THE BLOG
05/27/2014 05:50 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Coping With a Toddler Tantrum in a Stressful Situation

Kate Russell

I am a relief teacher. Sometimes, I get called into work early in the morning and have to rush to be ready in time but luckily, I am often given advanced warning. Today, I had received the call the night before and so was able to ensure I was up early with lunches made and bags packed, ready to have everyone out of the house by 7:30 a.m.. But even with warning, getting out of the house in the morning is quite stressful and everything needs to run smoothly in order for me to make it to school before the bell rings for class.

This morning, I finished getting myself dressed and ready just in time for both my children to poke their little heads out of their rooms. Seeing my husband and I both up, they excitedly ran to the kitchen to get their breakfast. Unfortunately, their excitement soon ended when my husband announced that he was heading to work and would see them that afternoon.

3-year-old Lucy ran outside to the letter box and climbed on top, assuming her normal position for waving farewell to anyone departing our house. Penny, on the other hand, proceeded to cling to her father and wailed "Daaaaaddyyyy!" over and over as I prized her from his leg. As he drove away, she collapsed in a heap on the cold driveway and with her arm reaching out in the direction of his departing truck, she cried and cried as he disappeared out of sight.

My heart sunk as the implications of this for my early morning get-away were becoming clear. Penny was not dressed, had not had breakfast and had not even had her overnight nappy changed. I went to her and acknowledged "I hear you are very sad, Daddy has gone and you really wanted to go with him." She waved her hand at me and shouted "No!" She did not want me near her. She did not want to hear my words of comfort. She just wanted her Daddy back. At any other time, I would have adopted a position nearby and let her know I would be there for her when she needed me, but I couldn't offer her that this morning. At least, not out there, on the driveway. I had to leave the house at 7:30 and there was still a lot to do in the next 40 minutes before that time.

My first thought was that I needed to get her into the house and out of the cold. Her bare feet on the cold concrete combined with her thin pyjamas meant it was not safe for her to stay in the freezing conditions as she was. I let her know that she needed to come inside and offered her the choice to walk herself or be carried. She did not respond, nor did she stop her crying. I acknowledged that it seemed too difficult for her to make that decision at the moment and then let her know I would carry her in. Of course, this made her cry louder and fight stronger as I carried her through the door just managing to shut it in time for her to run and land with two hands splayed against it, as though she were locked inside a prison cell. She continued to cry a desperate, angry, heartbroken cry through the frosted glass to the outside world.

Each time I tried to reach out to her, she would swipe at me and push me away. I stayed calm, empathetic. She was hurting and although my need to get ready was genuine, her need for understanding was greater. I considered using a "carrot" to lure her out or her despair. I knew a sweet or ice block would do wonders for lifting her mood, but I fought my instincts, knowing that this Band-Aid solution was not the most considerate, nor effective method. This would benefit me more than her. I decided instead to give her the time and space she needed and to trust her to work through her feelings whilst I continued getting her older sister and myself ready.

So I left her at the door. I made Lucy breakfast in the kitchen nearby and made an extra piece of toast for Penny for when she was ready. I went to her often to let her know I could hear her and understood how hard it was for her. I explained that I needed to keep getting ready but would be there for her whenever she needed. She responded aggressively each time, clearly letting me know she was not ready to talk.

I finished dressing Lucy and found some clothes for Penny, which I packed in her bag to take to her daycare mum. Lucy was ready and playing nearby, she too tried talking to Penny, offering her a piece of her pretend cake from her tea party (funny, she should have the same thought about using food as a distraction!) -- it didn't work.

With 10 minutes until we needed to be in the car and reversing out the driveway, I started getting a little apprehensive about how I was going to do this. I was careful not to let this anxiety show. I remained calm and confident. I spoke to Lucy and let her know we would be leaving in five minutes. I then told the girls that I was going to my room to gather my coat and shoes. Penny was still crying.

Whilst in my room, Penny's cries for her Daddy changed to cries for Mummy. I finished what I was doing and walked out. She had moved from the door and was standing, still sobbing, near the couch. I crouched down by her and asked if she would like a cuddle. She turned to me shyly, unsure, but I knew this was her way of letting me in. I wrapped my arms around her and held her close as her sobs eased and she let me wipe her tears (and other fluids) away. I waited for her to break the cuddle. She was still in her pyjamas, her breakfast remained untouched and her wet nappy was still on, but she was finally finding her own peace.

I let her know we were ready to go and asked if she would like to take her toast in the car. She grunted yes. I asked her if she would like me to pick her up, she turned and put her arms around my neck as I picked her up. I grabbed her toast, which I had cut into bite-sized pieces and placed in a bowl. I picked up her daycare bag, which was filled with her day's clothes, shoes and nappies. I carried her out to the car and strapped her in. Her mood was lifting. She started pointing out objects of interest as if her meltdown had never happened. Her sister climbed in next to her and I finished gathering up my bag and a couple of other forgotten items.

We backed out of the driveway at 7:32 a.m.. Penny had reached a state of equilibrium and Lucy had maintained her own level of calm throughout the whole morning. I know without a doubt that had I forced Penny to get over her strong feelings prematurely with threats or distraction she would have experienced waves of these emotions all day long. As I left her with her daycare mum who happily dressed her and changed her nappy, I could go to work confident that she trusted me, had felt me understand her and that our relationship was stronger than ever.

Side note: In the afternoon, when I collected Penny, her daycare Mum had this to say: "What magical elixir did you give Penny? She had such a good day. She was cheery, cooperative and played confidently all day." My response: "No elixir, just love, understanding and connection."

For more reading on supporting children through their emotions head to:

When Extreme Emotions Take Over a Toddler - Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

The Healing Power of a Toddler's Tantrum - Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury - Elevating Childcare)

The Storm Within - Dealing With a Toddler's Emotional Self - Melissa Cady (The Emerging Mamma)

Temper Tantrums - Lisa Sunbury (Regarding Baby)