Anatomy of a Tantrum

So then there was that time that my daughter went from being a remarkably-pleasant-to-be-around toddler to a rabid feral cat who dines on dynamite and plutonium, all in the course of two days. This post is about that.

2013 was a good year for us. Cee had her first birthday, discovered her likes and dislikes, continued sleeping like a saint, and ate basically whatever was put in front of her with gusto. On January 1, 2014, all that came to a close, for on that day, my daughter had her first knock-down, drag-out, soul-crushing tantrum. My husband was there so there are witnesses other than me to The Change. Year Three of motherhood should be fun.

toddler tantrum

The duckface that ate my soul

Does it matter what triggers these things? To the uninitiated, yes. One would think that isolating the variable that sets the explosions off would discontinue them. Does your child cry tears of blood when you make her wear a turtleneck? Does she start convulsing when you suggest that she drink milk with dinner rather than juice? Logic dictates that you pick your battles and avoid these landmines of discontent, both for your own sanity and that of the immediate populace within earshot of your spawn.

The idea that you’re applying logic to a toddler is just so, so adorable.

Any and everything is a trigger. Yesterday I was making tacos for my family because I am awesome, and Wee Cee decided to take a break from putting pennies in her mouth and come into the kitchen and swipe a bag of tortillas off the counter. I sweetly requested that she place the circles of Mexican deliciousness back, but instead she ran into her room, jumped onto her bed, and threw them across the room. I then notified her that a one-minute timeout was about to happen. She responded as if I had sentenced her to life in Guantanamo. There was weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the return of the patented Toddler Body Lock™.

This is putting it lightly,

This is putting it mildly.

We can be sitting on the sofa together reading her book of nursery rhymes, and then halfway through “Polly Put the Kettle On”, she will make the executive decision that Sukey will most certainly not be taking it off again and how dare I have the audacity to read to her when we have a perfectly good TV set sitting there as cold and silent as my heart? Within the space of 20 seconds, she will be laughing along with “Hey Diddle Diddle” and then weeping and screaming at the top of her lungs and scrunching up her little face. It’s a special time.

jurassic park spitting dino

On the go? Not to worry! Tantrums also come in travel size for busy days when I have neglected to budget time in for her expression of feelings. Sometimes we’ll be driving on the freeway and I won’t cross over four lanes of traffic for the express purpose of assisting her in the removal of her socks and shoes. My refusal to do so certainly warrants her slamming her beloved Purple Bunny against the window, ripping her favorite book apart, and screeching at a pitch that is comparable to a symphony of nails being pulled down a chalkboard.

Once we get to the Good Grocery Store – you know, the one that has a Starbucks in the foyer and charges 30% more for milk, eggs, and bread but that’s ok because they also give away free cookies and cheese samples which might be used to appease the sleeping giant – she slides right into the cart with the promise that if she sits quietly for the duration of our visit, she will get an undiluted sippy of juice and a graham cracker once we’re through. I am on top of things, I lie to myself. But then, halfway through the apple section, the demon is awakened because I will not allow her to inspect the density of every honeycrisp, gala, red delicious, fuji, cameo, and granny smith on display. Her father, who is next door getting a haircut, reportedly hears her through the 12-inch cinderblock wall. I hear the death rattle of my youth.

The best thing you can do when your kid has a tantrum in public is forget every blog post and piece of advice from so-called parenting “experts” that tells you how to handle it. The only thing you can really do is what your kid dictates. Just buy some damn time. You may find it a little difficult to pry the child from the shopping cart once his or her patented Toddler Body Lock™ system has been initiated, but at least once your child ceases crying, 80% fewer shoppers will be giving you the stink eye. Let’s all just admit for a second that a large portion of our happiness relies on us not being called out on our faulty parenting by strangers buying pita chips in fancy supermarkets.

