Yesterday’s controversial story about a 6-year-old girl being handcuffed for throwing a tantrum in the Principal’s office at her school made me realize that it might be time for me to open up about my own 6-year-old daughter’s struggles with being, what a very nice therapist who I sat next to on a plane recently termed, “The Explosive Child,” based on the book of the same name. The book’s subtitle is, “A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children,” and while I would never describe my daughter as “chronically inflexible” (simply because she’s not), she does get easily frustrated and sometimes becomes overwhelmed. The good news is, her frustrations never seem to get the best of her at school, where she excels academically and exhibits model behavior. The bad news is, she saves all of her sputtering and raging for me, her loving mother who is all alone at home.
Needless to say, her emotional outbursts have been a bit overwhelming for me, too, which is why I’ve refrained from blogging about them. There have been many mornings and evenings when I’ve considered taking refuge here on Babble, begging for tips from readers, asking for coping tactics and strategies to curb her crying jags, but I never wanted to do so in the wake of a tantrum, feeling like I might share too much or get too personal. But when I read about little handcuffed Salecia Johnson of Midgeville, Georgia “tearing items off the school principal’s office walls and … throwing furniture … allegedly knock(ing) over a shelf” and “trying to break a glass picture frame while jumping on a paper shredder,” I thought two things. “Thank God my daughter’s behavior is nowhere near that bad” and “Oh my goodness that poor baby needs help.”
Something I’ve learned in the three years (on and off) that I’ve been trying to soothe my daughter’s intense impulses is that children who are overtly emotional and frustrated, who experience something different than the normal tantrums of children of a certain age, don’t act out in this way willfully; they’re in need of something and don’t know how to express themselves another way. Now, I have no idea what’s going on in Johnson’s family, and I’m sure many who read her story will assume that her parents are either inept, culpable or both. I can only speak for myself (but I’m sure many others will relate) when I say that I’m confident that I give my daughter an abundance of attention and love and have, over the years, tried everything to deal with her explosive side. It’s hard not to feel as if all eyes are on you when your child is crying in the street, judging you as either overindulgent or incapable, but I assure you, I’ve tried all the Supernanny tricks. (Turns out, kids can’t hear you talking about “the naughty chair” when they’re melting down, even if you use a cute British accent.) Additionally, when you’re dealing with an older, intelligent child, the old line about just ignoring them doesn’t work. In my experience, that only fuels the fire of a child who is reaching out for help, albeit in a way that feels confrontational sometimes.
I have a lot of experience with trial and error methodology, because that’s all I’ve been able to use in trying to help my daughter calm down. None of the conventional tactics have worked (should I hold her? maybe I’ll try giving her space? should I be stern? what happens when I’m gentle?), which indicates to me that maybe I’m not dealing with a conventional problem. (It’s not normal for a child to act like the sky is falling because it was time to throw away a pajama top that is too small and smells like pee, right?) And when I say act like the sky is falling, you need to understand, these aren’t the protestations of any kid who hates to see anything of theirs thrown away. I have the sense that my daughter feels dread and anxiety surrounding instances like these, which honestly breaks my heart in half. It’s a strange thing to feel both an inordinate amount of compassion and feel put upon all at the same time. (Of course, one could argue, that sums up the whole task of parenting.) Happily, I just learned yesterday, in a glorious breakthrough moment with my daughter, that once she starts screaming, she can’t actually hear anything. I imagine it’s sort of a blackout state for her, where she can maybe see me trying to soothe her but she can’t actually process what I’m telling her. I was so relieved to know that, because it took the sting of failure away from my prior thwarted attempts to soothe her.
A complicating component here is that it’s hard to know what factors might be contributing to the behavior. Is it residual stuff from my split with her dad? Is it just her personality? Maybe she’s on the autism spectrum and is overstimulated? Are we too busy? I’m fairly certain I can rule that one out. She’s not in any activities or clubs, so she can’t be stressed. Maybe she’s bored? I don’t think so, she’s very creative and good at playing. Is it because once a week I hire a babysitter?! No, it’s because I only breastfed for two months and I didn’t use a sling. But I co-slept a lot. So it can’t be that. Maybe it’s her diet! Oh shit, my friend Clea says she needs more antioxidant smoothies in her diet. 6-year-olds like kale, right? We’re gonna have to go Paltrow and be strictly gluten-free, vegan, macrobiotic. Or is it microbiotic? Ah, shit. Well, I could at least give her some Activia. No, I know … IT’S BECAUSE SHE’S A GENIUS! She’s an eccentric artist/scientist and these tantrums are laying the foundation for her to cure AIDS and cancer. That’s it. That’s gotta be it. Whew.
Or … it could just be because she’s a kid?
