August 14, 2013

When a tantrum is not just an act of defiance

Have you ever stopped to ask your kids how they think you are doing as a parent? Ever sat down to ask them if there were any areas in which you might improve or do things differently?

Sounds so obvious, right? 

As adults, we are constantly giving our children feedback on how they are doing in all aspects of their lives and we spend a great deal of time focussing on their deficits and the ways in which they could improve themselves and their behaviour. 

And yet it never occurs to us as parents to turn the tables on ourselves once in a while and to check in with the people who rely on us the most; the little people who are most affected by our behaviour.

Obviously this doesn’t work very well with infants or smaller children, unless of course you want to be told to buy more chocolates and toys. But with older kids, from about the age of 8 upwards, it makes sense that we should be asking for feedback now and again, not only to gain some insight into our role as parents, but to gain a deeper understanding of our children.

More often than not, you'll get the opportunity to create a very enlightening dialogue and you will gain a vital insight into how your own children perceive you. But more importantly, you will be giving your children the chance to open up to you about the way they really feel, and that in turn gives them a sense of validation that you really do care and respect them as autonomous human beings.

My daughter is 11 and lately she has been bursting into tears at the drop of a hat, seemingly over nothing. Most recently the tears started when I told her she had to go to bed and miss the end of Big Brother. 

Initially, I knew that she was crying because she wasn’t getting what she wanted, and as the crying turned into a tantrum, I just assumed that it was still Big Brother related, which in turn made me see red that she was still awake and so worked up about a TV show.

But then I remembered something she had told me during one of our check in conversations, and I suddenly realised that it wasn’t about Big Brother anymore at all.
In actual fact, she was upset for a whole number of reasons and for no reason at all. 

I won’t go into the list of personal reasons here, suffice to say that pre teen / pre menstruation is proving to have its own set of hormonal challenges that can cause her to feel extreme sadness / real sadness, without really knowing why.

And once the crying is triggered by something seemingly trivial, it can quickly escalate to what almost sounds like guttural pangs of grief, and frustration at not having yet acquired the skills to be able to articulate those intense emotions.

What my daughter needs when she experiences this happening is not for me to ignore her or to become the disciplinarian. What she needs is to be calmed down and reassured that everything is ok. 

She needs cuddles and affection, love, tenderness and care, and for me to help her articulate the experience so that she understands it is a normal part of growing up.

Of course this can be difficult for a parent to tune into when the crying is initiated by a tantrum about bedtime or some equally defiant scenario when they aren’t getting what they want. Those kinds of tantrums warrant discipline, and in my house, zero tolerance. 

However, it’s imperative that we learn to tell the difference between a childish tantrum of the ego and one that escalates into something else entirely; something your child cannot yet articulate, let alone control.

The only reason I have learnt to tune into what my daughter is feeling and what she actually needs from me in this situation is by checking in with her about how I can be a more effective parent.

We all know by now that an open and free line of communication is the best gift we can give our pre-teen and adolescent kids, but often that is much more difficult to achieve than just asking them how they feel. 

Asking teenagers to talk to you about their feelings is like asking them to strip naked in front of their entire family; it can be confronting and overwhelming, particularly when they might not yet have the language to articulate their emotions. 

But by taking the focus off the child and placing it back on yourself, you remove any pressure they might feel from being cornered, and you also remove the awkwardness from the situation as you give them permission to share what they need from you at this point in their lives. 

Talking to your kids about how you are going as a parent offers them the space to open to you without fear about how they will be perceived. And then when they really need you, they will feel more comfortable expressing that need, and you will feel more in tune with the ways in which you are needed and the ways in which you can do your job.  

It’s a win win situation.

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