So rather than closing by asking you for advice on how I should handle my almost-two-year-old’s outbursts, I now invite you to scream at the top of your lungs until you get whatever it is that you want. For me, that will be lemon and popcorn Jelly Bellies to be eaten at the top of the Eiffel Tower on Christmas Eve with Tina Fey keeping me company. Let’s all just let out that primal yell until we get what we want and deserve, as it certainly seems to be working well for our offspring.

I’m linking up with Meredith at Perfection Pending this week!

Perfection Pending


  1. Your life is my life. This morning, I was greeted with a “Go to your room, Mommy!!!!” and a shove. I had simply said “Good morning” which is obviously the worst thing a person can say. Ahhhh….motherhood.

    1. I have so much to look forward to. Cee has lately just been walking into our room in the morning before we get up and saying “OUT.”

      1. Stina Walsh · · Reply

        This is my four year old niece in a nutshell. The other day she freaked out cause I wouldn’t let her mix play doh colors…

  2. Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! The more I see my former ‘normal’ friends turn into withering bundles of agreement as their children hurl themselves around supermarkets and creches, the more I know children are not for me. For what can you do but hand over the beloved phone for them to smash up while everyone around you looks and tuts and makes disparaging comments about their own parents, “who would NEVER have let me act that way when I was younger”?

    1. It is SCARY how much I used to say “I will never let my kid do do-and-so.” Eating my words on a daily basis now.

  3. Are you writing about MY precious GRANDdaughter, Cece? Surely not! Wish grammy were there.

    1. I wish you were here too. I need someone to buffer her.

  4. Lmao…I usually have to open a box of crackers or goldfish or whatever else my little boy spies or else he will just fidget the whole time, making for a high blood pressure type moment for mommy. He is usually quite good, though. Just wait until they’re about age 7 or 8…you will find yourself screaming down the frozen foods section to “get over here right now or I will leave you here!” And yes, I mean screaming. sigh

    1. Oh, I’ve seen that scene before! It is so hard to put my judgement on the shelf when I see an older kid having a breakdown in the middle of the aisle, but for the sake of karma alone, I have courted the idea of keeping a couple Starbucks giftcards in my purse to hand out to the moms.

      1. And I’m sure the moms would quite like that idea! Starbucks can usually put me in a better mood.

  5. Jolie Michele · · Reply

    I always give looks of sympathy to parents dealing with highly rambunctious toddlers. I don’t have kids, but I could imagine the pain and frustration that comes with the tantrums — for the parents and the child.

    1. You are angelic. There’s a special place for you in Heaven for your understanding ;D

  6. “The duckface that ate my soul”
    That caption cracked me the hell up! I survived my first child’s third year of life (and so did she) despite her tiny little, satanic desires to convince innocent (childless) shoppers that I deprive her of water, food and her right to shove sharp objects in to outlets. This time around with my now 16 mth old son who has recently crossed over to the dark side, I try to laugh more and reason never. Good luck! If the little one is alive at the end of the day then pat yourself on back Momma.

    1. Oh man, WORD. I rule at keeping her alive. I reward myself with cookies ;D

      1. I baked some kick ass cookies today simply because I have survived my daughter and husband being home for the better part of three weeks now.

  7. I think it’s not coincidental that you refer to Miss Cee’s new stage as The Change. That’s what my mom and gramma always called menopause. Talk about “weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth”…I feel for Cee–no one wants to go to the store with me now, either. Do you hear me? I demand that you listen to me, NOW! And hand me that box of thin mints, NOW!!

    1. Way to listen to your inner toddler, Willow! You go get those Thin Mints and EAT THEM ALL!

  8. Now that my boys are teens and tantrums are a thing of the past, I think I’ll reverse the order of things. Since they’re home from school given the weather, I’ll pitch an adult tantrum until their rooms are clean. Crying, teeth-nashing, you name it, I’ll try it. On second thought, they’ll just roll their eyes and laugh at me, so maybe I’ll just do what’s easier. Avoid their rooms altogether. :)

    Funny post. Don’t worry; this too shall pass! :)

    1. That reminds me, Carrie: I have been meaning to ask you if you’d be interested in writing a guest post about teenager life. I will message you on FB with the details ;D

  9. At the mention of the grocery store, you triggered traumatic flashbacks to the I-Just-Need-to-Stop-Into-Schnucks-and-Get-Flowers-For-My-Mom-In-the-Hospital-Surely-Michael-Will-Behave-For-Five-Minutes Delusion Turned Apocolypse of 2012, So naturally, I was laughing hysterically through this entire thing. Also, my sincerest apologies. Solidarity, mama.

