As I was hefting Eden into the car this morning -- her body as stiff as a board, one shoe on her foot (the eruption sparked by which shoes to wear), her red face screaming at the top of her lungs -- and pinning her into her car seat with all my strength, while speaking to her in soothing tones in hopes of countering any trauma I may have been causing by use of physical force, I felt weary.
Tantrum management is exhausting.
Eden, at 16 months, has arrived at tantrums years before Silas did, particularly when it comes to pens, shoes, or diaper changing. And Silas, at 3 1/2 dissolves into tantrums all day long; 3 1/2, it turns out, is as hard as they say.
Today in my "Conscious Mothering Group"* (based on the book Parenting from the Inside Out, by Daniel Siegel), we talked about understanding emotions and tantrums. Though when I left I still had a zillion questions of how exactly (and yes, I want to know exactly) to respond constructively to Silas's meltdowns, I did leave with some insight to sit with:
-When there is a tantrum, look to see what is under the tantrum. Aletha Solter talks about “the broken cookie phenomenon” – when child falls apart over something that seems minor (like his cookie is broken -- or, as the case was with Silas yesterday, his beans were mixed with his rice, or the day before, his hard boiled egg was cracked) but is really using the minor thing as an outlet to express emotions/tension/stress that he has no tools/language to communicate. The key here is for the parent to remember that the child's feelings aren't really about the cookie but about something else. And the challenge is to be an available supportive presence for the child as he expresses his big out of control feelings -- rather than shutting them down, ignoring them, or shaming/punishing the child for having them. I am amazed by how difficult this is! and how quickly I react rather than receive.
-Children use their whole bodies (stomping, punching, yelling, gesturing, making faces) to try to make sense of what they are feeling because their bodies are their primary tool. I find that by mid-morning I am intolerant of much of the physical -- the "bad guy" fists flying through the air, the frowning scowl, the little shooting finger he instantly points away from me when I look up, the smashing of Eden into the rug, the random outbursts of NO WAY JOSE!, and all day long I hear myself say things like "No, Silas." "Keep your hands to yourself." "We don't speak like that." "You need to say sorry." "Eden is not a bad or mean baby." "We do not shoot at people without asking if they want to play" etc. UGH! Could that make anyone thrive?? (certainly not me). Each time I hear myself I think there must be a more creative approach. Today we talked about how it's important to try to understand the emotions and emotional context of what a child is expressing -- tune in to the child, address him, redirect him, give some one-on-one attention to him -- before you move in with discipline (and all the no's). This makes a lot of sense.
A couple short (yet profound) points to chew on:
-Tantrums are a golden opportunity to start teaching children how to handle huge feelings.
-An aggressive child is a frightened child. (frightened can mean frustrated, it can mean fearing separation (i.e. having to stay with a babysitter and not see you, sleep in another room or share you with a sibling) etc).
-Redirect aggression with physical tasks: cleaning windows, running bases, hammering, throwing balls at paper plate targets etc. I need to do more of this.
-Check yourself when you are coping with a mid-tantrum child -- are you trying to shut down the (unpleasant) feelings or trying to soothe them?
*the Conscious Mothering Group is led by Dr. Jenna Flowers and Dr. Nola Casserly -- it's excellent