It's not about the chicken nuggets: Learning to embrace the tantrum

It started in the kitchen on a Tuesday night.

I was frantically running around trying to get my son ready as I prepared a quick dinner for the family.

We had approximately forty-five minutes from the time I got home from work, to when we had to leave again for our next activity.

Things were looking good for an on-time departure.

Even though my son can clearly see me in the kitchen making dinner, he wants to know if he can have a granola bar, because he says he is simply starving.

I tell him no because that is snack food, and because we will be eating dinner in ten minutes.

“Well what are we having for dinner?” he asks.

“Chicken nuggets and corn,” I reply.

“Ok, Mom, that sounds nice, thank you for making me dinner, I love you,” he says.

Oh, wait, that didn’t happen.

What he actually said was, “Whaaaat, no I hate chicken nuggets, I am not eating that!”

This is news to me, especially since he asked me in the car thirty minutes prior if he could have them. So I’m confused.

While I try to think of the best way to respond to him, he proceeds to throw himself on the floor and show me how upset he is about this dinner fiasco.

Then the tears come. 

He is crying real tears.

Over chicken nuggets. 

This is where I struggle as a parent.

How do I possibly respond in this situation? 

I can’t give in and make him something else because that shows him that all you have to do is act irrationally to get what you want.

But I also can’t totally get mad at him because truthfully, he has chicken nuggets far more than he should and I would be sick of them too.

After much contemplation, while tuning out the wailing that is still in full force, I realize that this is where my moment comes in.

An opportunity to practice all of the positive parenting skills that I read up on and preach about to my husband.

See, as much as I want to respond by yelling back or telling him to quit crying or he’ll have no dinner, I know that the tears are simply a reflection of emotions he doesn’t know how to handle.

While it seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world that my son is thrashing himself around over something so trivial, I realize what is really going on.

It’s not about the chicken nuggets.

Maybe he had a bad day at school and that granola bar was the one thing he has been looking forward to.

Maybe he doesn’t want to go to the church activity tonight so he’s throwing a fit to avoid it.

It is possible that he has been told no all day and this last no is what has thrown him into meltdown mode.

Or he could be exhausted. Now that I think of it, he went to bed late last night and had trouble getting up this morning.

Whatever the reason, I suddenly feel a deep sense of empathy for him and my initial feelings of wanting to punish him for such “tyrant” behavior subside.

I can recall some very specific times in my life that I have wanted to drop to the floor and cry, often for the smallest of things. 

“First world problems,” as we call it.

In fact just the other day I felt real feelings of anger and frustration because my husband finished off the creamer and didn’t bother to tell me. When I went to grab it I learned it was gone and I was ready to throw a fit right then and there.

And just last week I had a meltdown in my car because I couldn’t get my seatbelt locked in and I was hangry and couldn’t control the tears that came flooding in.

Oh, and earlier this month I attempted to make paleo pancakes that crumbled during the flipping stage so I gave up, chucked the pan in the sink, and pouted… like a child.

I know this feeling of overwhelming emotion all too well. Thankfully, I have learned how to appropriately handle myself in most situations. It’s only taken me about 30 years to get to this point, but I still have my moments.

And I think most of us that have had those days when we are pushed over the edge because of something that seems really small. But we know deep down that isn’t the case at all.

Ok, that sounded like Dr. Seuss but you get my point.

Our children in those moments, they need us more than ever.

They need us to teach them that it’s ok to feel emotion, no matter what it is and no matter what about.

That there are more effective ways to express themselves that feel better and make the people around us feel safe.

They need us to recognize that they are sad or mad over chicken nuggets or something else and ask why and what we can do to help them in that moment. 

They need us to put our own expectations of how we think they should act aside and face the reality that there is a child in front of us that is still developing and learning and that it is our job to teach them how to handle those big scary feelings.

They need us to embrace the tantrum!

The messy part, the ugly part, the beautiful part, the part that makes us want to get down on the floor and cry with them.

Because if we don’t, who will?

This is our opportunity to pause and love them when we are triggered ourselves and reactive. 

I kneel down on the floor and wrap my arms around my son, tell him I love him and that I know how he feels. I tell him that if he wants to talk I’m here and I will listen and that if he needs more time to be angry I’ll give him space to do so.

I pull the chicken nuggets out of the oven and place them on a plate along with the corn. I set them down next to him on the kitchen floor, walk into the other room and watch from the couch as he wipes away the tears and eats every last one of those chicken nuggets.

Sigh. Momma, we made it through and we still have five minutes to spare.