Friday, October 14, 2011

A Parenting Strategy, Courtesy of the CIA

I realize the title of this post may seem a little insane, but I promise you it's perfectly fitting.  99% of you who have toddlers know that toddlers have tantrums. They just... do.  And when they do, it sucks.  It's stressful, upsetting, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing. Aias is an A+ tantrum-er... he will not only tantrum but he will do it for a very, very long time.  15 minutes will have passed and he will still be mad even though the initial reason he was mad is probably a distant memory.  Here's what a tantrum looks like for Aias:

1. Tantrum is triggered (it's ALWAYS about not getting what he wants)
2. Crying and screaming begins
3. If he doesn't get what he wants, crying and screaming continues, for minutes.
4. If he STILL doesn't get what he wants, head banging, back arching, arms waving, legs kicking are added to the mix.
5. Face turns crazy red, shrieking begins.
6. Onlookers stare and *insert judgement on my parenting here*
7. I curl into a fetal position and cry (just kidding, but I sorta feel like doing it)
8. Crying slows, dignity slowly returns to both of us.

Some people have told me to "redirect."  This seemed like great advice.  Of course, screaming/head banging/back arching/ arm waving/ leg kicking people don't generally listen very carefully to your redirects. And so, I let the tantrum blow over. The very best strategy I have for dealing with them is to know the tantrum triggers and avoid them when possible.  A huge part of this is PICKING MY BATTLES.  This can be tough, but it's do-able. Here's an example of some of his triggers:

- Having to make a quick transition to a new activity before he's ready
- Having to give up something he has possession of that he doesn't want to give up
- Having his nails cut
- Having to sit still if he wants to explore

Now most of the time this is totally ok, because I can control the situation (side note: I find making up goofy transition songs are also helpful).  For example, to avoid forcing him to make a quick transition, I always make sure there is plenty of time for us to get ready.  Oftentimes we are getting ready 45 minutes earlier than we really should have to makes us just on time or it makes us early (which isn't so bad).  I try to be patient if we are walking and he wants to pick up every rock on the ground or examine every leaf.  I try not to put him in non-toddler friendly situations where he will want to explore but can't, so we avoid fancy places or anywhere with too much structure.

All this is well and dandy, but the fact is, sometimes toddlers HAVE to transition quickly.  Sometimes they HAVE to give things up that they want to keep (dangerous things, etc).  Sometimes they HAVE to sit still. And frankly, toddlers need their nails cut!  So what do I do in these situations?

Simple... I follow a simple CIA standard: I DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS.  I'm not making light of terrorism here, but seriously,  maybe a toddler isn't using violence or fear to terrorize anyone in the pursuit of some sort of political gain, but sometimes I do feel slightly terrified in the heat of a tantrum.  It's because of this that I live by this standard of NOT negotiating with him while he's having one.  If I've picked a battle it's a battle worth picking and I can't waiver on it, it's as simple as that.

No, you may not sit in the middle of the road.
No, you may not run around with scissors.
No, you can't have a toy every time we go into a shop. 
No, you may not walk through life with nails longer than Freddy Krueger.

If the tantrum happens, I DON'T give in (negotiate). I DO offer hugs, I DO offer kind words and gentle soothing.  I DO express empathy and compassion. I DO show that I understand he's upset.  But once again, I DON'T negotiate. 

For a while I was negotiating constantly and mostly in the form of "giving in"; this was mostly because the battles I was choosing were negotiable.  Maybe I didn't want to give him an extra 30 seconds to look at a rock or I refused to let him bring something with him that he wanted to bring.  The tantrum would then happen and halfway through I'd say to myself "yep, maybe what he wanted wasn't such a big deal after all..."  Now I only pick the ones that aren't, so I don't.  So while in a lot of ways I'm sort of constantly negotiating my behaviors and instincts because I'm being more flexible and more patient than I'd otherwise feel compelled to be (sitting and looking at rocks for 5 more minutes than I'd normally like, avoiding restaurants I'd like to go to because I know Aias won't be able to handle),but when it comes to the serious moments that lead to the standoff (tantrum) I stand by my guns.   In the long run there's far less misery for both of us and parenting is, in general, a lot less terrifying.

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