    1. A couple weeks ago, I would have said you were exaggerating. Now I know better. *Fist bump.*

      1. The moral: trust EVERYTHING I tell you. Obvs.

  10. I’ve lived through that twice. It was Target for me, not the grocery store – but still the same out of nowhere fun that you experience. They DO grow up. I swear.

    1. I’m going to hold you to that! Target is my last bastion of sanity, so I try not to take her there until I absolutely have to. Some things must remain sacred.

  11. Sweetie, I would not dare offer advice; Im too experienced for that. But by chance, do they sell wine in the grocery store up there?

    1. Oh yes they do! God bless North Carolina.

  12. I just tried screaming…I was told to shut up by my coworkers. They seem to be unsympathetic. I’m not sure where I lost them.

    1. They clearly have not been civilized.

      1. I concur. Heartily. Like a doctor.

  13. Since CeCe is such an angel you had to fabricate an imaginary strong willed child so your readers would stay connected. It’s totally understandable…

    1. So gad we’re on the same page there. ;D

  14. I am reminded of something my sometimes friend Agnes Drinkwater told me. When she was 3 or 4 (she’s not sure which) she threw a tantrum in the Jordan Marsh Department Store in Boston where her folks had taken her to buy a winter coat. They were holding out for an inexpensive, practical gray worsted wool. She wanted an expensive, stain-attracting light blue creation. Her tantrum was loud and created quite a scene – so much so that her folks immediately capitulated and Agnes got the coat of her dreams. She also got a life lesson that she still remembers: “If I raise a big enough fuss, I can get whatever I want.” This has led to a life of selfishness, stubbornness, and is the reason most of her acquaintance are “sometimes friends” rather than Best Friends for Life. I’d never stoop to giving parenting advice, but offer this story as encouragement to not let Wee Cee control YOU at the age of TWO. Sometimes, you’ve just got to leave the grocery cart in the store and take the screaming child back to the car until they calm down. As you noted, logic cannot be applied to a toddler. But adult control can.

    1. It is a point extremely well-taken. In all seriousness, when she has these outbursts, I know that they are mostly rooted in her feeling overwhelmed that she cannot handle her newly-discovered sense of autonomy and independence, and that’s when she MOST needs me to rein her in and remind her that she isn’t in charge; I am. And that’s actually way more loving and caring than a pack of gummy snacks or whatever sweet tidbit is at hand. I think that most little kids just yearn to feel like someone else is in charge.

      1. Most of us wish someone else was in charge when we feel overwhelmed. You’re a great parent, and I love your blog!

  15. There is a reason we call my youngest Stink. He shrieks, he yells and is overly opinionated. He is also tearing around my living room and now screaming because I turned on music…

    1. Well, music *is* inherently evil and should be shunned at all times ;)

  16. Three was way worse than two with both of my older two kids. I expect the same from my little man too. I loved the pictures you used too! Hilarious, and traumatizing at the same time. Those both brought back some childhood memories. Hang in there. You can do it for a year…and then she will be a sweet 4 year old saying adorable things and you’ll be sad she grew up so fast. But, you still probably won’t miss year 3. It could be worse…I’m dealing with puking kids today. :) My fav.

