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Sophie has always been a fairly intense and strong-willed child. She isn't rigid, or fearful of change, or anything of the sort. But when she gets an idea in her head about how something should or should not be, or something she thinks she should be able to do (in either sense of 'capable' or 'permitted'), she can go completely berserk if reality does not live up to her ideas.

When she was 16 months or so, I said:
At any rate, the tantrums are annoying sometimes but they don't really bother me (yet). Nevertheless it is one of those great unknowables: how soon will she adjust to not always being allowed to do what she wants? Will it become better or worse when she can use words to communicate? If this is what she's like at 16 months, will she be an unholy terror at 30 months or will she have adjusted to constraints? And will anything we do now make one whit of difference?

We're at 37 months now, and it's a bit of both. She will abide by rules if they're established and consistently enforced; for us to establish a rule requires a royal battle (sooner or later) and to enforce it requires constant vigilance against her periodic testing, and sometimes a small skirmish. This in itself is exhausting - I know that parenting advice says, foremost, "Be consistent!" but she really goes to an extreme of punishing any whiff of inconsistency or indulgence ever displayed by her human and fallible parents. Maybe it does take a robot to raise a child.

Not every conflict triggers a meltdown - if she is in a good enough mood, she will accept a 'no' with an exaggerated 'O-kaaaaayyyy' and get on with life. But when she does let loose, holy hell. The screaming goes on for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour; she hits, kicks, scratches, bites, pulls hair, rips our glasses off our faces and hurls them to the ground, anything she can think of to try and upset us as much as she has been upset. The reactions we get from onlookers tend to confirm our impression that this isn't normal behavior, although if they try to intercede at all it is usually in sympathy rather than in condemnation. Her grandparents have worried that someone might call the police; her childminder has claimed never to have seen anything like it.

Fortunately (I guess), these tantrums are special events reserved exclusively for the presence of a parent. She'll have them in public, and she'll get upset when she's being looked-after by non-parents, but as far as I know she has never subjected a non-parent to this kind of rage fit. Unfortunately, as she gets older and bigger and stronger it gets harder to contain her and harder to calm her down, and the attempts to do so cause more of a spectacle when we're out and about. I'm going to have to take up strength training if I want to be able to keep manhandling her away from doing anything dangerous or attacking me, and the tactics that we've used in the past to distract her tantrums or control their progress worked as well as any tactic ever does with Sophie - brilliantly the first couple of times, more or less well for a few days, and then never again.

It has to be said that she's been through an awful lot of change in the last few months. She isn't really change-averse, as I said, and we've been trying to do our best to reassure her about the changes that have happened. In November we moved house; for the next month we commuted all the way across town to get her to her old nursery, but in December she started at a Montessori school nearby. She also needed some arrangement for afternoon care, and the first one fell through which left us scrambling for a backup plan. This all worked out, and the great irony is that she ended up spending rather more time with Mummy and Daddy than she normally would have, but it wasn't exactly stable. And now it's been two weeks since she was at school, thanks to Christmas, and I'm pretty sure (I think) that she misses it. If the tantrums we've seen lately hadn't already been part of a clear and established pattern, it would be easy to point the finger at all this change.

But the thing is, they are part of a clear and established pattern, and historically she has not been a rigid and change-averse child who suffers terribly from any disruption to the all-hallowed Routine. And so I can't rest comfortably on the idea that "as soon as everything settles down" she'll be a tantrum-free golden child, and I would be wasting my time if I were to go making myself obsessively crazy about providing No Further Disruptions.

A few times lately, she's shown signs of trying to learn to control her temper. A small contretemps with a younger playmate on New Year's Eve caused her to go into a forceful monologue about how "We need to sulk!" and a stream-of-consciousness concerning the "why". Once she had repeated this cycle and so captivated the room for 20 minutes or so, she was fine.

Another tantrum at home over Christmas, during which she was confined to her room until the rage subsided, ended when she worked out how to use a chair to reach the drawer where her dummies (normally only allowed at sleeping times) are stored. So the wailing ceased and, when we walked in, we found a sad/defiant/triumphant face standing with her hand in the dummy drawer and a dummy in her mouth. Given that she now had the ability to retrieve a dummy whenever she liked, I made a rule that they weren't to come out of her bedroom. For a few days this seemed to work to put a lid on the tantrums, in that when she got upset she would retrieve a couple of dummies, and calm herself or meditate, and then eventually announce "I'm finished crying!" and put them away again.

