One of my favorite pictures I ever took of my daughter came during a tantrum.
She wasn’t quite 3. We were in the middle of a family party with our best friends–and their two kids, the de facto cousins. My daughter had just hit her BFF. I scooped her into my arms and carried her upstairs for a time-out. A photographer friend once advised me that photos of crying people were always good to take, aesthetically (you can quibble about the morals). There my daughter stood in her crib in a white satin dress-up princess frock. Her face, framed by tired pigtails, revealed the sadness and regret just beneath the frustrated, overtired impulsivity. Her dark eyes were slick and teary and her rounded cheeks appeared rounder, all pouty. And the camera happened to be around my neck. She was so freaking adorable I had to sneak in one quick shot.
With this little girl, we went through the phases: biting, hitting, throwing, and spitting. Her frustrated behaviors weren’t always harmless and some are kind of gross (spitting). Equally often, though, her monstrous outbursts make us laugh (to ourselves, if possible). Despite everything, she is really, really cute.
Teenagers, though, their tantrums are not exactly so simple to ignore or to contain. Unlike a small child, teenagers are neither immediately mobile nor malleable. When raging, teenagers are so not cute.
We don’t get teenage tantrums all that often (thankfully, because we’ve got two teens in the house; I gave birth to three boys spread over seven years and five years later, we adopted an infant girl), but when we do, especially if the preschooler is underfoot and cannot be extricated from the scene, it’s not such a fun time. A tantrum occurred recently while I was sitting on the floor and folding laundry with the preschooler hanging around me. One teen had had a no-good-very-bad-day. Nothing I could say helped. He started to fling clean socks across the room. He brandished the ‘f’ word as noun, verb, adjective, adverb–and exclamation.
I used to worry about the very colorful language my preschooler has been exposed to, but I’ve let that go. Preschoolers know the really worst insult in the universe is “stupid.” Even as my teens display the ability to get a great deal out of the ‘f’ word, the preschooler is right there with her hand out: “Put a coin in the [cursing[ jar,” she says. She got that because her biggest brother explained that’s what the high school history teacher demands (the money goes to charity). Mid-tantrum, mid-string of curses, the preschooler pantomimed handing the “jar” to roiling teen. And the teen pantomimed putting money in the jar.
I knew he wasn’t really as mad as he presented. He was a muddled mess (like so much teenager laundry, heaped and tangled and definitively not clean, neglected but in want of your parental attentions). I couldn’t just pick the muddle of emotions or the boy up like his laundry and do it for him, weary as I felt about the heap of curses and anger being dumped around us (and the laundry; I wasn’t so pleased about its being flung across the floor).
When he tossed the laundry at the little girl, she laughed and threw it back to him. Although it meant refolding lay ahead, that game helped the littlest bit.
With teens, when the calm rushes in, you have to change gears entirely. We plugged the little girl into a television show and had a long talk with the teen. Beneath the bluster is the same muddle of confusion any of us can feel on a given day, a day you yearn for a ticket to Australia.
As my teens break through the bounds of our household and high school, where they are often the biggest in their worlds, I realize their next steps–college, gap years, jobs, first apartments, and first loves–will make them feel smaller. Sometimes, right now, their bigness is almost too much to hold onto as their parent. We’re shifting, like the smaller children they were when their emotions were larger than their ability to express the full complexity they experienced, or like their little sister when she is determined to keep up, but unable. Her most common bedtime complaint is this: “It’s not fair that I have to go to bed before everyone else.” The next oldest is 10. It may not be fair, but that’s how it is.
And on we all go, growing, seeing anew, having tantrums, and calming down. When she’s a teen and rages with the words she learned long ago and her biggest brothers are adults, I’ll put them on speed dial so she can complain and curse and they can listen and more closely empathize–and demand repayment.