Thursday, March 6, 2014

What To Do When Your Child Has A Tantrum

Your child is melting down, having a tantrum, or has lost control of their emotions.  What do you do?  Many autism therapies will tell you that this is a moment to exert your authority.  They say you should not give in to your child, that you shouldn't reward the tantrum, that you shouldn't give attention to your child for the tantrum.  The problem is that these therapies view a tantrum as a child trying to manipulate an adult into getting what they want.

How would that make us feel?  All of us need help in relationships.  We have times when we get angry and lose it.  We have times when we are frustrated to the point of boiling.  We get so sad the tears threaten.  We aren't trying to manipulate our partner.  Our feelings are real and valid.  We aren't trying to win a battle.  Our perspective on what's happening, what's going wrong, what's missing is valid.  So when we view a child's tantrum or meltdown as manipulation, it sets us up for conflict.

A tantrum, meltdown, or loss of control means something is not working - the relationship, the connection, the communication - something.  Our emotions have filled up and spilled over the edges, exceeding our ability to communicate or to come up with solutions.

The tantrum itself is not the problem.  Your job is not to stop or prevent tantrums, any more than it's your partner's job to stop or prevent your upsets.  That would feel pretty manipulative itself.  Our child is telling us to pay attention to the relationship.  They're breaking down because they need to re-connect with you.  They need your help.

So here are steps to take during your child's tantrum:

1. Keep Everyone Safe

Allowing your child to communicate their frustrations doesn't mean free reign to hurt themselves or others.  Make sure you are in a safe space that isn't a safety risk like a street, parking lot, or edge of a cliff. (Hey, it's happened.)

When your child is getting close to hurting others or themselves, use what I call the "angel of futility/angel of compassion" method (I learned this from Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté's book Hold On To Your Kids.)  You come in as the angel of compassion, saying "You're upset, I can see how angry you are."  Then we present the angel of futility, "But I'm sorry. It's my job to keep everyone safe.  That's what parents do. I'm the parent. I have to keep you safe. I know that's frustrating."  Balance compassion with safety very calmly.

2. Keep Calm 

If you feel upset by your child's tantrum, give yourself a minute.  It's okay to feel those feelings. We all feel hurt and startled by anger directed at us.  Acknowledge your feeling - Hello, my old friend, anger, or sadness, confusion, or hurt.  Then do some breathing.  Breathing in, I am water.  Breathing out, I feel calm. Or mountain/solid, rock/strong, tree/steady, whatever works best for you. 

Rather than seeing an angry, manipulative tantrum in front of you, see that scared child inside who needs your help and is overwhelmed.  See the frightened child who is asking you, Am I Safe?, Do You Like Me?, Can We Re-Connect? Those are the questions that are behind a tantrum.  

3. Let Them Vent

Our children need to get those feelings out.  If we try to get them to stop expressing those emotions, they bottle them up. But eventually, they'll leak out somewhere - in misbehavior, in shutting down, or worse.  We can help them vent safely.  Allow them to hit pillows, stuffed animals, a punching bag.  Tell them it's okay to yell at us or a stuffed animal instead of at siblings or friends.  Give them an outlet.

4. Provide Compassion

Let them know their emotions are valid and that they are okay.  If all you do is say I hear you, I get it, I understand - even if you don't understand exactly why they're upset - they will feel heard.  That's as important to our children as it is to us.  We don't want to invalidate their feelings, which we do inadvertently when we try to help.  Like telling them it's no big deal or that they shouldn't be upset.  Just like we want our partner to hear us out and to understand us, our children need us to hear them, really hear them.

5. Re-Connect

After your child has expressed their frustration, get into re-connection mode.  That's what this upset is about - always.  Your child feels frustrated by something: a missed communication, a misunderstanding, a lack of connection.  Now's the time to repair and reconnect.  You'll have to experiment with what works for them.  Get them to a comfy spot that they like:  the bed, a crash pillow, a blanket fort.  Then play variations of peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, I'm gonna get you.  Help, I'm falling off the bed is a favorite in my house, when we pretend we're falling off and the other person needs to pull us back up from the edge.  Do you see the metaphor in all these games?  I am lost and you find me?  I feel disconnection and you reconnect with me?  That's the importance of what seems like silly, babyish games, but are very important for our kids.  It can be very sophisticated games of reconnection involving characters and themes and plots.  Or they can be simple - I'm over here apart from you, now I'm close and reconnected.  I'm over here, now I'm close.  It's as simple as that.

