Aug 212012

Over the past week or so, I have found myself having very similar discussions with various parents. Whether it is a mom of a two-year-old boy or a father of an 11-year-old girl I hear the same question: “How can I get them to stop tantruming?” The toddler who wails at the top of his lungs and throws a truck across the room. The child who yells with fury and clenched fists. The preteen who stomps and slam doors and sobs about the unfairness of it all. Oh the pain, the agony, the drama. The emotion!

But what is a “tantrum”? What is it really and what does it all mean? In the heat of the moment, tantrums can feel overwhelming to everyone involved. The child may feel out of control, the parent may feel at his/her wits’ end, other children in the home feel unsettled or even unsafe. From an adult perspective, all of this drama because the eggs were scrambled instead of fried, or because the blue shorts are in the wash, or because a friend can’t be called until chores are done. To our adult brain, the emotional output does not match the input. “All this over something so silly?” Our frustration rises. It can be hard to make sense of it when we think about it with our rational, problem-solving, goal-oriented,get-the-kids-in-the-car-and-on-to-the-next-task parent brain.

When someone asks me “How can I make this stop?” (or I hear myself asking the same question, because I do), I immediately counter with, “Why do you want the tantrum to stop?” Usually this is met with a blank stare, as if I were an alien. What a silly question. “No really, why do you want it to stop?” And here is what we come up with:

Because I don’t want them to turn into adults who tantrum. Okay, so clearly, we wouldn’t want our children to learn that throwing themselves on the floor and crying for 30 minutes when the eggs are scrambled instead of fried  is a reasonable response. But when is the last time you saw an adult do that? Children have been “tantruming” since, well since children have existed, and I would venture to say that the number of adults who do that is statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that adults know how to handle emotion. Many of us don’t. But worrying that your children will forever throw trucks across the room is just unrealistic.

Once we get past the fear of raising tantruming adults, we get to the real reason we want the tantruming to stop. It bothers us. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary. It’s emotionally draining. I could go on, but in short, we want it to stop because we can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.

In reality, adults who have difficulty identifying, processing, displaying, or recovering from emotions do so not because they did or didn’t “tantrum” as a child, but because they somehow got the message that emotions were not safe, tolerated, or respected.  They somehow came to understand that feelings should be avoided, should not be shared, create distress in others. They somehow never figured out what to do with big emotions when they arise, much less what they mean or what they feel like. So in reality, if we are really worried  about our children growing up to be adults who throw themselves on the floor, we should be working towards encouraging as many opportunities as possible to work through big emotion now.  That way, they can become well versed in the language of emotion and develop an intimate understanding and awareness of what emotions feel like and what works and doesn’t work for dealing with those emotions. In short, we may want to actually embrace the tantrum.

Maybe we can start by redefining what a tantrum is. The word itself is fraught with strife, negativity and connotations of “spoiled,” “rotten” children who “manipulate” and “connive” to get their way. I wish this idea could be deleted from our lexicon. Rather, let’s see the moment more clearly. It is Big Emotion in a Small Body. The eggs or the shorts or the phone call are not the point. The emotion is the point. And the emotion IS REAL. And real emotion presents an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their feelings, their work in this world. And we, as their parent or teacher or caretaker, have the opportunity to help them, or shut it down. They are having big emotion and they don’t quite know what to do with it.

Have you ever had big emotion that you shared with someone and they responded with, “Well, that’s silly, you are overreacting.” Or “I know exactly what you should do instead.” Or, “Well, it’s your own fault, you did it to yourself.” Generally, these responses don’t feel very good. What we want is to have someone say, “Wow, you’re in pain. I’m here for you.” We want empathic connection. We want to know it is safe to feel how we feel. In the moment of big emotion, we don’t want to be told it is our own fault (even if we know that it is). We don’t want to be told that we are over reacting (even if we are). We don’t want to be told how to solve it (even if we really need help). In that moment of crisis, we want to know that the other person recognizes and respects the feeling we are having. In crisis, we want connection. It’s true if we are two or 82.

