Do kids purposely tantrum to torture us? And when it happens, how do parents respond to the dreaded tantrum? Whether it happens in private or public, this definitely has to be one of the most unpleasant parts of parenting a toddler. Most recently, I’ve been paying close attention to kids and their tantrums. What I’ve noticed is that parents usually respond in either one of two ways: ignore the child or negotiate. According to the book The Whole-Brain Child, author Dr. Daniel Siegel writes there are two different types of tantrums. An upstairs tantrum is when the child decides to throw a fit. He suggests with this type of tantrum to use firm limits and appropriate consequences and eventually the child will find the tantrum is ineffective. The downstairs tantrum, however, is quite different. This tantrum is when the child is so completely upset that he is unable to use his upstairs brain to control his body or emotions. One strategy he recommends is to connect with the child in order to help him calm down by using empathy and a soothing tone and voice. Once the upstairs brain returns, the parent can respond to the issue by using logic and reason. This seems like a relatively easy approach, but is it as simple as it sounds? Maybe. As the start of the new school year quickly approaches, I can’t help but wonder that if Dr. Siegel is right and this technique is effective with a two year old, then could this also apply to my twelve year old middle school students?
Middle school teachers experience a fair amount of tantrums. I often joke with my colleagues that some days I feel like my students are just oversized toddlers. They whine when they don’t get their way, scream while running down hallways (is the school on fire?), and have recurrent mood swings where they are besties with a person one day and the next day are complete enemies. Are middle schoolers merely a super sized version of a toddler? Maybe a toddler and middle schooler have more in common than I actually think.
5 Signs That a Middle Schooler Is Actually an Oversized Toddler:
- Toddlers have unstoppable physical energy. They constantly run, kick, and jump. Walk down any middle school hallway and what do you observe? Twelve year olds who look like an awkward herd of octopuses with spindly limbs that sway erratically as they zip past you in rapid succession.
- Toddlers are picky eaters. Sometimes they may eat one or two preferred foods and nothing else. Middle schoolers binge eat one thing and one thing only: Takis.
- Toddlers can be happy and friendly one minute and the next moment cry for no apparent reason. Middle schoolers have frequent mood swings. One day they adore you and emphatically declare, “You are my favorite teacher!” Followed by the next day where you are treated like a complete stranger and they can barely manage to lip sync a civilized “Hello.”
- Toddlers love to dance and move to music as a way to socialize. As one student recently admitted to me, “I used to dance. Now I just twerk.”
- Toddlers have the idea that adults should do things for them on demand. Similar to toddlers, middle schoolers can also act like complete tyrants. They earnestly believe that using the bathroom pass, getting a drink of water, or going to their locker needs to be done at that immediate second and if not given permission, the world may come to a catastrophic end.
I am certain that these untimely and tiresome tantrums are often unavoidable. Undoubtedly, my son will repeatedly challenge me with his tantrums and eventually reveal my worst possible self. But maybe throughout this messy and complicated parenting process, I learn how to be a more loving, patient, and empathetic person. And if this is the case, then I likely have a great deal of learning (and tantrums) ahead of me.
We recently returned from an exciting and adventurous ten day vacation where we ate and drank our way through the Washington coast. The trip was a lovely balance of visiting with friends, hiking in national parks, and experiencing the maritime culture. Many times throughout the trip, I was constantly reminded how this is most likely our last kid free vacation before we meet our son.
My first reminder was when we arrived at the airport. I witnessed a mom who had to WWE wrestle her screaming daughter to free her panda backpack in order to get through the security line. Another time is when I breathlessly hiked up a hill in the Olympic National Park thinking, “There’s no way a toddler could possibly do this. As an adult, I can barely manage.” I look up and of course there’s a mom who walks past me with her top heavy backpack filled with camping gear with her toddler strapped in the Ergobaby carrier and I think to myself, “Yes, it is possible. But how is that any fun?” Or the time at dinner when I realized while devouring my delicious hamachi crudo and casually sipping my Oregon chardonnay that I need to enjoy this because these days are dangerously numbered.
