This week I found myself pondering and meditating on the issue of tantrums. We as parents use this word pretty indiscriminately to describe a wide range of behaviors that our children display in an even wider range of situations. From the three-year-old who throws himself on the floor in a rage of exacerbated screams, to the nine-year-old who stomps off to her room muttering under her breath, to the 14-year-old who rolls his eyes and posts nasty things about his mother on Facebook. We seem to lump all of this into one general category: Tantrums.
But what is really going on? What is the point? What is the child really trying to tell us? Open any parenting book and the message seems to be the same. It always seems to boil down to control. Children want more control than we allow them. Maybe they want more control than is good for them. But maybe the other side of the coin is just as important here. Maybe we, as parents, in return want more control than our children allow us. And maybe we want more control than is good for them.
From birth on, parents and children engage in an intriguing dance of giving and taking control. Sleep-struggles, food-struggles, and putting-on-shoe-struggles plague the relationships between toddlers and parents. And then it’s homework-struggles, chore-struggles, staying-out-too-late-struggles. No matter what stage of development, children seem to be screaming, “I can do it!” while parents scream back, “You need my help!” Only after seemingly endless battles do parents and children find the right combination of independence and support, and then almost immediately the dance begins anew with the next step of life.
Whatever the step, independence is the name of the game for kids and the challenge for parents is to know how much help to give and when help is really necessary. I have noted, time and time again, that “tantrums” seem to increase at times when children are on the brink of being able to master something. Sometimes their own abilities limit their odds of success at independence, but more often, I think, it is the parent’s belief that the child needs their help that is really getting in the way.
Sometimes I imagine my own children with little bubbles around them. Inside their bubble is what they can take care of themselves. It is their bubble of independence. Outside their bubble is what they need my help and support with. Maturation, or development, is the process of expanding their bubble, until they grow into healthy well-functioning adults who have all the skills they need to negotiate the world on their own terms. (That’s the goal, right?) In order to do this, they have to push the bubble from the inside out. My job is to help them grow their bubble and to protect it from popping. Guard their bubble, support their bubble, nurture their bubble without hindering its expansion.
I have noticed that when there is a lot of friction between me and my child, it may be that I am pushing in on their bubble while they are pushing out. Instead, I need to assess the situation. What independent actions are they capable of that I may not be acknowledging? Sometimes it may feel counter-intuitive to give more freedom at times that a child seems to be acting out more, but maybe, by giving their bubble room to grow in one area, they can be more receptive to our support in another. And, who knows, they might just blow our minds at what they really can do on their own.