I don’t know. Honestly. I still don’t know the root of my daughter’s frustrations, but for now I’ve decided to stop speculating about the cause(s) and focus on the tactics that I know work to improve her condition. Which, I feel like I should stress, isn’t all that bad. I mean, she’s an incredible child. Her emotionally charged moments are intense while they’re happening, but they don’t happen every second of the day. Thankfully my daughter’s whip-smart sense of humor, her sweet charm and her beautiful face compensate for the difficult bits. But those bits reveal themselves what does feel like once or twice a day, almost every day, which, I will admit, is exhausting. Because, as I said, she saves them for me, which I know shows that she trusts me enough to meltdown in my arms (hooray?). I’ve learned over time, though, that my ability to not take these moments personally and to not internalize her emotions makes a huge difference in how I feel about them, as well as how long they last. Or so it seems.
All that being said, if you’re dealing with similar issues at home and you feel like you’ve tried everything, you’re at your wits end, you feel like your kid must be too old for this sort of thing and that you must be doing something wrong to cause his/her behavior but you’ve honestly assessed your parenting skills and you can’t imagine what it might be, if your therapist has told you you’re being too hard on yourself and that you need to stop feeling like you have to overcompensate for the way your mother raised you (ahem), you are not alone. I’m right here with you, and I’m happy to tell you this is what has worked for me. These tactics may sound silly or in some cases obvious, but if you’ve got an emotional child on your hands, I think you’ll understand why they’ll work and why a methodical approach is important.
When my daughter starts crying, and especially if she’s sort of whimpering, sulking or whining, I’ve learned that tickling is a great way to veer her away from negative emotional territory. Sometimes she’ll stop laughing and try to revert right back to being pouty or complaining, but then I’ll just keep tickling her until I can get her focused enough to have a more normal conversation.
I think most of us who’ve dealt with these types of issues with our children know that sleep deprivation and hunger are enemies of good behavior (that’s true for any child of course), but what I didn’t realize until recently is just *how* hungry my daughter actually is all the time. The kid basically wants to eat constantly, and I provide her snacks as frequently as I can now, because she’s not at all fat, and so maybe an extremely high metabolism is partially to blame. I try to buy lots of handy food like crackers, apples, mandarins or tangerines (she loves those because they’re tiny and peeling them is fun), almonds, cheese sticks, etc. Nothing sugary, obviously.
Singing is a great distraction technique, like tickling. Be careful how you use it, though. Before I really figured out how to use it effectively with my daughter, singing or talking in a funny voice made her feel like I was mocking her. Now I use it when I’m brushing her hair, for example. That’s helped the act of getting ready in the morning go from one that was all no’s, ow’s and tears to one of gadgets and gizmos aplenty, whosits and whatsits galore.
Sleep and Bedtime Routine
Unlike me, my daughter loves routine and repetition. (That’s another one that’s true for all kids, of course.) Our bedtime routine is pretty simple in that we read a book and sing some songs, but I’ve discovered that on nights when I ask for a pass on one of the two parts because I’m tired, that throws her off, which can cause emotional distress. My initial reaction to that was that it’s sort of unfair that I don’t get to be human and fall short sometimes, but I’ve learned that I’d rather push through and do both, ensuring a smooth bedtime than deal with the consequences. Again, I want to stress that this is not what you might call a “normal” tantrum where a kid is just whining to get what they want. She literally can’t fall asleep properly and experiences true distress. Trust me, it took me a while to feel like I wasn’t just being played by a tiny tyrant. I understand there’s a difference, and it’s about security for her, which is precisely what I want to provide.
Planning Ahead and Verbally Agreeing to Avoid Tantrums
Lately I’ve been talking to my daughter in advance of a time I think she’s likely to get frustrated or nervous and asking her to agree with me to stay calm. For example, in the morning, right when we get up, I explain step-by-step what we’ll be doing (we’re going to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, I’m going to comb your hair and then we’re going to go) and say, “You can stay calm during all of that, right?” That gives her an opportunity to remind me of something special that she might otherwise throw a tantrum about later (today is ice cream day at school, can I have a dollar to bring?). Plus I think it reassures her that time isn’t chaotic, there’s a plan in place and someone (me) is in charge. It takes the pressure off. I’m not sure why just doing the tasks without spelling them out first makes her feel pressured, but it is what it is. I’m not here to judge, just help.
Addressing the Behavior While It’s Not Happening
In the heat of the moment it can be so hard to know how to react to a child who cannot handle their emotions or who doesn’t know how to stay calm and express themselves. I don’t always do it right. I can stay calm for about five minutes, but if I get pushed too far, I’ve definitely yelled back or cried myself. I’ve learned to try to calm her down as best as I can by hugging her, distracting her, clearly communicating about what needs to happen, reassuring her that everything is okay and yes, bargaining. (For example: if you can stay calm and do a, b, c later we can x, y, z.) Then a few hours later I can discuss with her what happened and how we can avoid having that happen again.
I’m adding this to the list because I want you to know it’s out there, but I can’t give you much feedback on how well it’s worked so far because we just started. I’m hopeful that play therapy will encourage my daughter to express her frustrations in a relaxed and positive way, using words and not just emotional grunts. She loves role play and art, the two main therapeutic tools, so I think it should be a great experience for her.
Photo via iStock.