Broken Toys and Burned Fingers – ‘The First Tantrum’

Published on in Broken Toys and Burned Fingers

Broken toys and burned fingers


Writer’s Bio: I am a foster carer and ex teacher. I hope that my endless curiosity about our kids and the wider aspects of fostering and the trauma children experience might help others. I am not an expert, except in being me, and maybe that is the way to get through the process of being a foster carer; being aware of yourself and how this can help our precious, damaged charges.

Previous Entries: ‘I dunno’

No. 3: The First Tantrum


So, we have kids, we’ve shown them around, we’ve done all the routines that were worrying me: showers, washing, getting up, going to bed… and it is all okay. Not perfect: bedtime takes ages but more on that another time. And one kid seems to be hoarding dirty clothes so we’ll have to explore that at some point.


We are in the honeymoon period, our kids are trying to maintain better than normal behaviour because they are worried we might move them on and we are trying very hard to build bonds to allow ‘connection before correction’. But that harmony is superficial, no one can be on their best behaviour all of the time. In fact it will probably prompt a blow up…

We have since had complete meltdowns which seemed to be about a choice of biscuits, when to go to the park, the suggestion of changing socks, a request to put underwear in a drawer, the list could go on. But our first big blow up was one week in and I was trying to help Kid1 with homework.


Kid1 is a superstar at school, working very hard and, slowly but surely, overcoming the delays unfairly handed to him by a difficult early childhood. He struggles with language and wanted to complete a practice paper as quickly as possible. I tried to help, as an ex teacher surely I was up to the challenge? But in my excitement I didn’t factor in how very hard he found taking advice. He has spent his whole life being told and shown that he was not good enough. How could he be expected to cope with being told to slow down, to look back at that question, to add a bit more in to that
answer. He started to get prickly so I shut up, hoping to repair the damage by doing the opposite of what caused the problem.


Without any obvious warning (or so I thought) a small fireball of fury erupted, whose rant started with me not helping him, went through the fact that I hated him, he wanted to go home and that I was lying when I said anything nice and ended with a flurry of swearing, door slamming and lying on the floor of his room screaming incoherently. And me? My heart was pumping, my hands shaking, my face was red and I could not figure out which bit to tackle first!


Looking back I’m not sure that by the time he was upset I could have done anything other than wait patiently for it to be over. I could have spotted tension signs earlier, maybe planned to break the homework up into sections, but a tantrum was on its way and it would have happened sooner or later.


So what did help?


Knowing it wasn’t personal; he didn’t really think I was a lying bitch and he did like living with us, he was just angry and scared and sad and overwhelmed.

Being aware of my emotional response and challenging myself; my initial response was to point out how wrong he was in his statements but he was not capable of listening to me at that point. I felt angry with him for saying I didn’t care when I cared sooo much. But that was about my feelings and I needed to recognise them and move on.


Deep breaths, preferably nasal, I may have mentioned these before, I’m not sure what I will do when hay fever kicks in…


I thought I tried empathy; when he shouted I said I was sorry he felt like that but that I did care about him. It made things worse. He got angrier, I got upset (secretly, inside, while maintaining a perfectly unruffled facade?!) and I concluded he needed me to leave him alone to scream and shout. With a good deal of research I realised I wasn’t really empathising and was still responding to his words. And they meant NOTHING. He was just flinging out his anger and hurt in the only way he knew how. What worked that time was being ready when he crept downstairs and hid in a corner to notice him and bring him back in.

What I now know I need to do is name their feelings for them. ‘I can see you are frustrated with your homework, I’m sorry I couldn’t help in the way you wanted.’ And then be nearby. (I spend a lot of time sitting on our stairs, in fact I have put a chair on our landing).

Nearly a year in and the daily violent outbursts are mainly a thing of the past. Not gone completely and probably not gone forever, we have puberty to face after all. But if I can name the feeling (mad, sad, bad) then we are often able to bypass major blow ups.

The first explosion will always remain a strong memory, and the feeling of fragility; of them, of me, of our relationship, still sobers me. To misquote ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ the only way past a tantrum is through it, with the hope of reparation on the other side.


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