    1. Kids: eating our best years for breakfast, one day at a time ;)

  17. Told so humorously and so accurately! :) good laugh!

    1. I suspect you understand what I’m talking about.

  18. My Muted Voice · · Reply

    Oh Emily, I’m right there with ya with my almost two year old son. I end up just grabbing random things in the store that he can’t break and letting him play with it until he’s ready for a new one. I keep food handy too, but usually, by the time we get to the check out, he’s done and he wants the whole world to know. If I try to clean us face after dinner, I’m sure the neighbors think I’m hanging him up by his toe nails. Surely there is no other reason for that glass-shattering scream?!

    But do you know what’s worse? All these people talking about how 3 is the new 2! They need to put a doughnut in their mouth and shut it. ;-)

    Good luck. Let’s hold hands and cry/scream together.

    1. Let’s do it! Ooooohm. I am just waiting to get a call from our downstairs neighbors complaining about it. I am taking solace in the fact that, so far, at least she’s never had a tantrum before 8AM and after 7PM.

  19. My best advice……….. drink heavily!

    1. That’s good life advice in general.

  20. I am sad to hear that you have been so unreasonable, otherwise Wee Cee would never have cause to cop an angry duck face. Sippy cups of juice are not a reward, they are a God-given right, to be offered whenever requested. With your left hand, pinkie finger extended, and God forbid, don’t let the cracker touch the juice!

    I do hope you get it together in the near future. Wee Cee shouldn’t have to endure such lackluster care, and

    Squish! Give me back my computer! NOW! I mean it!

    1. Have you read The Honest Toddler? If not, you seriously need to get your hands on it today. It was the biggest laugh I have had since reading Tiny Fey’s Bossypants ;D

      1. I don’t know if i subscribe or if I just get retweets in my TL. Funny stuff!

        1. Read the book! It is INSANELY funny ;D

  21. Up until about eighteen years ago, I used to be one of those childless fancy pita chip eating dolts until my sister left me in charge of my “good as gold” 2-year-old niece, Sweet Pea, at the Happiest Place on Earth (yes, Uncle Walt’s Magic Kingdom), to get physically ill. At first Sweet Pea was calm and then, I still have no explanation what triggered an outburst worthy of the Alien exiting that guy’s guts in IMAX, but I had no way of controlling this tiny screaming terror. I’ll never forget the woman who yelled at me, “Control your kid!” No doubt a childless fancy pita chip eating dolt much like myself of about three minutes earlier. That was an eye-opener about parenting hell I will never forget. Of course, when my sister emerged from the restroom (about seven pounds thinner) Sweet Pea had transitioned back to her usual good as gold self. I, on the other hand, looked like I had barely made it out alive of a hurricane. Anyway, this childless person empathizes with you as Cee crosses the threshold into The Terrible Twos.

    1. You completely understand. I am gobsmacked by how quickly she can go from having a good ol’ happy time watching Gumby to roasting goats in our living room and wailing incantations. It is mind-numbing and I’m just crossing my fingers that this is not a sign of things to come when she’s a teenager and I can no longer pick her up and place her in a playpen until the hurricane passes.

  22. Well done! You have met The Changeling! Ah, such memories. I love your Toddler Body Lock and the gifs — totally made me laugh. The irrational toddler brain is certainly a force to contend with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the toddles. My daughter went through a “phase” (read: years) where she would not/could not tolerate clothing with any type of closures or embellishments, i.e., zippers, buttons, pockets, or, God forbid, rick-rack or lace (“IT’S SUCKING MY NECK!!!!”). Fortunately, she also believed that everything in her world was animated until she was around 12. So her clothing, while being intolerably offensive on a corporeal level, also had the power to communicate (through me, of course) and thus guilt her into wearing them via elaborate dialogue where the clothing would weep if unworn for too long. I know. I miss it.

    Thanks for sharing your personal snippets!

  23. Toddler or adult, screaming at the top of your lungs works. It really does. And you know what, sometimes it’s needed – getting all that emotions out…

    I hope you’re managing! ;)

  24. #1 Thank you for the magic talking stick.
    #2 LOVE the Jurassic Park reference.
    #3 I never give them what they want. It just leads to more tantrums in the future because they know you’ll give them what they want if they make a scene.
    #4 I will now make sad pathetic heart breaking sounds and force tears out until I get what I want! (A foot rub (pedicure included), a professional chef to cook all my meals from now on, and a much needed villa in Tuscany that I can just pop into whenever needed.)

