Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tantrums and Whining and Tattling, Oh My!

Waaaaay before I even considered having kids, I was scared of little kid tantrums. Once I saw a little kid lose his mind in the detergent aisle at the grocery store, and I was shocked! Simply shocked! How could anyone allow their kid to behave in such a manner? :p

Never mind that I had years of babysitting experience behind me, and a couple of summers working at the preschool my mom taught at. Something happened to me on the way to becoming a grownup that made me forget something I had known: sometimes, they just flip out, and there's nothing you can do to prevent it.

So when we were contemplating kids, and during the time when Ryan was on his way and getting closer to toddlerhood, I wrestled with this concern. How would I handle a tantrum? Of course, I was convinced none of my children would ever whine (hahahahahaha!), but I considered a game plan for that, too. What about tattling and arguing?

The best thing I ever did that helped me form a game plan for these common childhood issues was drink heavily read three books I've recommended in the past: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your Child The Gift Of Inner Discipline by Barbara Coloroso. Seriously great books with really good ideas. In fact, you should probably just stop reading this post and go read those books instead. (Kidding.) (Kinda.)

I'm just going to list a few of the ways we handle these issues using positive discipline techniques (many of these ideas I learned about from those books). I'm doing this partly to see what my readers think of these ideas, and partly for my own benefit. I've been having a difficult time parenting in PD mode lately (I'm very snappy and I don't like it), so I want to remind myself about some of the things that have been successful in the past. And I'd love to hear others' ideas, too. I find it so helpful to read about what other parents say in those tough, stressful moments--gives me good ideas to stick in my head for later.


When Ryan was two, I thought the outbursts he had were temper tantrums. When Ryan was three . . . I learned what tantrums truly were. :o) When Morgan was two, I knew that her short bursts of frustration or rage were merely precursors to the tantrums to come. And sure enough, she had her first real tantrums at three--although they were nowhere near the intensity or frequency of Ryan's. I think some of that has to do with temperament--Ryan is generally an intense kind of guy. But I also wonder having a mom who was a bit more experienced played a role in Morgan's relatively easier time with tantrums. We shall see as Mr. Sean approaches the tantrum stage.

Ryan's tantrum period started shortly before his third birthday and lasted pretty much until he turned four. M's phase hit later--closer to 3.5 and didn't last as long. (I think it just might be safe to say she's all done with it.) It didn't help either one of them that we had a new baby in the house just at that time either (an experience we do not intend to recreate for Sean!). Ryan had a (relatively) brief resurgence of tantrums around 4.5-5, which I think is common. In fact, if there's one thing I've learned so far as a Mommy, it's that any of these phases or stages kids go through can return to haunt you, just for fun. Even now, at 4 and 7, both kids can throw a good old-fashioned tantrum, just to show me they still can, I guess. But tantrums from either of them these days are the exception and not the rule, and are neither as intense nor lengthy as the tantrums were in days of yore.

Each of my older kids threw fits in different ways, and Sean promises to be different still. Ryan was more of a Screamer, and would rant and rave all of his feelings at the top of his voice. As he got older, he'd try to flail and hit us, but usually it seemed to be kind of an afterthought. Morgan is a Melter--she cries and sort of "melts" into a puddle of tears right wherever she happens to be, even if that happens to be in the middle of the road or the sidewalk. When she was younger, she literally couldn't move, so we'd pick her up and transport her to a safer location. Nowadays, she slinks away and hides until she feels better. It's her way.

Other kids I've known are more physical in their tantrums, needing to kick and flail or throw things or bang things repeatedly. Sean is going to be on this plan, if I'm reading him right--I think he'll be a Flailer. He's too little to throw a real tantrum yet, but he expresses anger and frustration in a very physical way even now--he throws his head back and arches his back and kicks his feet. It's really very adorable . . . for now!

How is a tantrum different from a regular old ordinary fit? I think it's the intensity. A real tantrum can last for a couple of hours, and be nonstop emotional intensity for every minute of that two hours. Now I'm not trying to scare any non-parents out there who might be reading this, but it's true. In general, my kids' tantrums didn't usually last that long--a good 45-60 minutes seemed to be the general rule. Another characteristic of a tantrum is the fact that the kid is beyond upset and so out of control that they are literally unreasonable. Sometimes if someone is upset, but still kinda reasonable, you can talk to them about the problem, brainstorm, etc. When someone is in the throes of a tantrum, the only thing you can do is help them get back in control first--only later can you work on problem-solving or dealing with the emotions of an unsolvable problem.

