Dealing with Terrible Tantrums

Recently my 2 1/2 year old son, Joss, went through a 10-day marathon of uber-tantrums.

Night and day, out of the blue tantrums terrorized us all. The worst were in the middle of the night, where I feel most unprepared to cope with a screaming child. Here is this little person throwing everything out of his bed — while kicking, flailing, screaming his head off.

I’m sorry, but having the ass of beanbag duckie hit me in the face — no matter how plush it might be — triggers my own anger and frustration, making me ready for a tantrum of my own. Not a good place to be (for either of us).

There are hundreds of articles about this subject online, including 121 on FamilyEducation.com’s Tantrum page. So I’ll spare you a rehashing of the same old stuff. Since my son has not taken to throwing refrigerators (yet), I’m sure the sound advice on a trusted Web link will suffice.

Instead, I’d like to take the discussion to another level and question the very essence of a tantrum, and our role in them…

FamilyEducation.com’s article Taming Toddler Tantrums, raises some good points that I’d like to use as a springboard:

1) “Parents of toddlers need to keep one thing in mind when their child begins to have a tantrum: Your child can not help it
2)
“When her [your child’s] frustration builds to a certain level, your toddler literally loses control.”
3) “If it’s frightening for you to see your toddler possessed by the demon of tantrum, think how she must feel.”

After reading this article I was reminded that my little boy is depending on me to set an example by keeping control of myself — but more importantly to take care of him.

There have been times where I’ve let him down. My results have been inconsistent — sometimes reacting with compassion and patience, other times losing my temper, being gruff and yelling (learn more about the adverse affects of yelling at kids here).

My worst moments happen when I’m tired and overwhelmed, which sounds a lot like how Joss is probably feeling when he’s having his worst moments. If I’m having trouble (and I’m a somewhat mature 40 year old), how hard must it be for him?

Simply put, it does not matter how tired I am, how stressed, etc. I’m supposed to be a grown up. This is my son’s life on the line! These are defining moments that will either help or hinder him for decades to come. This is serious stuff! Yes, kids are resilient. But they’re also sponges, delicate and in need of the tools required for a healthy life.

This is not “oh you’re doing your best, don’t beat yourself up” stuff. This is “you better get your shit together, or you might rob your son of his potential.”

Some may say that I am being too hard on myself, that I should give myself a break. I say that without a constant desire, coupled with taking the necessary actions to improve — how is that my best? My goal is to keep both of my sons’ potential intact, AND help it grow. If the mechanic fixed your car and then it blew up as you drove away, would he be told, “it’s OK, you did your best…” I don’t think so.

Sometimes our best sucks.

And that’s OK as long as we’re willing to do something about it and take responsibility for ourselves.

Switching gears (no car analogy intended):
The more I think about point #1 listed above: “Parents of toddlers need to keep one thing in mind when their child begins to have a tantrum: Your child can not help it,” the more I wonder if it’s completely true that the toddler can not help it. Because sometimes when Joss has a tantrum, I offer a consequence (like taking away a toy, or “no cookie for dessert unless you stop”) — and he stops. Within 5 seconds, he’s done. He can be reasoned with — sometimes.

Is there a tantrum threshold? A point of no return where reason is just too UN-reasonable for my little boy? If so, what am I missing? Because I can’t seem to tell the difference between the tantrum that can be reasoned with vs. the tantrum that has no chance of being reasoned with.

It could be that my limbic system (in the brain) is being “held hostage” by what it is interpreting as beratement, verbal violence, or something to that nature. Come to think of it, beanbag duckies’ ass hitting my face does feel like physical abuse. I find it very hard to detach myself emotionally from the tantrum. It’s like turning a 100-watt stereo up to full power and standing 6″ away from your premium subwoofer. As the beat rattles your bones and prepares to shatter your eardrums, how can one be expected to say, “dude that’s just really loud. It’s OK though, I won’t let it bother me…”

(NOTE: Joss’ tantrums coincided with a cold he was suffering from. Since he’s feeling better and getting more sleep, they’ve subsided — thank the Universe. The correlation is clear between the cold and the tantrums, and that’s something to keep in mind for the future.)

And remember, you are not alone…

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No Small Consequence: Our Children’s Future

Years ago, it was common practice for parents to physically reprimand their children when they “misbehaved.” Spanking, hitting and far worse occured with regularity, and seemed to be the norm.