  25. When The Nephew went from the most perfect child alive to Tantrum-Prone McGurk, I didn’t know what to make of it. Neither did his parents. Mostly they just kind of said things like “ok, we’ll stay at the playground even though it’s way past dinnertime and getting dark and there are killers lurking in the parking lot.” And I decided, nope, I’m the aunt, I get to be the baddie, so I would do things like “why we crying, Big Boy?” and scoop him up and jog him to the car and swing him around and tickle him and POOF, he didn’t even realize he’d been bait-and-switched until we were halfway home.

    I felt like a winner until one time when I babysat him alone, however, and he hid under a table and screamed because I didn’t let him break a bunch of glass picture frames and he WOULD NOT STOP. I was at a loss. “Um…maybe…we could go outside and…I don’t know…throw rocks at squirrels? OH DEAR HEAVENS HOW CAN ONE CHILD SCREAM SO LOUD. I love you, Nephew! I am petrified of you right now, but I love you! Maybe I can come under that table with you and also scream? I’m feeling a little screamy myself right now.”

  26. I want two weeks off of work. I want to come home to find that someone decided to furiously clean the house. I would also like a pan of cinnamon rolls and for my husband to take a weekend trip with kids in tow so that I can have the house to myself.

    btw: Four is the best age ever.

  27. That grocery store you speak of, my four year old calls it the cookie store. My first born (now 13… holy crap!) was the king of tantrums. He violated many public places with his fits of terror. I eventually became numb to it and was able to completely ignore him. Even in public. I never thought I’d be THAT mom, but it was all in the name of survival. I think it’s best if your first child puts you through the worst of it, that way the subsequent children will not be able to pull any tricks with you. That is, of course, if the first one doesn’t scare you off of having more! (By the way, that holy terror, my son, is a sweet-hearted, good kid. The tantrums do not indicate their true temperament!)

  28. I love this! I laughed so freaking hard. Thank you! I have no children, but recently left my job as a preschool teacher, working with one and two year olds. I know the toddler body lock system, and the jello body system very well. Though the terrible twos are challenging and exhausting, to say the least, I LOVE them. I secretly get a little giddy when they show me they are learning to exert their boundaries and that their voice matters. I also cringe(d) because, then I realized in those tantrums that it was my job to teach them how to use their voice in constructive ways. Not an easy task. It’s a big job and I have complete respect for parents who are on duty 24/7.

    Thanks for sharing this! You are a great writer and I will definitely follow your blog. :)

    Have a great day!

  29. Aw yes, the toddler days. I clearly remember when my son, before I could take control, started joyously climbing a canned food display at the local IGA. The grocer was not pleased, and that’s putting it very mildly indeed.


  31. Your comment box has a demon in it. My comment posted before I was finished. ;-)

    I thoroughly enjoyed your tale of toddler tantrums. I have to share one with you. Our son chose one day in the grocery store to be a monster. Out of control, running into people, touching things – horrible child. When we got out to the car, my arms were full, so he opened the back door to get in. It sprung back and hit him in the head. He’s now wailing. We’re both in the car, and I unload on him. Verbal abuse at its best. Now mind you, the kid was spoiled rotten and a mama’s boy. I rarely raised my voice at him, and when I did, he knew he deserved it.

    We have a 30 seconds column in our newspaper. People can call in to vent. The next day there was a comment for “The woman who was yelling at her child in the parking lot of X grocery store. If you could have seen the look on your child’s face, you would have been ashamed of yourself.” The person went on to deem me unfit to parent.

    We thought it was cool we made the newspaper.

