This post has been surprisingly difficult to write, and it's taken me the better part of three weeks to work out just why. Okay, I confess: I have little experience with tantrums.
Shocked you, haven't I? The woman works almost exclusively with toddlers, and yet claims to have little experience with the landmark event of toddlerhood. How can this be? Primarily, I believe, this is because after years of experience with tykes this age, I am extremely well-attuned to the indications that we are entering potential tantrum zone, and take evasive action before we reach full-blown tantrum stage. Additionally, it is because in the power struggles that are inevitable with a very young child, I have repeatedly established my spot in the pecking order, and we haved reached an understanding about the mutual expression of respect.
Tantrums are effectively evaded a dozen times a day. By "evaded", I do not mean appeasing, coaxing, bribing or wheedling a recalcitrant child into compliance. I mean dealing with the situation in such a way as to resolve it effectively, without screaming and aggression. (Your cries of frustration and hair-pulling included.) I realize that I should be writing about these episodes, give you an insider's view, an annotated case study, as Mim has done so well a couple of times recently. (Although it isn't titled as such, this post, for example, is a superb example of tantrum evasion.)
In part one of this series, I mused on some of the parental attitudes and principles that increase the likelihood that a child will experience tantrums. In part two, I outlined parental attitudes and principles that will reduce the likelihood of tantrums. And now I'm supposed to get "how-to", and I was having a terrible time knowing where to start. I have already written about responding to physical aggression , and about the necessity of expecting respect from your child. In the end, I have decided to focus in this post on a single aspect of tantrums, which probably causes more parental stress and humiliation than any other: screaming. And again, Mim has an extremely well-written post describing a masterful example of scream evasion.
She discusses two types of screaming, the justified indignation at being disrespectfully man-handled, and the "fuck you" scream. The latter is my focus.
So here you are, presented with a child who is screaming in sheer raging defiance. You have told them, "No screaming" to no avail. They are mad as hell, and they intend you to suffer for it. What do you do? With very young, pre-verbal, children, you physically remove them from the site, put them some place quiet and safe, and give them time to calm down, alone. It is not punishment to leave them alone: it is respect. "I trust you to calm yourself." It is also self-respect: "I will not be screamed at."
During the process of removal to quiet place, you take on the role of "benign robot". You do not respond with visible anger, feeding their emotional turmoil, nor do you soothe and reassure, rewarding the behaviour. Instead, you are as expressionless as possible. Your words, uttered in a firm and factual tone, are as simple as possible: "No screaming."
This is doubly difficult, if the tantrum is occurring in public. However, be assured that of the other grocery shoppers, many have had their moment in the sun and truly are viewing you with compassion. Of the judgmental ones, well: a) who cares?; and b) they'll be very happy to see you leave asap. It's probably the one thing you can do to earn their approval, assuming you need it. So yes, leave that grocery cart 3/4 full if need be, and take your child someplace calm and quiet. Better to resolve this now so you can shop in peace hereafter, than become a prisoner in your own home, afraid to go anywhere through fear of such outbursts.
If the child is verbally competent, in addition to the physical removal, you can use more words. Be aware, however, that too much talk is reinforcing. If you spend long minutes explaining, you are rewarding the behaviour, even if you are obviously angry or upset. Attention is attention, and we are all attention pigs. Just human nature.
However, a firm, "You may be angry, but you may not scream," is entirely appropriate. Say it once, calmly, slowly and very firmly. Pause for a moment to give the child time to soak your words in and suck it up. Repeat, in just the same manner and tone, perhaps saying the child's name first. If after two repeats they are still screaming, remove to quiet safe place and walk away. You may choose to add, with the same pause-and-repeat pattern, "When you are quiet, we will talk."
And then walk away and give them time and space to calm down. This may be the single most difficult thing for most caring parents to do. This perspective will encourage, I hope: It is not your job to calm your child, it is your child's. No one can control another's emotions. Your job is to teach your child the appropriate expression of his/her emotions. By walking away, you give your child the opportunity to learn.
When they are quiet, a quick hug and brief praise suffices. There is no need to launch into a "there, you see?", which is essentially just an "I told you so", and would annoy any self-respecting human being. Instead, a warm "Feel better now? Good for you. I knew you could do it!" is much more constructive. You have made your point, they have learned a lesson. They are reassured of your continued love and affection, and you can move on to the next thing.
If screaming jags are responded to in this way consistently, they can be eradicated from the child's behavioural vocabulary in just a few episodes. Bring on that happy day!