Although there is still a percentage of the world that hits their kids (which I don’t agree with), there is an increasing percentage of parents who do not discipline their kids at all (which I do not agree with). 

So if we want to help our children learn, but we don’t want to use violence to “teach them,” what’s a dad to do? What other ways of discipline are there?

Yelling? Nope. Been there, done that. It sucked…
Click here for research and details as to why yelling at our kids is an inferior form of discipline. As a matter of fact, it can permenantly damage their brains!

What we can do is offer consequences. Large or small, consequences can be handed out with the calmest of voices, without any physical abuse. I’ve found that as long as I follow through with whatever consequence I offer, it is incredibly effective. It also helps my kids learn to be responsible for their actions.

If we don’t teach our kids to act in acceptable ways through some type of discipline, what kind of adults will they grow up to be? And if we spank or beat the crap out of them, well, what are we really teaching them?

I see too many parents letting their kids do whatever the hell they want. The kids run the show. Until recently, I often found myself in the role of the typical pushover dad   making idle threats about consequences I never followed through on. Saying things like, “stop it… stop it or there’s no more TV for the rest of the day… I said stop it or there’s no more TV!” Of course, I never turned off the television and the behavior I was trying to stop continued until I would yell.

Not how I wanted to handle things.

Frustrated, I wrote two posts: How to Retrain t he Reactive Brain, Part 1 & Part 2, and in the process discovered that offering & following through on consequences seemed like the most effective, least harmful form of discipline for me to practice.

Last week my wife and I received a letter from my son Max’s (4.5 years old) teachers. He’s been acting out in preschool, yelling at them when they tell him to come to circle time. Max has also taken to raising his voice at us at home.

We do not allow him to raise his voice at us. We use consequences, coupled with discussion (when things calm down), to help him modify his behavior. Of course, yelling at his teachers is unacceptable too, so we let him know there will (and have already been) consequences for this negative behavior.

But it’s a fine line, because I want to procure Max’s independence. I want him to grow up believing in himself, that his opinion matters. Because it does. On the other hand, he needs to learn that yelling is NOT the way to express himself.

But I can’t put it all on Max. I am partially (possibly to a large degree) to blame for his behavior. Although I am constantly working on not yelling (see Stop Yelling Daddy! Part 1 & Part 2), both my boys have seen and heard me do yell. Like it or not, I’ve set a poor example.

We need to treat our kids with respect if we’d like them to be respectful people. We need to listen to them if we expect them to learn how to listen. We need to guide them in ways that do not damage them or riddle them with baggage that they may wind up carrying around through adulthood.

We’ve got to walk a tightrope, giving them space to shape themselves while shaping their space so it’s a positive environment.

And remember, you are not alone…

How to Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2

In part one of this series, I wrote about how being yelled at as a boy has affected how my brain processes information  causing me to react a certain way during stressful situations with my own kids. 

In short, sometimes I yell. 

Since being yelled at physically damages kids brains (see Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2), my goal has been to find more productive, less damaging alternatives to deal with my boys when one (or both) of them refuses to listen, has a tantrum, starts bossing me around, or is exhibiting some other type of undesirable behavior.

But my brain is hardwired to react a certain way (in part because I was yelled at as a kid), so it has not been easy.

My goal is to retrain my brain  to turn it off autopilot. Here’s an update about what I’ve been doing, and discovering, the past two weeks…

(1) Breathing.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but when the kids start acting out I forget to breathe. I have found this is the catalyst to losing my cool. I have had to force myself to take a moment and breathe before I react. I’ve been taking a step back from the culprit, and turning slightly away. This gives me a moment to think.

(2) Use Consequences Instead of Yelling.
This has been a major breakthrough for me. I do feel that sometimes I’m lacking compassion as I offer up a consequence when the kids are not listening. I do not like the feeling of being an authoritarian, but how else can I teach the boys when they’re acting out? Consequences certainly feel (and work) better than yelling. And hitting is just out of the question.

There needs to be some type of negative consequence.

Following through has been the key. I saw a positive change in Max, 4, right away. His refusing to go to bed disappeared once he realized I was serious about no Speed Racer cartoons the next day. Literally overnight, he became more cooperative. 

Unfortunately my son Joss, 2, seems unfazed by any of this. Luckily he does respond to redirection. 