It's no coincidence that the tantrum stage hits around age 2.5, which is when a child is beginning to separate himself a bit more from Mom and Dad in order to pursue Independence. It's an exciting time--but it's also a bit scary for a child to begin to move away from his parents. Coloroso points out that this stage also hits at a time when the child's verbal skills aren't quite up to the task of expressing his emotions. She also points out that kids have two more tantrum stages--a minor one around the age of 5 (check for Ryan; I'll let you know in a few months about Morgan!), and of course the whole teenage/puberty thing. Again, ages and stages where the child is becoming more independent combined with the fact that child is experiencing intense emotions yet may lack the ability to express themselves verbally. It's a party, what can I say?

Another thing I learned from Coloroso (and other PD authors)--and I've found to be true with my own kids--is this little gem of wisdom: the child hates feeling so out of control and wants and needs your help to get back in control. In other words, the tantrum is no fun for anyone. The kid isn't flipping out in order to manipulate you or because he's "spoiled"--he is experiencing BIG FEELINGS and is overwhelmed by them and too immature/inexperienced to handle them all by himself.

[Note: I'm talking about younger children here--I can imagine that there may be some emotional manipulation involved sometimes in a teenager tantrum, but I can't speak about it from (parenting) experience. Coloroso writes that the same tantrum tactics work for toddlers AND teenagers. I'll let you know in about 7 years!]

In a scenario when someone is completely losing it, here are some strategies we've used successfully in the past:

Identify tantrum triggers and use that knowledge to prevent them (accepting the reality that sometimes there is really nothing that can stop an oncoming tantrum). Some obvious triggers--being tired or hungry or having a disruption in the child's routine (traveling, new baby, visitors, etc.). So don't take a hungry child to a movie theater at 9:00pm. Things like that.

Some not-so-obvious triggers: food allergies or intolerances, oncoming illness, nearing a developmental milestone. All of my People are really touchy and out-of-sorts when they are about to make a mental or physical breakthrough. You can't change this fact, but somehow knowing this makes it easier for me to remember to chill out during these stressful times and to give the child a little extra time or TLC.

Make sure they (and others and property) are safe. So remove things that might get broken, or move the child to a safer area, saying, "I know you are so upset right now, but I'm worried you'll get hurt if you're standing so close to this table. I'll take you to the middle of the room." One of the little guys next door was a Thrower. I learned to clear away all of the toys from about a 6 foot radius of him until he calmed down. Even now when he gets mad, I automatically start sweeping my eyes around the room, trying to identify which objects he might want to hurl. :o)

Help them name their emotions and let them know it's okay to feel that emotion. "You're so mad because you missed waving to Daddy." or "I understand why you're so frustrated. It's okay to be frustrated by that. I'll help you calm down and then we can try again." Realize, too, that they may not hear your words when they're caught up in the tantrum, but they will hear something--your tone of voice--and those words will come in handy during the cooling-down phase of the production, because you'll have already practiced saying them!

Reassure them that you will help them get back into control if they want. Morgan rarely wants that kind of help, but Ryan truly desired and needed it. He would generally reach a stage in the fit where he'd request (or be open to our suggestion of) a Deep Breath. Then we'd say "1, 2, 3 ...." and he'd take a Deep Breath. Lather. Rinse. Repeat as necessary (up to 1,000 times). The Deep Breath trick was so extremely helpful to him (and completely useless for Morgan). He has matured to the point where he is often able to give himself a Deep Breath--inner discipline, yay!

But continue to enforce limits. If you're in the habit of saying words to set limits (as I am), go ahead and say your words: "You're mad, but it's still not okay to hit. I'll help you hold your arms still until you're back in control of your own arms." or "I know you're upset, but that [whatever] is not for throwing; it might get broken. Here's a soft ball to throw instead [or a pillow to hit, etc.]." or "You're upset, but your screaming is disturbing to the other people here in the restaurant. Let's go outside."

However, your actions will speak louder than your words in a tantrum situation--because of course the child's screaming is pretty. darn. loud. and anything you say will not be terribly audible. So sometimes I will just pick the kid up and go outside (or hold their arms steady, etc.) and explain my reasoning for it later. Don't forget to offer alternatives--a soft ball to throw or punching pillow will help a Thrower or Hitter (or other Physical kid) express his emotions in that physical way that they really need without damaging anything important.

Try to stay calm (no matter what happens). Which, you know, is easier said than done, particularly if someone has just head-butted you in the face. (And I know whereof I speak.) Adding yelling and screaming (or hitting) to a situation already fraught with yelling and screaming and hitting is not going to do a damn thing other than infuse more stress and tension into a moment that needs less stress and tension. The focus should first be to calm everyone down. So even if someone chucks a shoe at you, it's important to try to stay calm.