And if we can do this for our children in the moment of the big emotion, amazing things happen. When we reflect the emotion to them, we help teach them to recognize their feelings. We connect with them and they feel validated and heard and safe. Simply saying “You’re so angry. I get it!” can go a long way. Just feeling validated can often ease the pain and lessen the intensity of the moment. When we give them space and time to feel their emotion and help them process different ways of handling it, we actually work towards our first goal of creating emotionally competent adults. They can learn that feelings are safe and they can experiment with what happens when they do different things.  So here are simple steps to begin practicing a new way of thinking about and responding to big emotion:

1)     Breathe, observe, wait, and tolerate emotion. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Throughout the entire process. Continue to breathe, observe, wait and tolerate.

2)     Reflect what they are feeling. Let them know that you are there, you see them, you hear them. “You’re so disappointed right now. I can see that!” “It’s so frustrating!” “You’re so angry.”

3)     Set safe limits on behaviors, not emotions. “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)” “I know how angry you are and I see you stomping. But I also know that the stomping is really scary to your little brother. If you need to stomp the basement is a great place to do that.”

4)     Let them be the experts on their feelings. Ask what they need. “What can I do to help you through this anger?” This doesn’t mean that you do whatever they ask. We have to remember that the lesson here is working through the feelings. If the child responds by saying, “I need you to make new eggs” we don’t need to do it. Instead try “Oh, I know you’re disappointed about the eggs. New eggs aren’t available, but I would be happy to support you in another way.”

5)     Back to step one. Repeat.

So the next time your child has big emotion, change the way you think and see and respond in the moment. Change your thoughts from “Oh no, not again!” to “Yes! Another opportunity to practice emotional competence!” Take a deep breath and be amazed at the hard work your child is doing. Learning about emotions is difficult, engaging work. Be there, by their side.

 Posted by at 11:23 am
Oct 242011

Parents often seek out books, classes or support in parenting because they have difficulty setting limits effectively for their children. Complaints such as, “Nothing we do works,” “I put him in time-out and he just doesn’t care,” or “We have tried everything, but little Johnny still won’t listen” are made by tired and frustrated parents time and time again. Healthy limits help children feel secure, safe and loved, while still allowing a child to explore, grow and experiment with life on their own terms. Limit setting teaches children how to negotiate the world in a respectful and responsible way. And limit setting helps households run more smoothly. Of course, it’s a no-brainer: we all want to set these wonderfully helpful limits for our children. And, with the plethora of resources out there explaining just how to set limits, it seems like it should be a snap.

Google the keywords “setting limits with children” and you can easily learn that limits should be reasonable for the child’s age, they should promote safety, they should be consistent, they should be enforced in loving and positive ways. We learn that we should be calm and firm. We learn that the child should understand the limit and the consequence clearly. And, if we do all that, it should work, right?

But, so often it doesn’t.

So what is going on? Is it that our kids are somehow immune to the touted benefit of limit setting? Is it that we have exceptionally difficult children or that something is wrong with them? Are our children going to forever run the household?

The good news is that it is probably none of these things. Rather, I wonder if the biggest barriers that keep us from setting and enforcing limits have less to do with the children and more to do with everything that leads up to the limit setting in the first place. If you think about it, many of the limits we set are born out of frustrating situations. Even on our best days, we can find ourselves reacting quickly without thinking through what we are saying to our children, why we are saying it or what it will mean in the long run. For example, the mother of a preschooler finds herself saying, “If you choose not to clean up your mess, you are going to have to go to bed early.” The child tests these limits and the mother is left to either put the child to bed at 5 pm or let the limit slide. Nobody wins. I have noticed a few main themes that seem to interfere with our ability to successfully set and maintain limits:

1)      The limits are not reasonable or meaningful: Rather than viewing limits as methods of getting our children to behave, it is important to view limits as tools to help children develop their own sense of self-control and independence within a safe space. In order for this to happen, the limit has to be meaningful, understandable and reasonable for the child. Telling a child that she will have to go to bed if she doesn’t clean up her mess doesn’t teach her how to internalize the skill of picking up after herself. The two things don’t really go together and it doesn’t make sense. For the child, it just feels like the parent threatening something (that they probably won’t follow through on).

2)      We set limits that we (the parents) can’t live with: “If you can’t sit still in your seat, we are going to have to leave the restaurant.” What parent hasn’t heard herself saying something, knowing full well that we are not prepared to actually follow through. Setting limits that we aren’t going to follow through on sends our child an important message, and not one we probably want them to get! This is often true when we use limit setting as a threat to motivate behavior through fear, rather than as a tool to help children make decisions for themselves. The other day, at the end of my proverbial rope, I found myself saying, “If you can’t help pick up the toys, we aren’t going to have toys in our home any more.” My child laughed at me. He actually laughed. He knew I wouldn’t follow through with such an unreasonable threat. He was right, and the message I sent was worse.

