Thursday, March 29, 2007

It's Nanny Advice Time! Yippee!

Today I got an e-mail from a friend who had witnessed a child throwing a tantrum in a deli. The child was maybe four or five, and the parents did nothing about the tantrum except to say to the child, "You're making a scene." Helpful! The child, of course, continued to wail and scream for as long as my friend was in the deli. Probably because she could, and no one was going to stop her. My friend was wondering if this was appropriate, and shouldn't the parents have done SOMEthing about it?

The answer are, respectively, no and yes. No, it wasn't appropriate. Yes, the parents should have done something about it. For a child of four or five, it isn't unheard of to have a tantrum from time to time, especially in cases of fatigue or stress, but in general (and by "in general" I mean, "when I've been the girl in charge") I've found that tantrums can be mostly eradicated by the time a child turns four. With the magic combination of a parent/caregiver's persistence and the child's discomfort, it's a fairly straightforward process. Well, if you're stubborn, that is. One of the keys, I find, is that you have to decide ahead of time that you will be the one to win. This may sound a bit harsh to you more sensitive folks out there, but ultimately, when you are the adult, you need to be the one to win. This does not mean that you don't listen to your child or that you don't care for your child. It means that you care for them enough to teach them how to behave and communicate effectively even if it's hard for you. It means that you are ready to step up to the plate and accept the responsibility of being The One Who Is In Charge. Your child cannot be in charge for one simple reason, and that is because that they've lived a minimal number of years, and they simply can't handle it. You're the grown-up. You might want to repeat to yourself, "I'm the grown-up! I'm in charge!"

First, when a child is of the age when they start screaming as a means of exercising their will, which is quite young, before the age of one, even, you must begin by not giving what they want to get them to stop screaming. Give them what they need when they need it, but don't give them something they merely want if they scream for it. Patterns are established early, and if screaming gets a child what they want, you will suddenly be Pavlov's dog, and that screaming will be your dinner bell. However, if you do not respond to screaming by placating with whatever is desired, but instead calmly say no and either remove them from the area (out of sight, out of mind is so handy with older babies and young toddlers) or offer one alternative (only one, because if you start offering lots of things to stop the screaming then, they'll scream to see what kind of smorgasbord of distraction you can come up with) to the desired item. As the child grows older and begins to throw bona fide tantrums, but are still not of an age that they can understand more complex instructions, I favor removing a child to a crib if you're at home or to a restroom if you are in public. Never treat it like it's a huge deal, and even if you are positively boiling on the inside, keep your outer self calm. Even with babies and young toddlers, I'll use the words, "I'm taking you to your crib/the bathroom until you calm down. When you calm down, you may come back out." I know some parents who will vacate any public place altogether if their child is having a tantrum, but if part of the reason that your child is throwing the tantrum is because they want to go to the car or they want to go home, then that's not a good idea. I would recommend that if it's a public place that they enjoy and will not want to leave, go on home, but if it's a place they don't want to be, such as the grocery or Target, just keep removing them to an out of the way spot until they're calmer, and then go back and continue your shopping. This will send the message that you will still do what you need to do, regardless of whether they throw the tantrum. It just makes it take longer if they throw a tantrum. This may be quite frustrating for you, as abandoned carts sometimes get reclaimed by the store (parking it outside the restroom usually works okay, though) and you have to start over. Just keep in mind that you are going to win, and you will not stop until you do win. This will be torture the first few times, but it will save you a lot of agony in the future.