If you can't stay calm, then model self-control in another way. This goes for all sorts of ugly confrontations, not just toddler temper tantrums. I'm much, MUCH better at this than I used to be. I'm able to identify when I'm feeling all caught up in things (usually by the yelling coming from my mouth, heh). So I'll say "I'm feeling too mad right now, so I'm going to the other room for a deep breath." And then I'll walk away. This is demonstrating one method self-control to the child (even when you lack enough self-control to remain completely calm).

Keep several different calming strategies in your back pocket. Because one day, your non-throwing Screamer is going to chuck something at your head. Or your Hider will want you to hold her. Or you will be watching your friend's children. Or because it's just time for a different thing. Some of the best calming ideas are things you can teach the child to use on his own--Deep Breaths, Punching a Pillow, Getting Some Space (private tantrums), etc. Another technique we used with Ryan quite a bit was the Bear Hug--sometimes his body was so outside his control, that I would wrap my arms and legs around him, firmly but not too constricting, and it would really help him relax. It's limit-setting of a physical nature--creating a physical barrier, helping him not kick and not hit until he could get a Deep Breath and do it himself.

No punishment.
If you've been following my parenting posts, this last statement will come as no surprise. There is no point to punishing a child after or during a temper tantrum. Punishing (time-outs or spankings or groundings, for example) in this instance does not address the primary issue: that the child is experiencing Big Feelings and is (probably) expressing them in an inappropriate way. Instead of punishment, keep your focus on the issues at hand--helping the child regain control over his body; identifying his emotions; working on solving the problem (or empathizing if the problem can't be fixed); keeping the child, innocent bystanders and property safe in the meantime. This is one of those times when it's really important to remember that the kid isn't throwing the tantrum to do something to you; he's just throwing the tantrum.


Don't worry, the next two sections won't be quite as long. (Whew!)

I hate hate hate hate whining. Seriously. The sound of a (my) child's whiny voice seems to resonate along my spinal cord and vibrates up to my brain and makes my head feel like it's going to explode. I'm just sayin'.

One decent strategy I've found for whining is to simply ignore it. But that's hard to do with your super persistent types [insert Morgan here] and also doesn't give the child an alternative--a tool for his toolbox, if you will. The tool we provide them is the Do Over.

Countering the Whine Machine (without, you know, Wine)
  • "I'm sorry. I couldn't understand your words because they were all covered up by whines. Can you tell me again?"
  • "When you whine at me, it makes me not want to help you out. Can you think of a way to ask me that will make me want to help you with that?"
  • "Normally I don't mind doing this, but when you ask me by whining, I feel frustrated. Can you try again?"
  • "You're whining about a problem, but you haven't told me what the problem is. If you need my help, tell me about the problem and I'll help you come up with a solution."

Honestly, the Do Over Method seems to be pretty effective so far (and of course I have to Do it Over and Over and Over, but hey, that's parenting for ya!). I honestly don't think my kids are any more whiny than their peers. But if you have other methods and techniques, then I'd sure love to hear about them! (My spine and brain will be extremely grateful.)


I think it was Barbara Coloroso who described the difference between tattling and properly providing a grownup with information he needs. The difference is in the intent. Tattling is telling when your main purpose is to get someone else in trouble (oh how well I remember that delicious feeling of getting someone else in trouble!). Providing information when someone or something could possibly be damaged or killed--that's good. Encouraged even!

Tattles (generally starting off with a whiny "Moooommmmmmm!")
  • "Ryan's looking at me with a mean face!"
  • "Morgan is dangling spit out of her mouth!"
  • "Morgan colored on herself with blue marker!"
  • "Ryan lined up his soldiers on a table near my project!" [Ed.--"near" might mean "within 100 feet of"]

News I Can Use
  • "Ryan just grabbed my shirt and won't let me go!"
  • "Morgan took apart my battlefield!"
  • "The baby crawled over my project and is ripping it up!"
  • "Morgan fell outside and is bleeding!"
  • "Ryan keeps screaming loudly in my face even though I asked him to stop!"
  • "Morgan went outside [when I wasn't aware of the fact] and is wandering around the neighbor's yard! Oh, and she's not wearing any clothes!"

Another Type of Tattling

Another type of tattling comes during a confrontation they're having. Instead of trying to express their feelings to the appropriate person and/or negotiate a solution to the problem, they tattle as a way to get me to intercede. I don't do that--or rather, I try to remember not to get involved in their arguments until and unless my intervention is warranted.