Don't be persuaded by strategies that turn tantrums into manipulation, that turn relationships into power struggles.  Think about how you'd feel if someone tried that method on you.  And think about how our children struggle to maintain their sense of safety and connection in a world that overwhelms them.  Think about how much energy they expend just getting through their day.  And think about that scared little kid inside (no matter how big they are) who is asking, Am I Safe?  Do You Like Me?

Monday, March 3, 2014

I Wish I Would Have Been Happier

As parents, we spend so much time worrying.  We worry about our children and how they're doing in school.  If they have friends or are being bullied.  Whether they will be able to live independently. If they'll hold down a job.  Will they ever find love?

We worry about ourselves, too.  When our families don't recognize how difficult it is, we are not good enough.  When someone looks at us side eye in the supermarket, we are unworthy.  When our partners don't agree with us, we are unloved and unloveable.  When professionals argue with us, we are incompetent.  When we stay at home with our children, we've lost our value.  When we work full-time, we are uncaring parents. 

We have so much to beat ourselves up about.  We spend our lives in fear.  And then we turn around, ten years, fifteen, twenty years have gone by.  And we've spent our whole lives constricted, afraid, boxed in by what people think.  We are afraid to laugh, afraid to change, afraid to let go of the fear. 

We think if we let go of the fear, we let go of helping our children. 

"I wish I'd let myself be happier." This is the regret that many people express at the end of their lives.  I wish I didn't worry about what other people think or what I "should" be doing.  I wish I didn't spend so much of my life in fear, did what I could, and let go of the weight of all that worry. 

What's the best way to help our children?  Our relationship with them is the single most important factor in their lives.  How can we help them relax, let go of their fears, connect with people, laugh, and truly enjoy their lives no matter what happens ... when we can't do that? 

Can you let go of fear, knowing that feeling fear does not help you control outcomes?  Can you let go of worry, knowing that you could spend your life unhappy and it didn't help?  Did you consciously choose to spend your life unhappy or have you slipped into it - because you're parenting, because life is intense, because you think you needed to?   

Know that you are better without the fear, without the worries, without the anxiety of where you should be, of where your child should be, of what your life should look like.  Know that you are better for yourself and your child when you let yourself be happier. 

Find out again who you are, what you enjoy, what brings laughter into your life.  This is what we need for ourselves.  This is what our children need.  That charismatic, joyful spark between the two of you - when you let go of the fears and judgments, when you chase the laughter - that is what builds the lifetime foundation for both of you.

Don't let another year pass by that will cause you to say, "I wish I would have been happier."

Thursday, February 27, 2014

What Do Meltdowns Look Like?

What do meltdowns look like?

1. All Kinds of Emotions
Most of the time we think a meltdown looks like crying, falling to the floor, and screaming. That's true of some meltdowns, but not all. Some meltdowns look like aggression - flailing, hitting out, throwing, pushing away, hitting themselves. Some meltdowns look like giddiness - laughing, running around, giggling, throwing, doing something they know they shouldn't. They may look like naughtiness, but the child can't stop themselves. Some look like yelling and anger. Some meltdowns look like withdrawals - silence, looking away, ignoring. The child may wait until they're at home or with their parent before they can release this kind of meltdown. If they can't release it, the withdrawal may continue until shutdown. If the child stops acting out, we may think that's good, but it may be worse - shutdown and giving up.

2. Look For Clues
If your child melts down, the issue is not as simple as the behaviors ("your child hit another child."). We need to look at all the details. What environment, what time, what demands were being placed on the child, who was involved before, during, and after, what the sensory input was going on, what happened earlier in the day. There may be clues to what triggered the meltdown.

3. Adjust the Relationship
But it always comes down to the relationships.  Relationships are the comfort zone where we allow and accept all emotions, supporting the child through the expression and working through them.  Often the child's behavior is letting us know that the relationship needs re-connection and repair.  For example, a child who melts down at school may be overwhelmed by all the input and processing. But it's likely that there's too much direction and correction going on and not enough connection.   Parents need to understand this, but so do the other people in our children's lives.

4. Recovery within a Relationship is Key
When meltdowns happen, whatever their form and even if they happen in school, the child needs recovery time. They need someone they trust who can calm and comfort them. After calming down, they need some play to remind them that they are okay, they are loved and loveable. No one likes that feeling of vulnerability after losing control, especially our children, especially in public or in front of others. They should not be isolated and alone after a meltdown, no matter what their behavior involved, or as punishment. They need help and support, even if it's someone calmly, compassionately, non-judgmentally sitting with them. They need our calm and trust in them, that they are okay and that the relationship is okay.