Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To ignore or not to ignore... Argh! Getting it right when responding to tantrums...

Arrgh I have to get back to blogging more regularly. It has been a busy time with James travelling a lot and also I have had to complete my 40 day practice which means practicing the same yoga set and meditation every day for 40 days. If I miss a day I have to start again. I did it and it was fine but took lots of time and space management (like turning up at friend’s houses in desperate search for a few child-free metres and minutes in which to practice). It was amazing though, I felt calmer and happier than I can remember feeling ever, every single day for 40 days. I am still enjoying the effects and trying to practice every morning before breakfast, but as much as I love her, it is not quite the same with Bella on top of me. Honestly, however early I try to get up, she wakes when I start my yoga. It must be the positive lurve energy I am radiating.. although, that cartoon picture of a yogi and a speech bubble saying “Shut up kids, I am meditating” springs to mind as always. Anyway I must try not to go on about yoga here. In fact I am going to start up a new blog for my yoga adventures, which I will tell you about later, so that I can devote this just to motherhood. Trouble is in my life the two are more of less entwined at the moment. But I will try.

I have just come back from a peaceful hour of swimming and playing at a local swimming pool (Villa Langka for readers in Cambodia) with Bella. How blissful. The sun was still low, no one was there and we just swam and played with the cat and breastfed for ages. It was incredibly peaceful just watching Bella – she also had a small audience of monks from the Wat across the road! I feel so grateful for our lovely lives in Cambodia on days like this. Now Bella is on her way to market with Sophy, our beloved granny/cleaner/Khmer teacher and I have a whole hour to write my blog. Yes, on days like this I do believe all parents with small children should come and live in Cambodia.

Ages ago I said I would write about Bella’s tantrums. Then I forgot because what I thought was a horrifying new phase in her life turned out to be just a very bad week. Every day she was the crossest, most highly strung toddler I could have imagined giving birth to. It was so bad that I treated it like an illness or some other domestic disaster that requires most other things be put on hold! Apart from my classes, I cancelled all plans which took me away from her, arranged lots of play-dates away for Jemima and got way behind with my studies, so that I could hang out with her for hours at a time. Mostly, for those few hours every day that I am working she is perfectly happy and easy being looked after by Sophy, who is loving and responsive and part of our family now. But when it comes to behavioural/emotional issues that need a specific approach I want to be the one who manages it. While anyone (anyone I respect, I should say) is welcome to love my children, I want to be the one to raise them, if that makes sense. And how lucky I am to have the choice.

So for a week I sat and observed as poor Bella got increasingly frustrated with whatever it was she was trying to manage – a doll that would not sit up straight in the buggy, the bike that would not go through the closed door, the dress that was so confusing to put on, the fridge that would not open and yield limitless butter like it used to. To explain the latter, I discovered our fridge had a key after a week of catching Bella every other minute with her face in the butter. We also have to keep all our medicine etc in the fridge due to the heat so this discovery was definitely a good thing, even by my relax-let-them-run-free-in-the-house self). When I tried to help her with her various predicaments she screamed at me and pushed me away. So I just had to watch and be there for when she finally did want me. I was reminded of what I wrote HERE many months ago, when talking about our tantruming neighbour Tom Tom.

I wrote about what I had learnt relating to tantrums from Margot Sunderland in ‘The Science of Parenting.’ Very briefly (me I mean, not Sunderland) she 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. See the above link for more details about both.

It can be hard to get it right. Ignore one and do not by any means ignore the other… or your child will suffer the consequences of your stupidity for the rest of his life! (MS does not write like this of course, I am just being facetious.

Thinking about her wise and well-researched advice, I decided that all of the above issues I described with Bella were distress tantrums, caused by terrible frustration of things just not working out as she was hoping they would. She is 18 months old, incredibly independent, and yet not able to do all the things she knows she needs to for her games to work as planned.

Our answers in the end was just being there and cuddling her when she came for it, distracting her when possible with a new and easier task and, of course, the good old trusty boob. What were much harder to deal with were the ‘little nero’ tantrums she started having at the same time.

Typically she would refuse her high chair, but if I let her sit on my lap she would grab my fork while I was eating, scream at me to stop, demand I stand up and if I tried to sit down for a second, or even remain standing and hold her but try to drink my water at the same time, she would scream, kick and hit me. Hmmmm. I was unprepared and this was most unreasonable I thought. Thank goodness for the 40 day practice. When once I would have screamed back, I breathed and smugly tried all sorts of techniques along the lines of MS’s advice. The last was:

“NO Bella, this is not ok”, after which I put her firmly down on the floor, with great care as she was squirming and kicking and we have shiny hard tiles, and tried to ignore her – just as the book says. Sounds so good in theory. In practice she simply became upset until she was basically now having a distress tantrum, which of course meant an immediate change of tactic… I could almost here the alarm signals booming throughout the house:


Quickly, the good mother student that I am picked her up and cuddled her. Ah, as the sobs subsided all became calm. Success! Problem solved. Maybe, just maybe, I could eat my now cold dinner in peace?

“Let’s just sit down shall we?” I sweetly and nervously cooed…

“Waaaah! No! Stop!” she replied. Again, unnecessary I thought.

That was that, off we went again on the same cycle. I now had a very distressed little Nero on my hands and no idea what to do about it. Until… ah ha! Brain wave!

What does Bella love more than anything in the world? No, tried boobs, that didn’t work. Yes, dancing!

On went the music, Jemima rallied round and got into her ballet dress and danced her pants off and, as hoped, Bella simply could not resist. She kept her scowl determinedly imprinted on her face for a good minute of graceful Khmer style hand and arm movements, still not ready to be put down. But then it was all too much to bear and she was away, bum wiggling, head shaking, floor rolling, the works. We did it. Stress over, five minutes later I was drinking tea on the sofa with my feet up watching two ballet dress-clad beauties dancing their hearts away for the next half an hour.

Did it work the next time? I’ll tell you when it comes. Weeks have passed and she has been back to her normal chilled out self. I’ve no idea if she was just grumpy and teething that week or if the music-induced joy has lasted for a very long time. Either way I am enjoying the peace and feel ready for the next outburst knowing I have some positive resources at my finger tips.

Please share your positive approaches to tantrums too, in case she outsmarts me next time!

And enjoy these two blog posts with more ideas for when our toddlers are less than perfect.... Expecting too much from my toddler When our toddlers 'misbehave'


Anonymous said...

I find distraction is the only way in some situations too. Margot has this thing whereby she can't resist going wooooo like a ghost everytime the lights are dimmed (I think it started when we turned the lights off to look at the xmas tree and everyone went ooo!). She can be rolling around on the floor shouting no and beating her fists and all have to do is dim the lights and instantly 'wooooooo' and a big smile! Extrodinary and great - although difficult use when out and about!

Georgie said...

Brilliant! Hmm, but see the problem - keep a torch in your bag? Not same effect I can see, but so sweet to imagine her. I wonder if she will ever grow out of it - I have Mr Bean like images of her on her first date at the cinema now! xxxx

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Ann-Marie Dewhurst said...

Thankyou for this post! We've been trantrum city this week, not helped by being a little poorly.

I've given you an award out of Gratitude for sharing. It's on the Creative Mother blog! xxxx

the nibbling marmot said...

Hello there.
I recently moved to Phnom Penh, and I'd love to know more about your experiences with yoga here. I'm glad to have found your blog for more information and support on expat life in PP. . .