When a child is old enough to understand instructions, I begin to employ what I call the side hold. If the child is old enough to explain what they want or need, I first ask what is wrong and ask them to use words. I remind them that I cannot understand them if they are screaming and crying, so it would be helpful if they calm down. Anything I say, I say in a calm voice that both indicates that I am serious but that I am not emotionally taxed. I try to sound like the voice of logic. If the child calms down and states what is wrong and then accepts the given answer, AWESOME! If not, the side hold it is. The side hold is a way to restrain a child who is kicking and flailing and possibly trying to bite. You simply grasp the child with your dominant arm (dominant because it needs to be strong and mighty for the battle to come) around their waist and lift them to hip height, facing out, with their body perpendicular to your body. The child will be sideways, horizontal to the floor, facing out, their middle firmly clamped against your side. Make sure you are not near enough to anything breakable or that may topple, because when a child is going for it in a tantrum, they will reach for anything, especially if they can't reach you to kick at you directly. In the beginning especially, the child will yell more loudly and flail as hard as possible, and the eyes of the whole store may seem to be upon you. Decide ahead of time that you have the audacity to not even care who's looking. The side hold will not hurt your child; they will be uncomfortable, and they will hate being restrained, but it will not hurt them. When you pick up your child, calmly say, "I will put you down when you are done screaming." If it's a store where you know that not a lot of people will be seriously disturbed by the screaming, continue to shop as if nothing is wrong, just repeating from time to time that you will put your child down when they are done screaming. If you are in a place such as a restaurant or a smaller store where it will cause extreme agitation to other patrons, walk calmly to the bathroom or just outside the store's entrance, continuing to the side hold as indicated. Once your child has stopped screaming or has promised to stop screaming once you set them down (Mary Liz used to just go, "OKAY! I'M DONE NOW!"), put them down gently and, if they are indeed done screaming (some children will stop only to start up again once they are released, in which case you have to pick them up and resume the side hold) have a little talk about what went wrong. If the tantrum started because the child wanted something they could not have, simply acknowledge that you know they like the item, but that you are not buying it today, and that nothing gets bought because someone screams for it.
Request that they apologize and wait for them to do it. Then offer reassurance of affection in the form of a hug and an "I love you" and let them know what happens next as well as how they can help things along. For example, "We're going to finish shopping now, and then we'll go home for lunch. If you can stay right with me and help put things in the cart, we'll get done faster."

The first few times you use this method, it will be rough going for both of you. You'll both be tired and probably need long naps. The good news is that A) it's totally acceptable to take a long nap, and B) it will get easier and easier as time goes by. With Jack, tantrums became non-existent by the time he turned three and a half, and at age four there were only brief relapses when he was especially tired or stressed. With Mary Liz, because she was more strong-willed, it took a bit longer, but by her fourth birthday she was tantrum free as well except for those rare instances when she was tired or stressed or, for her, when her routine was disrupted, which tended to throw her off of her game quite a bit. This doesn't mean that they didn't express their opinions, but they no longer kicked and screamed and flailed about when they were upset. Mary Liz would sometimes yell mean things and would promptly be sent to her room ("You may yell mean things, but only where you're the only one who has to hear them.") and given an additional consequence if she left her room before she was ready to make nice. Both children were also required to say they were sorry in order to rejoin whatever fun we were having. Even when the kids were bigger and harder to hold, I employed the side hold anytime there was a tantrum, never letting on that I wouldn't be able to still do it when they were eighteen if that was necessary.

The keys to our success were persistence, consistency, a bit of discomfort, and also (please pay attention here, as this is SO VERY IMPORTANT) my ability to stay outwardly calm until I saw the process through. I wanted to make it seem as if the only person inconvenienced by this process was the misbehaving child. For the egocentric child who still deals in the concrete, it doesn't matter to them what you as the parent are thinking or feeling, but only gives them a sense of power if they sense they can upset you and sway things in their favor. In other words, they'll learn you have buttons, but they won't be old enough to understand why it's not nice to push them. Be the grown-up. Be in charge. You'll all end up happier and more well-adjusted for your efforts.

Any questions?


Shiz said...

AWESOME! You have a gift!

canaan said...

your methods are very effective, I myself have employed them for both my children, my little brother and the children i babysat through high school and college.

I have one other technique that I would use on Isaac (brother) and Sam (son)and some of the other more OD children I have dealt with in public places....

These children generally have the tendency to add to the screaming the throwing themselves on the floor and kicking....In this case I would gently but firmly ask them to stop, when that did not work I would walk a little ahead and say that it was time to stop and continue with our errand and then if they did not quit at the prospect of being ignored I would step to where they couldn't see me, but I could see them and wait for them to realize they did not have an audience...not long enough to scare them, but long enough to see them as I said realize they had no audience, quiet themselves and stand up..then I would step out and discuss the issue with them.

With my rather precocious daughter I have had to use both methods at times...exhausting...

love ya darlin!