But Sophie, being Sophie and taking a mile whenever an inch is given, began to want the dummies all the time. Which meant that she wanted to have me playing with her in her room all the time, making it as companionable as the rest of the house tends to be, and she was getting increasingly irritable at not being able to do things like watch TV or go out while simultaneously being in her room with the dummies. So this possible route to self-soothing has also turned into a dead end, and we've had to move to hiding the dummies outright when she isn't sleeping. This in itself has led to dreadful tantrums for each of the past two days.

So that's where we are. I guess we will soon see where we go.

Our worst

Date: 2014-01-05 04:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The ugliest ever public tantrum my kids had, was when D was 4 1/2; we were walking to the playground with his brother in the stroller, and he made a choice about where we would cross the road that lagged my decision point, slightly. I made the mistake of pressing on, and refusing to turn back and cross at the place he wanted to cross at. Things escalated to the point where his brother was playing happily at the playground, I could pin D, but every time I let go of him, he would come at me punching and kicking. I eventually got through to his father by cell phone, and made him come rescue me.
(4 1/2 sounds old... but that was not only the ugliest tantrum we had, but the last public one. There's been at worst foot stomping and door slamming since. Up until that last one, they'd been on a trajectory of becoming less frequent.)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 05:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I may have recommended it already, but there's a book by Greene, "The Explosive Child" which is aimed at parents of somewhat older children, but is worth reading, even if not a perfect fit for this. He's basically offering a template to teach negotiation skills.

His method does require you to articulate a real concern that's your business, not the child's, with no reliance on rules with unspecified underpinnings. I don't know what that would be for dummies about the house - I'd probably just give up that one and go with, "I'm too embarrassed to take you out of the house with that thing in your mouth." (The direction this is all headed in is "natural consequences parenting" but it really doesn't mix well with rules that are essentially arbitrary.) I might also ignore anything she said that was unintelligible due to the dummy in her mouth, but I don't think I could justify "in your bedroom, but not in the living room."

During the younger end of D's tantrum range, I used candy/snacks to reasonable effect. Which is to say that if we were out somewhere (particularly walking the dog) it was usually known to him that I had something to eat on my person. If things went south, the deal was that he could have his snack if he was docile about climbing into the stroller; we would then immediately head for home. Being able to claim his snack and head home was a face-saving way for him to get out of the situation. He did not throw tantrums to get snacks, because snacks (even sweets, though not in unlimited quantity) were sufficiently readily available that there was no point. Being caught without a snack happened once in a while and was not generally a disaster. (Also, denying him something merely because he's screaming and crying, adds motivational fuel to the fire; once the tantrum event horizon is crossed, the punishment/reward model just isn't really useful.)

From what you've said here, I have to wonder if you're striving for consistent rules so hard as to make your rules rigid and unintelligible in motivation. I would be interested in hearing more about what the commonalities are at the flash point of the tantrum, and what level of explanation is possible before rationality is lost.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Can she tell you anything about what she expects with a dangerous/forbidden task/object? I think on the shoes one, I would play it like so: first, get in her way, pull her attention to you, and ask her to what she'd doing, explicitly without forbidding it, "Sophie, I need you to tell me what you're going to do with Bobbie's shoes before I let you touch them - I'm not saying you can't do that yet, I just need to know" and then wait for the story. If that draws a complete blank, maintain position, and offer a story of your own, "I think that you need to have Bobbie's shoes on your hands to steal his magic gecko powers, and climb up to the ceiling with them."

If she likes that idea, it goes "well, Bobbie will need his shoes to go home/ Bobbie will be upset if he catches you touching his shoes, can you think of another way to steal his gecko powers?" (The 3yo concept of magic powers is at least fun, and you may be able to add the "oh, and you'll need your hat and coat to be a magical gecko.")

If she isn't distracted by your story (aw, too bad) the "Sophie, if you tell me what you need to do, I will help you find a way to get it done, but you need to tell me what's going on here." You haven't solved the problem, but you're taking her wants (however irrational) seriously, and positioning yourself as a collaborator rather than the root source of the restriction.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, the stories are exhausting. It is a tradeoff as to whether going through it all is worse than just dealing with the tantrum. I would supplement it with putting other people's real and concrete concerns on the table - use names if the cubbies are labelled, and have a "Johnny wouldn't like you touching his coat" then "each of these cubbies belongs to someone else, and they would not like you touching their stuff" to set the boundaries on other people's things, and put your own timetable down as a real concern, "If I'm going to cook spaghetti for dinner, I need to be home by 4:00 to get it started." Even the seemingly unreasonable, "it makes mommy unhappy to wait inside the building while you play here" is better if you own it, than if you simply request hurrying.

