Sunday, August 28, 2005

Thinking about tantrums

This is a recycled post from Rational Parenting, which is on hiatus.

A tantrum: when a person loses all ability to express their intentions directly through language or signs, instead using a variety of tantrum-characteristic behaviours, such as uncontrollable weeping, screaming, shaking, drumming of heels on floor (varies according to the person).

A tantrum is a horrible thing to experience. It makes one's eyes sore, gives one a headache, makes one tired, dehydrates one, and does not solve whatever the problem was in the first place.

Helping one's children avoid tantrums and minimise their effects seems to me to be the natural aim of any parent, not only because tantrums are horrible for the person having them, but also because they are horrible for the person on the receiving end - there is great temptation either to give in to all demands of the hysterical person or to remove them from sight and earshot until they have stopped. The one end of the scale is self-sacrifice, the other is neglect. I would recommend neither as a parenting strategy.

I think that having tantrums is an inevitable part of childhood. Some children have them because their parents seem to set out to ignore their intentions. Others have them because their parents - being fallible - sometimes miss the cues of their children until the children have reached a point where intelligible communication is no longer possible.

1. staving off tantrums

is eminently possible. It requires the tantrum-catcher to know the tantrum-thrower very well indeed, in order to pick up on their cues.

For example, many pre-menstrual women display tantrum characteristics - a boiling up of frustration is eventually vented, either through aggression or through weeping. It can often be side-stepped by those who love the women. Some like to be cosseted, and tucked up on the sofa with a cup of tea; others need to be told to "buck up, old girl"; yet others merely need reminding that their hormones go funny at certain times of month. Choose the wrong response at your peril.

Helping one's children requires exactly the same attention to the cues of the child. Sometimes people have gone beyond being able to express how tired or hungry or thirsty they are; this is where trusted adults can gently help them to change their mental state through a snack or a drink or a quiet activity or whatever.

2. Helping to end a tantrum when it has begun

Some of the same techniques would apply as in the tantrum-avoidance stage: trying to identify the problem and a way to solve it; or providing comfort until the child has calmed down enough to solve their problem themselves. NB it strikes me that this is a big argument in favour of extended breastfeeding, which can provide food, drink AND comfort in one benign swoop to an unhappy child.

Sending someone away to weep it out alone is a cruel act. No-one should wish weeping-oneself-into-exhaustion on another person. Sending one's own child away, denying them the love and reassurance that will help them to start problem solving again quickly, is also counterproductive in the long run. If one's role as a parent is to be a trusted advisor to the small people one lives with, then excluding them from one's presence when their problems have got too large for them to handle rationally is the act of a fool. If Betty's parents do not help her to solve problems as a child, she is highly unlikely to communicate her problems to them and ask for help as she grows more independent. Welcome to teenage hell.

Acceding to demands that are in conflict with one's own intentions is also counterproductive (= self-sacrifice). I hope that helping one's child no longer be hungry or thirsty wouldn't clash with anyone's own intentions (and remember the urgency with which such physical needs need to be met when one is not in control of the provision of food and drink - there's nothing like a blood sugar low). But buying a toy that a child just saw and won't use for more than ten minutes?? It is much better to calm down the tantrum with love and respect, and then creatively find alternative solutions with the child (do we know anyone who owns this toy? Might it be for sale on Ebay or in a charity shop? Are there any better toys it would be worth buying instead? If we spend money on this toy, will it have implications for the rest of the family finances? Can we sell it on Ebay if it's rubbish? Can we play with it in the shop?).

One should never assume that someone is throwing a tantrum 'for no good reason'. Even when it's 'just hormones', the emotions are real enough, and problem solving (however small the problem seems to anyone outside the sufferer's head) goes on hold until the emotions have been assuaged.

Are we at the beck and call of our 'manipulative' children here? No more than we are at the beck and call of anyone we love who needs help to see beyond the perceived enormity of a problem to its solution.


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