaming!" She replies with yet another. Inspiration. "If you want to play, here, I'll give you something else to play with." I leave my plate to get her a puzzle. She thanks me with blows from her tiny fists. "No hitting! Here, I'll play with it, if you don't want to." Still furious, she throws the pieces. "Okay, let's try this one." Another puzzle does the trick - she is distracted. Piece of cake. But there's no time to savor it as the big girl still wails upstairs.

The screams continue from behind her bedroom door. Husband closes the windows - Lord knows the poor neighbors have suffered through nights like this before.

She starts opening and slamming her door closed, over and over. The baby portraits are shaking on the walls. "Stop!" I enter her room, it's hot and airless and she lies flat on her back on the bed. The bedding has all been kicked to the floor. A scene from a movie about a possessed child comes to mind, which would ordinarily lighten my mood with the outrageousness of the comparison. Not tonight. A book flies toward me. The heat sucks out all creativity out of my head, leaving desperation in its wake.

"If you scream or throw one more thing, I am going to spank you." She responds with a wordless scream. I turn her over and slap her bottom with my hand. "Ow ow ow ow!" my child cries, adding anguish to her outrage.

When she first came home with us, a soft and fragrant bundle in my arms, I was loath to allow anyone else to hold her. My sister-in-law called me Momma Tiger because I was so protective. You never think you will end up here, in a hot room, acting against all good reason and knowledge, doing harm to your own beloved.

I rub her skin to soften the sting. I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. She is furious, her face red and wet. She rolls away from me, off the bed and flings pillows in my direction.

I step out of the room, but hover close to the door, try to fold some laundry in the room across the hall. The howls now take on heart-piercing form: "Daddy!! Daddy!!"

Husband is on the back porch, getting some awful news about a former colleague. He comes in and sees my face, enters the bedroom. Exits the bedroom with "You need to calm down so we can talk with you!"

I fold the girls' shorts (so small!) to the calls of "Poopy-Head! Stinky-Pants!" I'm actually grateful for this - her rage may seem beyond what a five year old needs to experience, but the innocence of her words is reassuring. And she is staying in her room - for this bit of order I can also be relieved. I remember the advice to stay close to an upset child instead of deserting her to an isolating time out. I crack open the door and stick my head in. She's lying on the floor by the door; she slams it shut with her feet, knocking my ear and temple. Now it's my turn to scream "OW!" I let fly a few more choice words in the direction of the floor, the impassive ceiling. "That hurt!" Guilt whispers, "Serves you right." Oompa Loompas are dancing around, chanting, "The Mother and the Fa-ahther! The MOTHER AND THE FA-AHTHER!"

I'm consulting health books, looking up "Tantrum" and "Anger" as Dad reappears to go into her room. I return to the kitchen, to the contented three year old, humming over her puzzle.

This is not a story about Mommy reaching deep to find wisdom, pulling out just the right words to comfort her child in a moment of crisis. The Waltons are far far away; so are the Ingalls. The Connors reside in another state. The Bradys don't live in this neighborhood. There are no Huxtables here.

Now I can remember what Carol Grannick said about optimistic thinking. Reframe the situation. Think: this moment is specific, transient and controllable. In other words, it's not all about me, it's not going to last forever and some of what happens is in my control. Instead of letting the trolls whisper, "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's over-indulged," or "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's ungrateful," I try to think, "She's been to the beach and a movie today. She's exhausted."

Upstairs is quiet. I hear the bedroom door open, then Daddy comes down, holding her hand. Her face is red and sad, but no longer contorted with rage. "I'm sorry," she says. "Oh Honey, I'm sorry too. Do you want me to heat up some of these noodles with butter and salt?" "Yes."

She eats. We watch a show together, both girls sitting in my lap. The little one gets up to jump around the room and we laugh at her kangaroo hops.

In bed, she leans against me and tells me the story of Alexander's Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day as I turn the pages. I say, "Tomorrow will be a fabulous, wonderful, very good, not bad day." We hug and kiss.

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