I am certain that it is completely unrealistic and maybe even a bit naive to consider vacation travel with a toddler. How does it feel to be a parent on a three hour flight with a screaming active two year old? I don’t envy you. There’s the constant negotiation of snacks, the thrown toys, and any novel distraction you can imagine just to get you through the flight. Then when you finally arrive, how much beach time can you actually enjoy around nap time, sand throwing, and cooking dinner? How is this possibly a vacation?
I imagine that once I have a family, the vacationing will look dramatically different from our latest trip. There will be no more sleeping in at the dreamy Airbnb, the late night maritime debauchery with college friends will be limited, and a simple event like packing to go to the beach may turn into an epic production. However, I’m ready to trade all this in because I know that once I walk through the arrival gate with my son in tow, there’s a delightful and bittersweet, a magical and familiar, a lifetime of adventures that awaits us.
When we initially started the adoption process, my assumption was that we would adopt an infant close to the age of six months similar in age as when I was adopted. I clearly recall the adoption meeting when the presenter confidently explained, “Most children will be the ages of two and a half by the time the adoption is finalized.” I turned to my husband and barely managed to stutter, “But wait. Isn’t that a todd-ddd-ler?!”
Although I’m completely humbled and beyond grateful to become a parent, I can’t help but fantasize about the missed baby moments. I wonder what he sounds like when he cries. How does he prefer to be comforted? What was his wobbly first steps like? Now he’s beginning the toddler stage where he’s walking, saying omma (mommy) and becoming more independent. It’s been incredibly difficult not to be there to share in these huge moments of his young life. As I patiently wait to meet my son, I realize adoption is an inevitable and complex series of gains and losses.
This week my son celebrated his first birthday (called Dol) which is a significant milestone in Korea. The children wear a traditional Hanbok and a hat. The highlight of the celebration is where the child is placed in front of a table with objects. It is believed that whatever object is chosen, this will signify his future occupation. Then there’s the usual eating and celebrating. Although I enjoyed looking at the wonderful pictures, I still felt an overwhelming sadness because I wasn’t able to be there to share in his excitement and happiness.
My son will also experience loss. Even though he will gain a family who loves and adores him, he will lose his connection to his birth mother, his Korean culture, and race through adoption. He will wonder why his birth mother gave him up for adoption, question his identity, and more than likely internalize a number of different emotions that comes with grief and loss.
Maybe life is a continuous ebb and flow of gains and losses. It’s easy to be present when there are joyful and happy moments. But it’s when the losses are big and chaotic and the spaces feel too loud is when I want to run. I don’t know the losses that my son will experience, but what is certain is that I will be present for it all.
“Where are you from?” “Minnesota.” “No, where are you really from?” “Do you speak Korean?” “No.” “Have you ever met your birth mother?” It seems like everyone from friends, coworkers, and even strangers are intimately curious about my Korean-ness. There have been numerous interactions throughout my life which highlight that yes, in fact, I am Korean. One particular incident I can distinctly remember well. I was five years old attending an open house school event with my parents and brothers. As we walked from classroom to classroom, a teacher saw me and was convinced that I was lost, while the entire time I was standing next to my brothers. I remember feeling confused and not being able to explain what happened. I just knew that I was different. Then, right at the moment when you start to forget that you are Korean, you are abruptly reminded like the time a complete stranger approached me and started to speak to me in Korean. After a few seconds of giving him a look of total bewilderment, he realized that I had no idea what he was saying. Which is more awkward? An absolute stranger speaking to me in Korean. Or a white person who fluently speaks Korean.
Maybe I’m a late bloomer in discovering my Korean-ness because it wasn’t until my twenties when I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt this relentless need to absorb all things Korean. I read every piece of literature written about being Korean American. I binge watched K-dramas (and you think Days of Our Lives is dramatic) and even sought out friendships with international Korean students because somehow I felt they were more Korean than my Korean adopted peers.
Twenty years later and I’m still exploring my Korean-ness, but with a different purpose. Now my intention is to provide my son with a home where he can see his culture represented. I’m curiously experimenting with cooking Korean foods (you had me at banchans), slowly learning how to speak the Korean language, and carefully researching bilingual books in preparation for our adoption. There are moments though, when I wonder am I Korean enough? One day will my son wake up and say, “Okay, mom, the jig is up.” Whenever these irrational thoughts begin to consume me, I find comfort in the insightful words from the beautiful poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. She says, “In the margins, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can’t grow. But in margins, things grow.”