Positive consequences.
The flip side of this is that there needs to be “positive consequences” when the boys do listen, when they are being good kids. Whether we simply thank them, hug them, give them a special surprise like their favorite dinner or a new toy  acknowledging the positive is essential.

The idea is not to make the boys feel bad about themselves. The idea is to help them learn.

What worries me is that my sons are stopping an unwanted behavior because of the repercussions, not because they understand why the behavior is undesirable. Yes, they’re learning to be more accountable for their actions. But I prefer that they also learn WHY they are being punished  I want to go beyond the consequence.

They need to learn that the consequence is a result of a behavior that was negative. They also need to understand why the behavior is considered negative to begin with.

Often, once things settle down we have a brief discussion to help them understand. When we talk, I try to be calm, clear and compassionate.

Never call your child “bad.”
I try very hard not to direct the word “bad” towards my boys. When I talk to them, they need to know bad behavior does not make them bad. The behavior itself is what is bad, not them. We used to call Joss a “bad boy,” when he misbehaved until we realized this was attaching the word “bad” to him instead of what he was doing. 

Is he bad? Or is his behavior bad?

This needs to be clear to all involved, otherwise we’re perpetuating a poor self image, which will produce more “bad” behavior. We want to help our kids be true to themselves, not disable them with negative baggage.

(3) Letting go of the need for control.
It is sometimes difficult for me to separate my need to control from my need to be a compassionate father & teacher. Sometimes, my kids just need to be heard. Sometimes I need to let them have a minute to be upset. Emotions are part of life and I need to respect that.

If they’re out of control, a consequence may be the short-term answer to make them stop. But I need to do a better job in being understanding and compassionate BEFORE things get out of control.

And remember, you are not alone…

Related links:
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 1
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 1
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 2
An Interview with Mark Brady, Part 3


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How to Retrain the Reactive Brain (Part 1)

As a parent, I am “doing my best” every minute of every day to raise my kids in the healthiest possible way. But is doing my best enough?

I believe my parents did their best. I don’t know how you feel about yours, but I’m not completely happy with the job mine did. Although I don’t hold a grudge, there are some things I can not ignore.

If yelling at our kids physically damages their brains (see Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2 for details), specifically the frontal cortex where higher-order functions and “executive-creative” exist, the same is true for our brains.

Every time we were yelled at, humiliated or shamed, neurons in our frontal lobe were either killed or primed for pruning. At the same time neurons in the limbic systems developed more fully (this is the “fight or flight” part of our brain).

The other night I was thinking about my dad. He yelled a lot. He seemed to call me an asshole at every opportunity he could find. I have chosen to take responsibility for my life and let go of his poor parenting (as best I can). But his actions permanently altered my brain in a negative way.

I DO NOT WANT TO DO THIS TO MY KIDS!

For the record, my father never had a dad. He died when my father was two. So there was no positive male role model in my dad’s life, no one to help him grow up into a man.
Inadvertently, my father’s shortcomings have given me the tools to be a better dad. My childhood experiences have empowered me to avoid most of the pitfalls my dad couldn’t avoid. Even though his example was not always a good one, at least I had a dad. He gave me a “baseline” that helped me decide what kind of man and dad I wanted to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t yell that much. And I don’t call my kids assholes, or other humiliating things. But I don’t want to yell at them at all. Once a week is too much in my opinion.

The other night, it suddenly dawned on me. When one (or both) of my kids has a tantrum, fails to listen, carries out an undesired action (like whacking a family member in the head with a metal car) the way my brain is wired is what causes me to react by raising my voice, getting upset and trying to control the situation.

In an instant, my unconscious reacts, and it is directly wired into my limbic “fight or flight” response.

This has been, by far, the greatest shortcoming I have had as a dad. It causes me great emotional pain because I feel I am failing my children and myself when I start to yell.

The thing I realized is, no matter how much I consciously desire changing my behavior it doesn’t really matter. Why? Because the fact is my brain is “physically wired” a certain way. So the reaction I have is not an easy thing to change. My conscious mind is not fast enough to circumvent the unconscious reaction.

I’ve heard all types of good advice like “breathe,” or “walk away.” But once my limbic system has kicked in, I sometimes forget all of this. It’s like I’m on autopilot, or having an out of body experience.

How can we expect a different reaction when we’ve been using the same neurological pathways for so many years? For starters, we need to give our subconscious a choice.

