When Tantrums Attack: Go High or Go Low?

“NO!! NO!! I don’t WANT to do that!” My 2-year-old yelled, his high-pitched shriek reverberating off of the metal grocery shelves and speckled tile floor. He awoke 1 hour ahead of schedule and we were in meltdown mode with 3/4 of the grocery run to go. So, I had two choices: go high or go low.


“Do you see the color purple?” I asked trying to distract my little grumpus. “NO!!” He seethed. I waited before offering: “Where is a circle? I see a circle.” “No! I don’t LIKE that game!” He retorted. Now for the big guns: “Do you think we’ll see the train?” I asked, knowing the ceiling-mounted toy train is often the highlight of the grocery trip. “NOOOO!! I don’t WANT to see the train!” My 2-year-old stomped, clanging the metal frame of the car-shaped shopping cart, signaling my failure.

What a traitorous beast, this mammoth 18-wheeler of a cart! It’s cartoon car shape promises smooth, tot-friendly shopping but, instead, it has betrayed me as I navigate the well-stocked aisles with the grace of a blind water buffalo all while employing every last one of my mommy tricks to keep my raging offspring confined to the cart. Jackassery! Yet, I know full well that I will grab its unwieldy handle upon my next shopping trip because woe unto the parent who shops sans car-cart!

Car-cart in use, snack given and ignored, distractions employed and refuted, I was left with two choices: go high or go low. Essentially the fast-food fries vs. the kale salad of reaction options.

Little self-control required, going high would be the fast-food fries of options: temporarily satiating, effortless, and quick but a poor choice in the long run that might be regrettable sooner rather than later. Going high, I would release myself from the obligation of centered self-control. I’d allow my blood pressure to rise, give into the easy flight towards flustered anxiety, heightened embarrassment, and increasing aggitation. I’d risk reacting instead of calculating, moving in emotion-based speed with the ultimate goal of ending the undesirable scenario quickly but not necessarily well.

To go low I’d need to channel willpower and a centered focus. I’d need to breathe in that yogic part of myself into which I must consciously dive to make wise — yet not always easy or immediately desirable — decisions. Like the kale salad, it wouldn’t be as easy to choose or as appealing as the fries, but it’d invariably be the wise, healthy, unregrettable, adult choice. Instead of releasing control and allowing my body to naturally jitter into high-speed, I’d downshift. To go low I would ease into a calm state of even blood pressure and steady breathing, my mind centered simply on my task and my child, with only minimal awareness of those around me.

The choice was mine because I consciously retained the power to choose instead of allowing my emotions to run the show. I chose to go low.

I asked if my toddler needed a hug. He declined, only a half aisle later to yell that he needed one. I breathed and embraced him smiling. Moments later, more skrieking: “I don’t WANT to get Daddy’s cereal!” Yeah, well, too bad kid.

A fellow mom passed by giggling in that, been-there-and-thank-heavens-I’m-not-the-only-one way. I didn’t even notice her until she was beside me. Our eyes met, hers still warmly squinted in friendly laughter. “This looks just a little familar?” I said. “Very!” She replied, nodded towards her cart-riding youngster.

This was a completely developmentally normal experience. Kids obliterate your ego… that’s just parenthood. There was no need to feel the hot flush of embarrassment or let emotions boil over. But it wasn’t always this easy to choose low.

I had consciously endeavored to choose to go low daily. I wasn’t perfect but I tried. And that trying — over and over, day after day, meltdown after meltdown — is what got me to this point. In a year I imagine it’ll be an even more natural progression into steadied calm in the face of toddler terrorism.

The more often we make a certain choice — whether it be dietary choices, thought patterns, physical habits, or verbal response — the more we train ourselves to revert to that path. For example, the more I eat fries, the more I crave them. Whereas, if I habitually make healthy food choices, over time I less frequently and less fervently crave fries. Eventually I will naturally choose the kale salad and not even consider the fries. But to change that habit takes time, effort, patience, diligence, self-awareness, self-forgiveneness, and — most importantly — self-empowerment. We can’t simply play victim to our emotions; we must own them. We may not be able to control how we feel but we CAN control how we behave. That’s what we teach our children afterall, isn’t it?

Will I always choose the kale salad over fries? NO, definitely not. Some days and some situations just call for fries but, more often than not, kale salad is the better choice. I am human afterall.

In the end, the errand culminated in check-out line hugs and a little voice saying, “I’m sorry, Mommy” into the side of my neck. And I felt completely at ease. What a gift to give yourself — and others — to choose to go low!

I can’t say I’ll always be so wise, but as long as I continue choosing to go low MOST of the, I’ll be pleased.

What will you choose?