Wednesday, May 21, 2014


About a year and a half ago I had an extremely difficult time with my 2 1/2 year old.  He had been such an easy two-year-old, so mellow, so easy-going, so biddable.  And then he changed.  At first it wasn't so noticeable; once in a while he would get a little insistent, but it was so unusual it didn't seem to be a problem to give in to him, since it didn't "teach" him to behave that way, since his behavior was mostly perfect.  Gradually, though, he began having tantrums.  Huge tantrums, insane tantrums, 2 to 3 to 5 hour tantrums.  I didn't know what to do.  I usually could hang in okay for the first two hours.  After that, I began to have trouble.  I got mean.  I yelled.  I hit.  I screamed.  The most difficult part was when I was trying to remove myself to get some space, and he would follow me around, pulling on my clothes and shrieking, or, if I would go lock myself in the bathroom or away from him, he'd bang on the door and kick it, screaming.  I didn't know what to do.  

I discussed it with an occupational therapist and a speech therapist.  They suggested maybe, since he was so mellow, he didn't have the tools to calm himself, which other children, who used to get more upset, had learned earlier in their lives.  I tried teaching him techniques like deep breathing.  I tried deep pressure activities, sensory integration activities.  I tried discussing it with him afterwards (by this point, over 6 months had passed and he was three and able to converse and brainstorm and communicate) and we both agreed we didn't like when I got so angry like that and if I needed to walk away and calm down, he would let me, so I could come back and hug him, instead of screaming at him or hitting him.  I enlisted my husband's help and the help of my older kids, who agreed that when I felt I needed to walk away, that they would take over and make sure he didn't chase after me and bang the door down.  All of these things helped me handle the situation better, but didn't really help the situation.  

Last year's seder, he started crying at the beginning of Magid and cried all the way through Pesach-Matza-Maror.  Hours.  

At this point, I was fortunate that from one of my yahoogroups, somebody emailed me offlist about a technique from hand-in-hand parenting called "staylistening."  She gave me some links and offered advice as I stumbled through it, and it has become one of my primary tools for handling temper tantrums.  

The idea is to "invite the tantrum."  Meaning, for example, you let your child know that the answer is No. And then you do not give in.  Obviously, not giving in is going to get him* upset and he is going to try to get you to change your mind.  (tactics: screaming, tantrumming, throwing things, hitting parents, etc.)

The amazing insight to me about staylistening is that you "invite" this tantrum.  Once you make a parental decision, you mentally prepare yourself for the tantrum, and you don't try to stop it.  (For me, that was a huge attitude adjustment but also SUCH a relief.)  Then you let them "cry to futility."  You are empathetic and reflect back their feelings as they talk, but you don't try to change the reality of the situation.  ("Yeah, you are angry because you wanted to listen to the song again...yeah, you're mad at me.. yeah, you want it and i'm not listening to you.. yeah, you want it and i said 'no.'.. etc.)  And you have to block the hits (punches, scratches, bites).  But the amazing thing about it is that they cry, but that's ok, he's having strong feelings about not getting his way.  And he cries "to futility" meaning until he accepts that he doesn't get his way.  I think it's one of the most compassionate and most effective ways of addressing the concerning situation of "spoiling" a child.  And when you see them take that deep breath and sigh, it's amazing.  (At that point I usually "invite the tantrum" again, meaning I say, "You're angry I wouldn't let you have the song again?" and that sets off the tears again, and gives them the opportunity to give that last bit of fury and frustration and upset-ness and disappointment expression.).  At that point, they find it within themselves to move forward and accept the reality.  It's magical to see.

It takes some time to do.  When they get used to it, they can "cry to futility" in about 5-10 minutes, but sometimes it's as long as 1/2 hr or I've had 3 hr sessions**, when I first started this approach, because they had never cried "to futility" while I was compassionately listening and not trying to stop it before.  

*I'll use "him" because I learned this with my sons.

**It's true I had 3-5 hour crying sessions with Jack before this technique, but the difference was that I was stressed because I felt I should be stopping the crying and I couldn't, whereas with this technique, I'm just giving him the gift of experiencing the full gamut of his rage, fury, sadness, etc.

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