It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Tantrums: Philosophical background, or, How On Earth Did this Happen??

Tantrums. What parent of a toddler doesn’t shudder at the very thought? A fair number of you have talked about, worried over, and been exasperated, embarrassed and overwhelmed by your toddler’s tantrums. And some of you have asked me quite directly how I manage to do the things I do, with up to half a dozen of these critters, without streaming chaos and destruction in our wake.

It’s a good question. One to which I do and do not have the answer. I am quite confident that if left with your three-and-under child for three to five weeks, they would not be having tantrums with me. I’ve never cared for a child with a developmental delay, mind you, so I can’t speak to that particular challenge, nor a child with a severe behavioural disability. Mild to moderate behavioural issues, yes.

However, what I can say is that in the ten years I’ve been doing this, I have never had a child who could not reliably be taken out in public. I’ve never had a child who was throwing tantrums after the age of two and a quarter. (With me, that is. With their parents, it’s often an entirely different matter!) But for me, never. In ten years. So I know of what I speak.

(So you can hate me now, and turn the channel immediately!! Or maybe you can be intrigued and read on. You do what you need to do!)

But what exactly am I doing to achieve this? And, of even greater interest, can I teach you to do it? That’s much, much harder.

I’ve put a fair amount of thought into it, and here are some intial thoughts.

First the easy stuff:

Don’t try anything ambitious – like a trip to the mall – when your child is tired, hungry, or under the weather. Everybody knows that, though. Not that we don’t all end up having to do it once in a while, but we all know we’re begging for trouble when we do. That’s not all of it by any means, because we all know the little darlin’s can throw a lulu of a tantrum when they’re rested, fit, and fed. Maybe even more than when they’re tired, because they have more stamina! Little beggars…

I’ll start with some observations I’ve made of the parents of my daycare kids. I’ll describe some of their primary assumptions, assumptions which, in my opinion and considerable experience, make fertile ground for tantrums.

My clientele are well-educated professionals. Often these people have deferred having their children until their mid to late thirties, and early forties. They are intelligent, rational people. They have ideals and standards. They often have a philosophy of parenting that incorporates these ideals and standards. However, they generally have next to no real life experience with children, and so they make errors, generally based in mistaken assumptions about the nature and capabilities of children.

Generally, these parents’ expectations of their children are both too low and too high. Too low in social and behavioural areas, and too high in the cognitive and rational realms.

Low social/behavioural expectations cause parents to tolerate tantrums. No, parents don’t like or approve of them, but they see them as normal, an inevitable aspect of being a two-, or almost two-year-old. When their child is having tantrums at three, they become less confident of the inevitability or normalcy of the behaviour, but they’re still hoping that a little more maturity will magically eliminate it.

High cognitive/rational expectations lead parents to believe that if they are reasonable with their toddler, their toddler will be reasonable back. They spend much time explaining, negotiating, coaxing, and often feel exhausted by their child’s determined non-cooperation with their efforts, and disheartened by its limited success.

And the third mistake is entirely understandable, but counter-productive: they want their child to be happy at all times. They may even view this as a right of childhood. This causes them to be endlessly patient and compassionate with their raging toddler. While their child rants and roars, kicks and cries, they attempt to soothe and comfort, appease and console.

All right. I’m going to stop there. I haven’t made any analysis of these assumptions. I have deliberately not specified what alterative assumptions exist, nor made any suggestions as to different approaches. It would probably be helpful to take some time to consider and examine this post first.

In my experience with my clients over the years, these are the three areas that catch them up, again and again. Three basic premises that arise from careful thought, caring hearts, and principled parenting decisions. Premises that are formed in inexperience, however, and are thus in part simply wrong, or applied incorrectly or with inappropriate emphasis.

Next Saturday: An examination of the accuracy and inaccuracy of each assumption, and how to apply them better.

September 3, 2005 Posted by | aggression, parenting, power struggle, tantrums | 28 Comments