I would also try to find a way for telling the story of how to get out of the school building, in advance. Maybe on the way to school, talk through a sequence of how we get out of the school. Possibly also telling the story of the little rabbit who got into other people's things, and the little cat who cried or got angry when he saw the little rabbit rummage through his cubby.

D had pretty shaky language at 3, but could show some amount of empathy to other people's wants when they were explained in very concrete terms. He could also grasp some limited time keeping and color-coded calendars before he could generate sentences.

We spent a long time telling stories about how mommy was going to park (the car) where mommy thinks she can park, and how sometimes D sees a better parking place and mommy doesn't take it, and that's frustrating. It did eventually pass, but well before it was over, there was a phase where the conversation about it took very little effort. (The actual creativity is required when you've stumbled into it and the tantrum is simmering, but preparing to cope with anticipated problem points can become second-nature.) At age 7, I'm still inclined to say, "I know it makes D unhappy when I have to park so far away" or "I might be able to get a better parking place if I go around the block, but I don't think that's a good tradeoff vs parking here and walking" and he appreciates that his concern is acknowledged without a tantrum being in the offing.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 07:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
When D was at the tantrum age, I was seeing a therapist regularly (ostensibly with a different presenting concern) and it was helpful to get a point by point analysis on how I could have played some of these, with the context and the particulars. A key thing I had to learn was some templates for stating "I am unhappy because of this thing you are doing" without escalating the situation or giving an ultimatum. I also got some validation on "this child is considerably more difficult than most" and simultaneously, "he will likely outgrow all of these problems whatever you do, and turn out ok."

At some point after 3, the tantrums became easier to predict, and less strenuous to diffuse (if diffusing it was going to be possible), and decreased in frequency (but did not diminish in intensity).

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 02:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
On the macaroni, I would try to divert to a conversation about macaroni and talk about what she likes about it. Draw her a steaming bowl of macaroni on paper or magnadoodle. Start (verbally) comparing various breakfast foods to macaroni, "Is yogurt like macaroni? I guess it's smooth and rich... are cheese grits like macaroni? I guess they're hot and cheesy." Don't be afraid to openly fantasize about an unavailable item, that's far easier for a kid to handle than sweeping the concept under the rug as if it doesn't exist.

Offer to cut in half some cheerios for her so they look like macaroni? I bet that would get boring fast, but if she's asking for something inconvenient (just to be inconvenient) the actual want may be a "do something for me" and what you do is negotiable.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 03:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I try not to negotiate on points that have nothing to do with each other - in this case reading and getting dressed. I do hold the line that bare butts don't go on upholstered furniture, so breakfast might be eaten seated on the kitchen floor, if clothes are refused.

I think I'd play the reading by simply asking for the getting dressed, and then ignoring it if it didn't happen. If later bugged to play or read I would say, "mommy is grumpy because you haven't done anything I've asked you to, like getting dressed (there would presumably be other accumulated items, if a point was being made), can you think of how to make things better? (do you want help with your morning chores?)" (But I would also feel free to just go along with it, if I felt like it.)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That one's familiar, along with its quiet companion, "needs to pee but won't admit it." Food is sometimes effective on tiredness problems.

We were advised to put a color coded calendar on the fridge to work on transition tantrums. We would then ask D to read the calendar and tell us what's next, at each interval. If the "need" upon pickup is to dictate what you're going to do next, you may be able to trigger her to tell you which bus you need to get on, what day of the week it is, etc.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-05 07:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've just pawed through a photo folder, and not spotted one, but it was a printable month-at-a-view calendar, on which I drew boxes in a distinct color for each of "preschool" "nanny" "home with mommy/daddy." I would usually be pushing the resolution of a fat tip marker, to write "school" in a desired color, then I would draw a rectangle around the word in the same color. The particular problem we were debugging was that we had a 3 day preschool schedule with a mix of me picking him up and the nanny picking him up, and if the wrong person arrived to fetch him, all hell would break loose.

We taped the calendar to the fridge, and would cross off days with a black marker as they were done (though we were somewhat inconsistent about this).

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