Posted by: philosodad | May 9, 2010

Is it the school, or me?

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.

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Responses

  1. I have to ask – what on earth is a 3-year-old doing going to school in the first place? Where I live, no child goes to school before 5 or 6.

    • I’m sure that wherever you live, you have day care. A school is just a daycare center with a curriculum and a schedule.

    • If you live outside of the US, then you also have really nice maternity leave. Pre-school in America usually starts at ages 3 and 4.

  2. I’m not at the preschool point yet with my son, but I’m already finding the advice of “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” (http://tinyurl.com/2b5ywdg) valuable in defusing/shortening tantrums.

  3. You should schedule a meeting with the teacher. I bet you’d be surprised at the Highlander’s good behavior at school. I’ve read recently that kids tend to save their tantrums for parents.

    Are you sure that empathy and emotional intelligence works for kids that young? I haven’t had any luck with happiness habits for my young one either. Lately, I’m finding that diversionary tactics work better. “Oh, you don’t want to go to school? Well, look at this piece of aluminum foil.” Something like that.

    • Besides a little bit of pushing, he is a little angel at school. But that doesn’t mean he likes the school, it just means that he’s working harder to maintain his emotional control at school. I’ve actually posted on this before.

      There have been studies that show that toddlers exhibit greater emotional intelligence if their parents use emotion coaching techniques. I’m not sure that this is the best approach, but it’s an approach. And since nothing else is working either, it’s the best approach I’ve got at the moment.

      This morning, it worked pretty well. Highlander didn’t want to get up, and he started his first tantrum of the day in bed. I asked him if he was angry about waking up, and he stopped throwing a fit and told me he was still tired.

      We agreed that he needed to get more sleep, and that we’d work on getting to bed earlier. I defused three tantrums this morning just by not getting upset and asking him what his feelings were.

      He was not, by the way, disappointed or sad that his spider man shirt was in the washer. He was mad. Very, very mad. But he got over it once we were talking about it.

      I think the real key is there, don’t get upset. Whether you’re distracting the toddler or emotion coaching or whatever, remaining calm is the first step.

  4. Diversionary tactics mostly work pretty well, especially at that age. I’ve almost never been able to simply talk down my oldest son (he’s almost 6 now, and he spent a good deal of the last several years in one state of tantrum or another), but he can usually be distracted long enough to get him to calm down. Usually he’s upset about something unrelated.

    That said, it sounds like the emotional coaching thing can work as well, but I doubt it works for every situation.

    I guess the basic rules for dealing with kids parallel some other basic rules we may have come across: Remain calm, and don’t forget your towel.

  5. My take:

    1. He’s 3 — trying out new skills, frustrated when his needs & wants swamps his language skills or coping skills. I found the Gesell Institute books really helpful in generally understanding my children’s cognitive and emotional growth. I also really liked Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Toddler on the Block” point of view. He has some great advice on how to do empathy effectively for the very young. I wonder if you may be using more words than he can process.

    2. School — I think your perception that he saves up emotional explosions for home may be spot-on.

    3. I strongly recommend the parenting approach taught by Love & Logic. It’s practical and doable. “Hand back the problem to the child with empathy.” They’ve got some good insights on tantrum-defusing.

    • I was skeptical of that “Happiest Toddler on the Block” book. The caveman theory seems like an interesting framework, but it’s a little hung up on it’s own premise.

  6. My own experience with tantrums: they are what happens when children are unable to deal with intense emotions. When my 2-year-old starts banging his head on the ground, I do two things. I label the emotion and I remove him from harm. The expectation is he will be able to handle his emotions when he is older. For now, he needs my help.

  7. My daughter is also 3. The tantrums have ramped up recently and among many friends whose children are the same age, but not at the same school or even in the same city, the reports are the same. INcreasingly she seems to need to stomp off to her room and throw things before calming down. When you figure out the way to deal with what appears to be perfectly normal, but utterly frustrating behavior and how to help guide them please let me know.

  8. My son hasn’t hit true tantrum age yet (he’s only 13 months), but everything I’ve read supports the emotional coaching technique and the idea that children can’t verbally express complex emotions and feelings and therefore meltdown, and that anything parents can do to help the child express their emotions and feelings is helpful. Also, and I’ve already seen this in my son, is that anything that reminds a child of their own powerless-ness causes meltdown, and anything that empowers the child is also helpful.

  9. Well, my child isn’t in school and this:

    “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.”

    Is our life.

    Of course, our children could be being damaged irreparably by distinct but converging causes. However, most likely it’s the age.

    I HATED “Happiest Toddler on the Block”. I wrote a scathing review on Amazon. If you feel self-doubt, do not read it. Just… don’t. Ugh. If you must look up the tools on the Internet. The author is smart but God help me it’s a self-help book and full of bull and… I will just stop there.

  10. Hitting and saying no are pretty typical I would think… other than that, maybe he’s not ready for “school” and is trying to tell you something. It wont hurt him to wait another year or two.

    • Daycare or School is just not optional for us as a family.

  11. I usually go talk to the pediatrician on tthese things too…

  12. Your child is normal. Just hang in there, be a decent parent and it will pass. My daughter who is introverted and shy cried every single time we dropped her off at the toddler program. After that it was crying and sadness for a year and a half of preschool. So a full two and half years of dropping off a kid that would cry “don’t go” then shut down emotionally for the next half hour and sit of in a corner away from the other kids. But, when we picked her up she was all smiles and in no hurry to leave. So it was the transition and not the experience of school itself that was the problem. When she went to kindergarden is was only one week of crying and please of “don’t go” before she got adjusted. She just finished first grade and now she’s stoked about going to school. So I feel your pain and just keep in mind that someday your kid will stop freaking out.

    As for tantrums, my daughter had really intense ones for a good three years. I’d wrestle her to the ground and just kind of keep her under control until she got worn out (usually five to ten minutes but occasionally fifteen or twenty). It was sort of the way a mother dog plays with her puppy. Then she’d get up and be fine. I had to do this because her tantrums were violent and she was a danger to herself, to us, and to the house. Otherwise I would had just left her on the floor to cry and wail. Never give into a tantrum. Offer support like “you can sit on my lap when you are ready” or “do you need a hug” but don’t ever give them what they want (the object of desire that triggered the tantrum.)


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