Friday, March 21, 2008


I can’t decide what to write about today. I have been sitting here for a while now, pondering what might be interesting for you to read. It is nearly time to get Jemima, I have eaten most of the biscuits I brought back from the UK for James but have yet to write a word. Ho hum. The children in the garden are distracting me.

I have written about our Khmer neighbours before – here. They are very lovely and, we discovered recently, very rich. Yet their children come here every day to play with our things because they have no toys in their tiny house. And their three year old boy has been having tantrums several times a day, every day, for over a year now, because he hates cold water baths and his mother leaving for work. Actually that is what I shall write about. Tantrums.

Since I wrote that mind blowing first paragraph I have been chatting with the neighbours. (I know, I really am procrastinating. I now have 30 minutes to write something coherent. Ok. To work). But I am so glad I did. I just wish I had done so a year ago. Every day I have listened to him scream and thought about going over and sharing some of my own experience with dealing with tantrums, lending a book and offering to help. But I have been so worried about offending them that I have let my Britishness hold me back. Just now I realised that the boy’s lovely mother was extremely open to any kind of help and advice I could offer. Of course. So would I have been. Damn it. I may have been able to save a lot of emotional damage if only I had been more proactive.

All I did was ask how Tom Tom is doing and what they do when he cries so often, so bloodcurdlingly (I did not use that term!) and for so long. She said that she or her mother held him and tried to calm him down. Then I showed her my Science of Parenting book (Margot Sunderland, my bible) and explained to her in KhmEnglish what I had learnt from it when Jemima was having tantrums.

Very briefly, Sunderland looks at the causes of ‘bad behaviour’, such as poor diet, tiredness, emotional immaturity and lack of attention. She also distinguishes between two different kinds of temper tantrums.

She calls one the ‘little Nero’ tantrum. This is usually controlled, articulated rage without tears, aimed at controlling or manipulating us. These should be ignored when possible, to prevent rage becoming an ingrained personality trait. The parent should then try to consider why the child is behaving this way and consider ways of breaking the habit (i.e. time in, teaching them acceptable ways of expressing anger – punching a pillow etc).

The other is a ‘distress tantrum’, triggered by strong feelings of loss, disappointment or frustration. These often involve uncontrollable tears and screaming - expressions of genuine pain. These must not be ignored. Sunderland explains what is going on in a child’s brain when these tantrums occur. She describes a situation:

“Two-year-old Ben [is] writhing on the shop floor because he had set his heart on shoes that did not fit, is in emotional pain. One of his brain’s alarm systems has triggered, and stress chemicals and hormones are flooding his body, making him feel dreadful. He needs comfort.” (Pg 123)

In these instances it is our responsibility as parents or caregivers to help our child cope with the overwhelming emotions he is experiencing, by holding them close, calming them with our own bodies, and trying to help them understand the pain they are suffering and what caused it. If we ignore their pain or punish it, we are simply teaching our child that their feelings are not worth expressing or attending to. We also create increased stress and pain that could cause permanent emotional damage.

I have followed this advice with Jemima and found it extremely affective. I’ll just tell you about Jemima’s first full on tantrum, because despite being very upsetting, it was also extremely illuminating. She was about two years old and by chance I had just been reading Sunderland. I did as she recommended and here is what happened.

It was Christmas and Jemima was totally over-excited, having spent several days with all her cousins and aunts – I think there were fifteen of us in the house. She had gone to bed far too late for several nights in a row, and the general excitement of presents, family and too much lovely food was getting to her. (I.e. all of Sunderland’s advice re sleep and food had gone out of the window long ago.) One day after lunch I told her she was going to have a nap. I scooped her up, gave her a cup of warm milk and her blanket and was about to carry her upstairs. Jemima however had other ideas. She had been in the middle of a game with her nine year-old cousin Claudia, who is probably Jemima’s favourite person on the planet, and, well, let’s just say she lost it… big time.

She kicked and screamed and by the time I got her upstairs I was exhausted. She was so frantic and hysterical I thought maybe I was making it worse and that if I put her down on the bed for a minute she might calm down. When I did this she just kicked and screamed even harder, punched the air and, the most heartbreaking bit, grabbed her hair and pulled at it very, very hard. It was quite scary actually. It was definitely the most upsetting moment of our lives together so far to see her so out of control that she was causing herself pain. I immediately picked her up again and took her to look out of the window to try to calm her and distract her. I just held her and made soothing sounds for a few minutes while she very slowly calmed down. I did not say anything – she was too upset and confused to absorb any words. Only once she was calm enough to listen to me, did I talk to her, still holding her tightly while she wept into my neck:

“You are very cross with Mummy aren’t you?”

“Yes I am” she sobbed. “I don’t want to go to bed”

“You want to play with Claudia” I continued.

“Yes. You did take me to bed and I did get upset ‘coz I did want to play with Claudia”.

“I am so sorry. I know how much you love being with Claudia and I promise you can spend the rest of the afternoon with her after you have had a rest. But I can see how tired you are and I know you need to sleep. I am so sorry I upset you so much. Do you feel any better now?”

“I feel a bit better”

After this she just collapsed into my arms on the bed and hugged me tightly and said: “I need you Mummy. Just lie down with me”.

It was so awful to begin with and yet it ended so positively that I could have kissed Margot Sunderland right there and then. I would not have known about helping Jemima to express what she was feeling had I not read about it first. And it soon stopped feeling as corny as it sounds. I appreciate that it was greatly helped by the fact that Jemima was able to express herself well then, but even if the child is not yet talking, they understand a lot so it helps to express out loud what they are feeling. I hate to think how differently this could have turned out had I just thrown her on the bed and walked away, and how many more tantrums she might have had since, out of frustration and inability to cope with her own very strong feelings. There were more of course, but she never pulled her hair again. Sunderland’s advice made me realise that this was not a fight between me and my daughter, but a genuine crisis for her, one which I had the power to help her with.

Anyway, this post has become very long and rambling after such a slow and laborious start. I shall let you know how Tom Tom gets on and leave you to enjoy your Easter eggs!


Anonymous said...

I found this account very moving and wish we had had M Sunderland when my children were babies... we did the best we could, but without advice sometimes one panics in such a situation and has no idea how to begin. It is hard to THINK when your child is kicking and screaming! It is good to have a model and to know that you are not alone. It is also good to know that there is outside approval or acceptance of this patient and understanding way of dealing with babies. When my children were small there were still people around who imagined that such reasonable distress in a child was just that the child was spoilt , as in 'he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases.' It seems to me that in this 'New Age', there is a general trend towards more humane treatment of all living beings. Does anyone share this thought? Melisa

Georgie said...

I agree. I find it very hard to deal with 'bad behaviour' in public because I am so worried about what others will think - be it that I am too strict or too soft. As a result whatever I do is totally ineffectual as Jemima picks up on the nerves and lack of conviction in my voice. There still are those from the 'don't spoil the brat' camp - I see it quite often. But less and less I think.