19 January 2009

Even in Australia, with Chocolate: A tale of emerging literacy and anger management

We were on the road this weekend, visiting Politica's father, and Curious Girl was an awesome travel companion. Until about 4:00 this aft, that is, when she got out of the car for an early dinner, climbed into a snowbank, and promptly found the cold air + wet tights to be deeply distressing. I reached into the car for the handy bag of extra clothes, and we whined our way down the street to a restaurant, wherein CG decided that she was simply Too Miserable to be Helped. As she wound up, Politica and I decided that it was the better part of valor to leave the restaurant and get back in the car with bagels to go from a nearby coffeeshop. CG found this Not What She Wanted, and turned into Angry Girl. I carried her into the car (tucking her under my arm so as to keep her from pulling my hair and pinching me), somehow got her buckled into the car (while she pulled my hair bigtime, and was generally loud and obnoxious), and through a series of threats about future activities to be cancelled and empathetic comments about the Terrible State of Affairs and The Great Restaurant that We Will Now Miss, a semblance of calm returned to the car. Although as we pulled away from the car, CG opined that she was mad at me, "because you ruined my life, Mama." I just let that one go.

After a few minutes, though, I heard "here!" from the back seat, and turned around to see CG handing me the white board that has become our new favorite car toy. Sometimes, she draws on it, but sometimes, she and I write back and forth on it. Here's the correspondence that ensued:

Hi Mama, Im vry sore that I puld yor hare and tuggd on your niplz. Love, Curious Girl.

Dear Curious Girl, I'm very sorry you hurt me, too. My head still hurts. I love you, Mama.

Hi Mama, Im rely sore. I fel bad that I hurt you. I wish I kud hid in my sweatshirt. Love, Curious Girl.

Dear Curious Girl, Sometimes we try to hide when we make a mistake, but the best thing to do is make it right. If you hide in your sweatshirt forever, I will miss you forever. Love, Mama.

Dear Mama, I want to et. Love, Curious Girl.

At that point, we took a break and ate a bit, and Curious Girl turned back into her charming traveling self. She took her pointer and white board and started teaching a kindergarten class (in which I noticed she had to correct imaginary Curious Girl several times--I guess she was working out her own inner discipline).

Curious Girl is a great kid, and it's been clear to us from very early on that she needs help dealing with her emotions. All kids do, of course, but CG seems to easily get to a place where she can't calm down by herself. I think of her sometimes as my little Vulcan resonator--if I get angry when she's having a fit, she just feeds off my energy to ramp herself up. If I can stay calm, she can usually latch onto my calm and get herself back under control. Rachel's post on parents and anger led me to Laura Markham's parenting site, which has a ton of great information on anger. I've been reading it tonight, trying to figure out what is the right response to CG when she gets to physically angry. Markham says that tantruming kids are looking for something from their parents, and that empathy is the best way to help them name and act on their feelings.

In the midst of CG's tantrum today, I managed to distract her a bit by threatening to go through the week and cancel various activities, starting with tomorrow's play date, but that didn't really do much besides transfer the object of her anger (her cries shifted from "But I wanted to stay at the restaurant!" to "But I want to go home from school with My Friend tomorrow!"). I finally said, after one more yank on my hair, "fine, no playdate tomorrow. Keep it up and you'll lose your skating lesson on Wednesday," while thinking "a. this is not going to work: she will not remember this transaction the next time she gets mad and b. I wanted to work tomorrow afternoon. What am I doing to my own schedule?!?" While not threatening about the playdates, though, I was calm, and tried to tell her that she could calm down, that she was in charge of her body, and that it would get better. And eventually, it did.

Later on, Politica and I having conferred somewhat on the ways in which removing-playdate-consequences really aren't helpful here, we turned back to the conversation with CG, and I tried to explain the difference between feeling sorry and making something right (if you broke something of mine, you could say you're sorry, but then you could fix it, or get me a new one, to make it right.) This led, eventually, to another round with the white board, where CG made a list of ways to make things right with me. I didn't see the spelling here, but here's her plan:

step one: say I'm sorry
step two: find out if she's OK
step three: try to do something to make it better
step four: find out what hurts the most
step five: figure out how not to do it again

She was adorably into naming all these "steps" (which she thought of on her own) and figuring out how to write it all down so she wouldn't forget. Then we ran through all the steps, and on step 5, decided that "mad jumps" (jumping up and down 5 times after saying "mama, I'm mad!") might be the thing to do, rather than hitting. This let me say that I was going to let her have her play date after all, if she was ready to take responsibility for trying to calm down her anger. (We're also going to make a new Feeling Box for home, so she has paper and crayons specially for drawing when she's angry or sad.) She says that she'll let us remind her about jumping or the Feeling Box. I hope so. We had some success with the Feeling Box for a while last year, but when we moved, CG announced she didn't need it anymore. Clearly not.

It's relatively easy for me to empathize with CG when she's angry or sad generally--but when she gets so physically angry, it's harder. It's hard to know what to do with a raging child who's trying to hurt me and escalate things. I 'm taller and stronger than Politica, so I can carry CG even in a tantrum; Politica's already hitting some of her own physical limits with CG's size and strength. At the moment, I can restrain CG while she flails, but she will eventually get too big for that (sometimes even now, it's not practical to do that--she was able to hurt me today because we were in the car, and I couldn't easily get her in front of me.) I can shut myself in my own room to get away from her, but I can't reliably get CG to stay in her own space when she's angry. I'm just not sure what the natural consequences are for fits like this--and I'm not sure how to practice empathy with someone who's pulling my hair. Laura Markham doesn't comment on this anywhere I found. I'll be rereading How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, and looking up another book Markham recomments (Smartlove, by Martha Pieper). And I'll be thinking hard about how to balance empathy and efforts to reach out to CG in her own vulnerable anger with how to keep my scalp happy.