So, how do we retrain our brains? Here’s the immediate plan:

– Divert the negative energy of a situation with movement. If I’m not a stationary target, maybe I won’t feel so attacked

– Work on inserting a new reaction into my subconscious, asking the question: what is my kid trying to tell me? I’m hoping gaining insight, instead of trying to gain control might be a better choice

– This one might be the most important: remember that my kids are not trying to hassle me or give me a hard time (although it might feel like they are). They’re two & four years old, and what they’re doing is normal toddler behavior!

I’ll report back soon to share how it goes.

And remember, you are not alone…

Related links:

How To Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 1
Stop Yelling Daddy, Part 2


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Stop Yelling Daddy!

No matter how hard I try, no matter how mindful I attempt to be I sometimes find myself yelling at one or both of my kids. It never lasts very long and it’s always after an extended amount of crying, screaming, food throwing or obsessive-compulsive behavior that rivals Mr. Monk’s (from the USA TV show).

It seems that I can not get through a weekend without yelling about something. And this weekend was no exception.

It was our 11-year anniversary. The babysitter cancelled on us, so instead of a romantic adult dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, we settled for a family outing at Quaker Steak & Lube. As the name suggests, this is not your ordinary “anniversary dinner.” At least not for us.

Max, 4, began a tirade of wanting more macaroni and cheese WAY before he was done eating what he had in front of him. Relentless, he continued to repeat his desire for more. I tried many ways of reasoning with him to stop. Since his brother Joss, almost 2, was flinging his mac & cheese off his plate, I deftly gave some to Max who ate it and stopped complaining. OK, that wasn’t so hard.

Now Joss starts screaming. Not because I gave his brother some of his food, but because he’s done. He’s ready to go. NOW. My wife has barely eaten & my beer is far from finished. We do our best to eat what we can. I realize this situation is a great way to help people lose weight. Under this type of stress, one simply does not have an appetite!

On the way to the car…

Everything has calmed down. I’ve managed to hold it together until I try to put Joss in the car. He grabs onto the metal rods holding up the passenger side headrest. He clutches them with the will and the strength of a gorilla who’s really hungry for the very last banana (or the most desirable mate).

Now he’s just trying to tell me (in his 2 year old way), “hey dad, listen, sorry but I’m not ready to get in my car seat yet. Maybe you could give me a minute…” But I’m not hearing him. I just want him to sit in the car seat!

I finally pry his fingers off the headrest and get him in the seat. He’s screaming and fighting me and then he kicks me in the face (not intentional)!

That was it. I saw red. I lost it. I started screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the Quaker Steak & Lube parking lot about how he was “being a bad boy. BAD BOY! Stop it! Stop it now!”

Another weekend tainted. Another chance at setting a good example lost. It doesn’t matter (at least not at that moment) that I set hundreds of good examples for my boys every week. This is simply not a habit I am proud of, it’s not who I want to be. My father yelled alot when I was a kid (big surprise there), and now I am teaching my kids the same thing. And I can’t seem to stop.

The whole incident may have lasted 20 seconds, but three days later I am still ashamed & incredibly disappointed with myself. It’s not that my son’s behavior was acceptable. It wasn’t. But he’s not even two.

The problem is that my behavior is unacceptable at any age.

I’ve given this much thought, because I realize “trying harder” to stay calm is not the answer. It won’t work unless I address the underlying factors that are causing me to be so volatile. Joss’ behavior was only the catalyst.

The real problem is my frustration. I’m tired & overwhelmed. My wife has diabetes and gallbladder problems, and I’m scared of losing her. I miss my boys all day while I’m at work. And although I am very happy to have a good job, it is quite often VERY FRUSTRATING! We’re 800 miles from everyone we know, everyone we can depend on for help. We are alone out here in Wisconsin. Money always seems to be an issue, and there’s a ton of stuff to do in order to maintain our home. And the pizza sucks!

Hey, I know most (if not all) parents have this same amount of stress. I’m not saying my case is special. But I’m having trouble finding a solution.

If anybody has any suggestions, please feel free to share them.

And remember, you are not alone…

Related posts:
Stop Yelling Daddy! (Part 2)

How to Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 1

How to Retrain the Reactive Brain, Part 2

An Interview with Mark Brady: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Equal Rights for Kids. Part 2: Don’t Hit!

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