  32. Had a blast reading this one, sitting from my kitchen– Where my 17 year old just told me that I am “totally unreasonable and unstable,” and my 21 year old told me that I “really don’t know what I’m talking about.” Call it what you will, mind you there were no FUs in there, but they might as well have been throwing tacos. Truly, my compassion for your experience could not be more sincere (been there, with all 3), but I did have to smile… from the safety of my kitchen. Relative safety. ;-)

    1. YES! The tantrums don’t seem to stop, do they?! They just get bigger in some ways and smaller in others. :) SO glad I’m not alone in this.

      1. No, you are certainly not alone!

  33. Just keep saying to yourself, “These are the good old days.” Don’t even give a thought to “Terrible Twos” because it might not happen. (Yeah, and we might see gas at 99 cents a gallon again!)

  34. I love this post. Kinda perfection! The only thing I can do for parents when I see this happen, is pass them a sympathetic nod/smile and NOT scowl. I’m sure you’ve seen the pins or posts with a child screaming and the caption outlining what the problem is? Like it’ll have a screeching toddler and below it, it’ll say, “I wouldn’t let her eat the cat food” … beyond funny. You’d love them—but I’m sure you’ve seen them. OK, onto the rules, I’m going to do a pretty impressive bellow-bloody murder scream combo because I don’t understand why the iPhone emoji selection doesn’t include a jalapeno, a cross or a fingers-crossed. You see typing here, but Emily, I’m SCREAMINGGGGGGGGGG!!

  35. whisperingwriter · · Reply

    Oh man, my daughter threw so many tantrums growing up. And even now, when she’s six. I always hated when it would happen in public. All the staring. I almost wanted to say, “Hey, lady watching all of this, you want some popcorn?”

  36. As a lady who took a shrimp tail in the face yesterday to the delight of my 4 year olds who had thrown it because they wanted seven peach slices instead of 5, I say: this is only the beginning. Pat yourself on the back for the good run you had; totally take credit for it, because that feeling of accomplishment will diminish at an exponential pace.

  37. This is something that I’m definitely not looking forward to. I honestly pray for your soul. At least you have a good sense of humor about it!!

  38. Amen! Oh, how I remember those days! Sad thing is, I would trade them BACK in a heartbeat for the nonsensical babblings of my 22-yr. old whose ideas of throwing a tantrum have morphed into something much more dangerous (for her) and heartbreaking (for me). Sorry to burst your bubble, but the 3’s are not nearly as terrible as the twenties. Way to make you look forward to better days, eh? ;) Just putting it all into perspective for ya! lol

  39. Ugh. thank god you’re here too. Jonah has just started having these meltdowns that are seriously, soul crushing. SOUL CRUSHING. After the first tantrum I swear my ovaries hitched a ride out of my bodacious bod because they decided independently I can’t handle anymore … bye bye ovaries, and happy trails.

  40. This is bloody marvellous. Why have I only just discovered your blog when cats like Speaker 7 and my chum Lazy Laura are already hip to your game..?

    PS – How did that Tina Fey / Eiffel Tower work out?

  41. Ahhh…this brings back memories of when my own darling Demon Child was a screaming toddler one minute and an angel the next. It also reminds me of the “discussions” or more accurately her tantrums between Christmas and New Year. Yup, as in 3 1/2 weeks ago. Good luck and hang in there :)

  42. I’m right there with you on this. My tot recently had a tantrum because I couldn’t instantly make a swing set come out of a Costco coupon book and land in our living room. I wish I had that power.

  43. hintmama · · Reply

    I’m right there with you on this. My tot recently had a tantrum because I couldn’t make a swing set jump out of a Costco coupon catalog and land in our living room. I wish I had that power.

  44. […] her paci. (For full details on her tantrums because you know you want to hear all about them, click here.) It’s harrowing, and she completely looks like a junkie in the middle of a withdrawal when […]

  45. Ha Ha. Love your descriptions. I am currently an empty nester and all of those harrowing moments are far behind me however, the memories and nervous tics still remain.

Now you can hold the magic talking stick.

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