So the Highlander has developed some bad habits lately. He says “no” as a first response to everything. He fights. He hits. I’m not having any luck calming the tantrums. He won’t go to bed, he won’t fall asleep. He throws a fit every time I drop him off at school. We walked home from school the other day, and he cried most of the way. He says that he can’t do things that he and I both know that he can do. He won’t listen, and rule enforcement or punitive measures, such as taking away a toy, inevitably lead to tantrums.
It’s incredibly challenging, and I’m struggling with the empathic parenting thing. I’m pulled between about five emotions, being furious with him, wanting to comfort him, not wanting to validate his outbursts, confusion, and of course self-doubt.
And part of me wants to blame some of this on his school, because the school keeps changing teachers, and because all of these problems really got started with the new school, and they’ve only gotten worse. Also, he doesn’t want to go to sleep because he doesn’t want to go to school.
Of course, he’s also three, so that could be part of the problem problem right there.
When I try to teach students to problem solve, I usually give them three basic ideas to focus on. The first idea is SSP, Solve a Simpler Problem. In computer science, what that usually means is that you can’t code the whole program all at once, you have to break the program into components, break the components into components, and then start thinking about writing some code. If I applied that to my current dilemma, I would say that I have a number of problems to solve, and only some of those problems involve the Highlander.
The first is to decide how I’m going to react to tantrums. Yes, once the situation has hit tantrum, it’s gone critical, and yes, if I were a better parent, I might be able to avoid most tantrums. But I don’t think that it is realistic to think that I’m going to be able to start this process by eliminating tantrums! And it’s the simplest problem to solve, really, because it isn’t about anything but my own state.
This decision has to be made in concert with my co-parent, Grrl, which means that I had better have some evidence based thinking on my side before I come up with a proposal. Nothing annoys Grrl more than half-baked, constantly mutating position statements or fuzzy plans.
But in order to decide how to react to a tantrum, I need data. What is a tantrum? Is it an attempt to get what he wants? That wouldn’t make sense, tantrums never get him what he wants, at least not at home. I’m slipping into viewing it that way, though, which means I’m starting to revert to the oppositional style of parenting that I’m accustomed to. Some of the literature (PDF) suggests that toddler temper tantrums are expressions of outrage, not manipulation. He isn’t trying to change my behavior, he’s protesting my behavior. That actually makes a certain amount of sense.
And it also explains why there is currently a lot of focus on emotional intelligence and emotion coaching. The idea of emotion coaching is to teach a child to self-regulate their emotional responses by labeling and discussing emotional states. This is considered to be an essential life skill.
So what’s the upshot of all this reading that I’ve done while writing this blog post? What have I learned, and what am I going to suggest to Grrl? What’s my solution to the simpler problem?
Stay calm. Stop what I’m doing if I can. Talk to my kid about how he is feeling, and why.
It’s so easy to forget the simple rules when you start viewing parenting as a battlefield instead of an opportunity.