It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Anti-Tantrums, More Philosophy

I know, I know, you’re waiting with bated breath for the actual hints on how to avoid and how to deal with your toddler’s emotional tsunamis. I had started a post about just that very thing, but then realized I was missing an important foundational layer. I’d talked about the common parental attitudes and presuppositions that foster tantrums. Now I needed to deal with the attitudes and presuppositions that manage and eliminate them. Thus I’m not entirely obliging with the “how’s” just yet, but this philosophical background is important. If we know why we do what we do, we’ll be more consistent, and we are far less likely to be blindsided by our kids.

Last Saturday I outlined the basic assumptions that many new parents make which lay the ground for tantrums. Not, I hasten to add, that your tot won’t have tantrums, no matter how brilliant your approach to parenting. Almost without exception, toddlers throw tantrums. Starting sometime in their second year, almost every child begins to try them on for size. However, how you deal with them will determine how frequently they occur and how long they last. In my experience, a child will try it a few times over a few weeks, and after that time frame, they’re not in our repertoire. Burton White, whom you already know I quite admire, is much more generous in his timeframe and suggests that they generally continue to two or two and a quarter. We are both agreed that if they haven’t been elminated by this time, they will almost inevitably continue to three, four, or over. They need to be nipped in the bud!!

What, then, are the attitudes held by a parent whose children weather the tantrum stage smoothly and efficiently?

There is one main tenet of these people: they Expect Respect. No, this does not mean they pontificate and bluster, and expect the child to take it mildly, “because I’m your mother/father, that’s why”. Though that reason is sometimes perfectly sufficient! Rather, they simply do not tolerate aggressions – physical or emotional – against their person.

Thus, these parents believe that while tantrums may be perfectly developmentally normal, the behaviour is simply not acceptable. These parents believe that while there may be reasons that their tot was susceptible to the tantrum at this time (fatigue, hunger, illness), these reasons do not excuse the behaviour, or make it tolerable. These parents see the behaviour for what it is: rage. Yes, there may be some genuine misery thrown in there, but primarily, these kids are flippin’ outraged!! They’re mad as hell, and they’re not taking it any more!

If these are your presuppositions, then when your child has a meltdown, you will not be shocked or outraged; rather, your underlying attitude will be business-like, or even wryly amused. You’ll understand that your child has engaged you in a tussle that it is in everybody’s interest that you master. You will not respond in anger, because this behaviour is only to be expected, but neither will you walk away from the challenge that has just been thrown out.

This is where the second tenet of effective tantrum managers comes into play: they see themselves as their child’s teacher. They will not walk away from the challange because they know this is a critical period: they must teach the child how to manage this. Deal with it now, or be plagued by tantrums for years.

When your child screams in your face, you will refuse to speak to them until they stop. If your hungry child melts into a frothing puddle, you will offer him a snack, yes, but you will still expect the frothing to cease. If you understand that the emotion is not sadness but primarily rage, you will be calm, but you will not move in to cuddle and comfort while the raging continues. The cuddle and comfort comes afterwards.

These parents have a “healthy selfishness”, which enables them to insist on their rights, even as they nurture their child. Your child needs to know – needs to be taught by carefully managed experience – that although he may the centre of your family world, he is not the centre of the universe. Other people have needs, equally important to his.

Your child needs to know that someone can help her through her raging emotions. They need to know these overwhelming feelings are, in fact, controllable, and – even more reassuringly – they are within her very own control! Mommy and Daddy will not let them get out of control; Mommy and Daddy can teach me how to keep myself calm and happy.

How do Mommy and Daddy express this capability? That will be the focus of next Saturday’s installment.

I have a lot of sympathy for these poor little munchkins going through their emotional explosion. Their feelings are very, very real. Real and completely overwhelming. How nasty it must be to be in the middle of an overwhelming swirl of negativity, and have no means of escape! Of course I want to help them, to provide them their means of escape. But for too many people “help” is in fact “enabling” – they are, unwittingly, encouraging the behaviour they wish to eliminate.

It is our job, whether as a parent or in my role as caregiver, to teach them how to manage these maelstroms in a way that is not merely socially acceptable, but also better for them. Teach them the arts of self-awareness and self-control so that they can be calmer, happier, emotionally balanced people. We do that by parenting from a position of self-respect, which will accept nothing less than being treated respectfully by our child.

September 10, 2005 Posted by | aggression, parenting, tantrums | 21 Comments