Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tantrums: Be angry and do not sin

I am a self-confessed parenting-book-junkie. Even ones that I strongly disagree with interest me. Nearly all of them have a section on tantrums, and most of them say the same thing: either punish or banish the children until they are ready to 'be sweet'. Especially in Christian circles, although it also occasionally pops up in secular ones, rarely are we taught how to deal with strong feelings--instead, the underlying message is that they simply shouldn't exist. If you are sad, angry, frustrated or even frightened, you must at least pretend to be calm and quiet. If you are a child, then you have even less right to express your feelings, especially if an adult would consider the reason trivial (...or I'll give you something to cry about!).

Now, to be clear, in our house, hurting people or property is never an option, regardless of how strong the feelings are. And, particularly in public settings, it may be necessary to go someplace more private so as not to disrupt others. But I think it is worth examining our reactions to a child whose emotions are not all sweetness and light. Even Jesus got upset. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with being angry or sad or any other emotion. If we were His parents, how would we react? Would we hit Him? Send Him to His room until He was happy again? Or would we be more motivated to "weep with those who weep"?

As adults, most of us still throw our own version of a tantrum, just in a more sophisticated way. We don't lie on the floor or kick and scream (at least, I hope not!), but how many of us have lashed out verbally at someone, with hurtful or sarcastic words or yelling? And while it is easy to smile at the unimportance of the little thing that triggers a toddler's meltdown, have you ever overreacted simply because you had already had more than you could take emotionally? Maybe you were short on sleep or not feeling well, or hungry and needed a snack, and one little thing pushed you over the edge? I've certainly BTDT.

I've had times where I was stressed about a situation at work, tired and cranky, and snapped at Carlos. He didn't deserve it. So, as a Christian, and someone who loved me, how should he respond? He could retaliate in kind (punish) or just ignore me or give me the silent treatment (banishment/time out/etc) until I started acting 'sweet'. After all, that is the suggested deterrent, right? Otherwise, we are 'rewarding bad behavior'. But then what? If he made a sarcastic comment back, chances are it would just escalate and I would send a zinger right back. If he simply froze me out, I would be hurt, even if I recognized the illogic of it. And if he made any comment about avoiding me until I was 'sweet', it would not go over well at all.

On the other hand, what if he came up and put his arms around me and listened to what was wrong? I wouldn't start cackling inwardly because I 'got away with it'. Instead, I would probably melt, and genuinely apologize for snapping. We would be connected and he would be helping to bear my burden. Thank God, I married a wise man, and he would probably choose the last option. :)

Another thing--have you ever started crying and not been able to stop? Isn't it the most awful feeling? I remember a time when I was hormonal and stressed. I hadn't slept well, etc, and I started sobbing (over something that was truly not the end of the world--we are all still here, after all) and the more I tried to stop the worse it got. I was so embarrassed and frustrated--I hate losing control--but I still kept crying. How frightening it must be as a toddler to have such powerful emotions and not always be able to turn it off on cue!

I know that 'doing unto others' falls short sometimes because we all respond differently (Joel wants to be held during a meltdown, Ariana usually doesn't), but at least it is a good starting point. I am sure that there are kids who like to be alone when they get that upset, too, and I think that is fine. Regardless, we can try to comfort in the moment. Then, when they are calm and able to learn, we can show them other ways to be honest about their feelings in socially appropriate ways.

One thing that I see in the books is encouraging children to 'use their words'. This is great. When it works. Ariana has always been really verbal, but if she is really upset, having her 'use her words' wouldn't always adequately convey the intensity of her feelings. (It doesn't always for me, either, and my vocabulary is far more extensive). For awhile, she would do an angry or sad dance for us. Another thing that worked well was to pretend to be an animal (if a lion felt that angry, how would he roar? How would an elephant stomp if she were that upset?).

By far the most effective for Ariana, though, was story-telling. Even in the middle of a meltdown she would stop to listen if we told her a story about another little kid who felt that way when x happened. It is funny, because even now she will ask for a story about how Sally felt when she wanted the toy but her little brother wasn't yet finished with it, or whatever, when she is trying to make choices about how to handle something. Joel hasn't gotten into stories as much--he usually needs to blow off steam physically--but I can see now why Jesus told stories so much.

There are a lot of other ways where children can honestly and openly share their feelings, such as through painting or drawing. Perhaps writing a song. King David came up with some pretty intense songs, and I love it that they are included in the Psalms!

I am so grateful that God responds to my cries, and that He is patient with me. Just like my children, I am still growing and learning, and from an eternal perspective, much of my wailing seems unnecessary and even obnoxious. Yet He still promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes. What an amazing Father we have!


Blessed Mama said...

I like the creative discipline approach (although I do resort to spanking at times--I won't pretend I don't). I think that sometimes we can be lazy in parenting, though, and just hit because we don't know what else to do. You gave some good suggestions!

Virginia Is For Mothers said...

2 1/2 years late in commenting, but the early stages of the tantrum, I do try to calm him down and communicate that talking is the best way to get what he needs. I just finished reading The Heart of Anger by Lou Priolo too and he has great ideas for helping angry children (and young children who don't understand their emotions) to be able to evaluate their thoughts and learn to self-evaluate what they should have done instead. He also teaches parents to help kids learn their triggers.

dulce de leche said...

That is great! It is so important for us to recognize our own triggers and evaluate. As a grown up, I am still having to learn so much. I really want to equip my children with healthy ways to express their feelings. :)