|Photo by Citril on Flickr|
I've been seeing a lot of questions on tantrums recently, and wanted to share what has worked for us. First, though, I would like to point out that it is much easier on everyone to avert tantrums to begin with. This doesn't mean always giving children what they want or never doing anything that displeases them. However, a wise parent will also set them up for success:
- Make sure that everyone (including you!) has had enough to eat and drink, and the right kinds of things to eat and drink. Beware food allergies! Many present with only/mainly behavioral symptoms.
- Make sure that you all get enough rest. (I know, easier said than done, especially for the parents!)
- Fill up everyone's love cup on a regular basis. If your child's love tank is running on empty, a long day of errands, etc, can be the final straw in triggering a meltdown. Often, just a short time of concentrated one-on-one attention/cuddle time/etc. can fill their tanks enough to allow us to focus on other things for awhile. Your love cup is important, too. If you can do something special for yourself to get replenished, you are less likely to snap at your family.
- Give grace to everyone, including yourself, when a meltdown does occur. Also, when you think others might be judging you, remember that how you respond to your child's actions is far more important than how your child acts.
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!