Strategies I Use (as usual, this is not an exhaustive list and I'm always looking for suggestions!)

  • "Sounds like a problem. Have you told Ryan how you feel about that?"
  • "What's something you could say to Morgan to help her understand what you want her to do?
  • "You're telling me about your problem--but it's not my problem. You need to talk to her about the problem and work on a solution together. I'll help you--but only after you two have discussed the problem."
  • "Okay." or "Hmmmm...." [followed by a return to my own personal business]
  • "This is not something I'm really interested in hearing about."
  • "Is someone hurt? Is someone going to get hurt? Is something damaged? Well, then I really don't need to hear about this."

And if they told me something I really needed to know, then I always say "Thanks for letting me know! Now I can [help Morgan/stop Sean from eating dirt/help you two work your problem out.]. I'm so happy you told me that--that was something I really needed to know because it will help keep someone (something) safe!"

If you've managed to make it all the way through this lengthy post, then thanks, and wow--the fortitude! Let's open it up to discussion--although no whining, tattling or tantrums allowed! :o)


Amy said...

Good one! I just bought a copy of How to Listen... because I had originally read a library copy and, even though I kept extensive notes, I need to re-read it.

Question: you say that tantrums are never manipulation, and I agree. But some behavior (at least from my daughter) could be called manipulation. If she wants my attention when I've told her that I need to be doing something else, she'll "get hurt" and fake-cry. Other times, she'll just pretend to be way more upset than she really is. (I can tell by the nature of what snaps her out of it. In a real tantrum, a joke will not make her giggle, etc.) I think she wants me to go into "tantrum mode" where I'm much more accomodating, and what that requires from her is escalation. Have you encountered that before?

christinemm said...

Very good post.

Another reason to tattle, favored by kids in groups is to rat a kid out in order to get them in trouble.

The worst tantrums we had were with our oldest at age 2 and 3 when he was having what I finally realized was food allergies or food sensitivities (pick the term you like best). That was like 45 minutes tops of really being crazed and unable to talk or ration with.

My kids tantrums never lasted longer than 45 minutes and were very short so long as not connected to food.

Very important IMO is naming their emotion, saying it is okay to feel that way. "You are mad because Jane grabbed your toy without asking for a turn". Empathazing helped. Then saying, "It wasn't right to rip the toy out of your hand, I'll get it back then perhaps in a few minutes you can offer it to her so she can have a turn?"

After the tantrum years the next thing is dealing with your kids when they realize other kids and adults don't live by your famiy's rules. They feel an injustice is going on, "Why does that kid get to swear?" Then there is a lot of talking and explaining. It is mental work.

Next up after that is the hormone surges, for my son, started at age 10 with puberty's onset. Then they, in surging times, can get angry quickly (never a thing he did in the past), slam doors etc. Pedi says my son is mild and I should be happy but go buy a punching bag and teach them to hit on it to get frustrations out.

Oh and when the older one is surging with hormones and seeming irrational now the younger one is suddenly more mature and saying, "What is his PROLBLEM anyway? He is overreacting." FUnny how the roles change over time...not too long ago the older one wished the younger could express self in words instead of hitting when angry.

Family Nature said...

For a while I used time outs and while I didn't really feel great about using them I didn't know what else to do!

I read Barbara Coloroso's book and started to think that time outs were really not something that I wanted to do anymore.

I think one of the big misconceptions out there is that if you're not using time outs that your kids are running rampant, completely out of control. What I wish people understood is that you can teach and guide without time outs, spanking and these types of punnishments AND you can have happy, healthy, well behaved children too. It's not one or the other.

You've given some great examples here and provided details about what to do instead of time outs -- awesome!

I also love your take on tantrums. I couldn't agree more! Kids don't like them any more than we do. As much as they can be frustrating I believe that they are a cry for help. A way that our kids tell us that they need our help when they lack other means of communicating that to us.

Great post.

Kate said...

Great suggestions! I, too, highly recommend Siblings Without Rivalry. After my daughter was born, my then 2 1/2 year old son decided to stop taking naps. So every night, around 7:30pm, my son would have a total meltdown. I clearly remember one night when all four of us were eating dinner at the dinner table (I was holding my daughter) and my son ate his dinner with tears flowing down his cheeks. Meanwhile, my husband and I passed the wine bottle back and forth and did our best to ignore it. Sometimes, your toddler is so frustrated you simply can't do anything about it but acknowledge he is upset and let him cry it out.