3)      We set limits that don’t enhance the developmental milestones our children are negotiating: Stress at transition times, like getting out the door in the morning, results in limit setting and testing on a daily basis. What exactly does “get yourself ready” mean? Is it reasonable to expect a toddler to make his bed perfectly every morning? Probably not. But, is it reasonable that he try? Can an 8-year-old use an alarm clock to wake up on her own? Can a 15-year-old get himself to school on time? If we set limits that are plainly beyond our children’s capabilities, we are doomed to failure.

4)      We aren’t clear about what goal we are trying to reach, and, along the way, our goal changes: When we react in haste, we often make rash decisions and set limits that are misguided. Often this is because we don’t really know what we are trying to achieve. Dinner-time struggles are a perfect example of this. One night it is, “Eat all your dinner or no desert.” The next night it’s, “You can’t leave the table until you eat all your vegetables.” And later in the week it is, “You don’t have to eat, but you have to sit here with the family.” Eating and meal-time issues create angst and drama for so many families. But often the limit isn’t clear because the goal isn’t clear. Do we want the child to eat all the food served to them at every meal? Do we want them to eat a variety of foods? Do we want them to participate in the social aspect of meals? Do we want them to consume more calories, more iron, more vitamins, etc? When we aren’t clear about what it is we are trying to teach our child, then our goals, and thus our limits, continually change. How is the child supposed to become clear on the expectations when we aren’t clear ourselves?

5)      We can’t tolerate the child’s emotion: This might just be the biggest reason that we don’t follow through on the limits we set. We hate to see our children in pain. We hate to see them cry and we hate to have them angry at us. We also hate tantrums, outbursts and tornadoes ripping through our houses. But children need to be able to express their emotions and we need to be able to tolerate that emotion. Crying, stomping, yelling and otherwise emoting provides children with a powerful stress reliever. Limits are not always pleasant and emotional reaction to them is normal. Unfortunately, watching or tolerating their reaction is not always fun and we can be quick to keep the peace (for them and ourselves) by backing down on our limit.

So what can we do as parents to avoid some of these pitfalls and avoid setting limits that are destined to fail? It may seem cliché, but it may boil down to breathing. Slowing it down. Interacting with our child, rather than reacting to their behavior. Specifically, I recommend five key things to remember:

1)      Think through limits beforehand: With a few exceptions of extreme danger (running into traffic, for example) there is usually no reason that we have to react immediately to any situation. We can take a few deep breaths to calm ourselves. Check in with our own emotional reactions. See the situation through the child’s point of view. Ask the child what they think is going on and what they need. Consider developmental skills or milestones. Parenting is not a race, it happens over many years, not seconds. Think the situation through. Usually limit setting is something that we do repeatedly over time until the child incorporates the skill or value into their own sense of self. It’s rarely a one time, one shot event. We have time.

2)      Reflect: Ask yourself questions like, What has worked in the past with my child? What do I know about my child? What do I know about myself or my family that may be at play here?

3)      Talk through a plan with a partner or support person: Get feedback. Make a plan and talk about ways you can support each other in sticking with the limit.

4)      Define the goal, expectations and limits clearly: Once you actually know the goal you are working towards, it will be easier to communicate that with your child. “I want you to eat or else” becomes “I trust you to know when you are hungry or not, but in our family, once you leave the table, the meal is over for you.” The goal, expectation and limit are clear. The child has choices and the parent knows what they have to do to follow through. 

5)      Tolerate  and support their emotion: We have to know that setting limits will upset our children. They may get angry and they will probably express it. That’s good. We can be empathetic to their misery. “I get really frustrated when I can’t do something I want to do also. I know how you feel. I’m available for support if you need it, but the limit remains.” By doing this we teach them that we mean what we say, that the limit is important, but that we also value and acknowledge that it is hard for them. Feelings are real and they are tricky. By supporting them through this, we not only help them to negotiate the limit, but we help them become more emotionally competent as well. What an opportunity!

Happy Limit Setting!

 Posted by at 11:30 am

Bubbles of Independence

 child development, Control, Independence, Tantrums  Comments Off on Bubbles of Independence
Oct 102011

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.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm