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At the moment I am sharing a house with an eight year old (let’s call her ‘Screamer’) and a five year old (let’s call him ‘Kicker’). They are experts at provoking each other. This has led to me dealing with a lot of anger in the last few weeks. (The preference for anger and misery over boredom is the subject for another post.)
My preference is for a life of elated calmness. Some people love the roller-coaster ride (and will have a much more exhilarating life than mine) but I’m not one of them. Things going along happily-and-smoothly is the way I like it.
My way of responding to a temper tantrum is to try to calm it down; to be reasonable, or at least sensible; to figure out solutions to problems. To get back to peaceful as soon as possible.
Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. This post is about the times that it doesn’t.
It doesn’t work when the Screamer or Kicker is talking nonsense. Statements by Screamer like, “Nobody ever buys me anything”, when they have had their favourite cereal bought for them that morning. Or by Kicker that, “Nobody ever listens to me” – when that is what is happening now and happens most of the rest of the time too.
At these times, when it is pointed out to Kicker or Screamer that what they are saying is actually incorrect, they just get in a worse temper. It has taken me a while to realise that it is not about having a rational problem solved.
So what is it about? Here is my best guess. (I’m fairly sure that it is right, but far from certain. And there may be much else going on too – any insights and suggestions most welcome.) I think it is about feeling.
1. Expressing Feeling
When they are having a temper tantrum Kicker or Screamer is feeling something very intensely and they want to express it. Sometimes they’ll even remember and talk about all the bad things that have happened to them and express their feelings about them too. Clearly it is not about wanting to just feel better (by having their problem solved) or they could just remember nice things instead of upsetting things.
2. Connecting intensely with others. They want to be heard (the volume of the makes this point most forcefully!).
What I have found does work is shouting back.
It’s strange – all that advice about calming down, being reasonable, speaking in a soft voice, being sensible and so on. None of it works. On a number of occasions I have tried all these a number of times (over a period of say 30 minutes) and it does nothing for the tantrum. Some things – like pointing out that what they are saying is incorrect – can sometimes make the tantrum worse.
I think the reason the shouting works is that it matches the intensity of feeling that Screamer or Kicker are experiencing. It is about connecting intensely with feeling, not solving a problem.
After connection is made, and the tantrum past, rational discussion may be possible. It is also possible that the tantrum has nothing to do with is said. A child may well not know what their unmet need is, and the only way they have of expressing frustration is through some kind of tantrum. (It may also be that this applies to adults as well as children, though adults have different ways of sulking and tantrumming.)
When someone is angry and the soft approach is not working, it may be worth matching their intensity.
A Couple of Cautions
- I think this should only be done when the soft approach has been tried first.
- It is best if you can do it before you are in danger of losing your temper. You will then be able to meet the other person when the tantrum is over, and you will be able to stop if it seems to be just making the situation worse.
I’m not a parent, and I have no desire to add to the parent guilt industry. It seems to me that the demands on parents are increasing and the support diminishing – and I think this is appalling. So if you have experience dealing with tantrums (either from children or older people) I’d love to hear your experience of what works and what doesn’t.
Temper Tantrums: responding with soft words or shouting?
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