I'll end by saying that these kinds of tantrums don't happen very often (although we've had two this month!) and Curious Girl feels awful afterwards (as evidenced by her note that she wanted to hide in her sweatshirt). I'm writing about it in such detail because, as Rachel's post noted, it's hard to find information about what parents do when we're angry. I spent half an hour in the car today worried that CG's behavior was totally abnormal, but Politica assured me that these things happen to other people, too, only they don't talk about it. So I'm writing about it, so if this happens in your car sometimes, you can remember this post.

One more observation: as I was trying to remember all the good ideas in Rachel's post on anger, which is titled "I want a chocolate bar," I remembered, I did have a chocolate bar! So we ate some chocolate, and that was good, too.


Brigindo said...

Excellent post. I wish I had read it when my son was young. He would get similarly worked up but took his anger/frustration/anxiety out on himself. Once he flipped out in the middle of a busy crosswalk and started punching himself in the stomach, refusing to move, with the cars revving to run us over (it was in NYC, where they just don't wait for flipped out children). I had to drag him across the street and stick him in a doorway, isolating him from the crowd and the rush. Then we practiced deep breathing techniques until he could talk about it.

For him, I always felt it was part over-stimulation. When he was tired, or hungry, or particularly nervous, any stimulation became over stimulation and he lost any ability to cope. Once I learned that I tried to (a) reduce the times he got into that state and (b) find ways to decrease as much stimulation as possible until he could control himself.

rachel said...

Hey, thanks for the mention, and I'm so glad that's been helpful! It's been really helpful to me. In fact, just a couple days ago, when he pitched a fit after soccer, I found myself thinking, OMG, didn't these things used to last a lot longer? But I've gotten so much in the habit of not giving him a fight, that I don't even have that panicked moment of "What do I DO??" anymore.

What did mothers do before there was teh internets, I ask you?

susan said...

I can't imagine parenting without teh internets, Rachel. (and welcome, Brigindo!) I'm much relieved to know I"m not alone.

But still puzzled over what to do when I'm not giving a fight to someone who's actively punching, kicking, or spitting. That's teh tricky part.

B said...

For the terribleness of dealing with the tantrums, it sounds like you are giving her some really important tools for dealing with her feelings. Those skills will be invaluable to her as she grows up.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I really admire your patience. I don't think there is any perfect way to deal with a child who's lashing out physically (though there are plenty of wrong ways, like hitting back, etc.). I'm such a physical wimp that I cried out in pain the few times either of my kids tried hitting me. Oddly, though, they were both so horrified at the thought of being able to hurt a parent that it completely broke the momentum of their anger.

(Also, smiling about the white board!)

landismom said...

I don't want to overrate the efficacy of this, because I've only done it a couple of times, and I know that some things we've done over the years have had a short life in actually working. That being disclaimed, however, I will say that one of the things that's worked recently for us when the Bee gets like this (and I'm sorry to say that at 9, she still gets like this) is to basically grab her and give her a sincere hug, shhhing her the way you would an infant, and not letting go until she calms herself down.

There's something about physical soothing, with a kid who is physical in their anger.

And it is NOT intuitive, btw, for me to give her a hug when she is trying to kick me. It is very hard to give her a sincere hug.

As always, with parenting, ymmv.

jo(e) said...

One of my kids (Shaggy Hair Boy) was a bit like that -- he'd get overtired and overstimulated and overfrustrated. And he was a strong kid too.

When he'd get out-of-control, I'd wash his face with cold water. I don't know why, but cold water on his face always calmed him down, and yet it was a nonviolent physical action on my part.

As he got older, I'd try to talk to him calmly after an episode and just point out what things he'd done that worked well. ("You expressed your anger -- good! You were angry at me -- and you directed your anger at me -- good!) Then we'd focus on one thing he might do differently the next time. ("Maybe next time, talk in a normal tone of voice instead of screaming" or "Next time, maybe don't throw your toys around but use words instead.") This approach worked for him.

All kids are different but sooner or later you'll find out what works for you.

kathy a. said...

this brings back a LOT! i really wish the internets had been available to mere mortals like me when my kids were CG's age -- although it helped a lot to have a bunch of parent friends and find out we were not alone.

it sounds to me like CG is actually very, very good at using her words and working these things through after the fact, particularly at her age. doesn't stop the tantrums, but it is just such a marvelous step!

the comments about distractions, physical comforts, removing everyone from excess stimulation really do help calm things during the blowout -- but dang, it is hard to do that in the midst of a blowout!

rachel said...

Your mileage may vary on the hugging while angry. By all means, give it a try. Byron is physical in both anger and affection, but if you hug him while he's flipping out he gets more hysterical.

Here's what works for us: I've learned to dodge. And I don't touch him except to extricate myself. I no longer pick him up and carry him out of places. That latter is the hardest, because that's what you do when they're younger and that will sometimes seem like the only way you're going to get out of there. But the minute I touch him, even if it's not a mean or angry touch, it's escalated.

It happened this morning - he fell and hurt his knee of the way to the store, and that made him furious. The instinct is to hug him, obviously, but that pisses him off. I squat by him and ask if he wants a hug or kiss (he screams no). I suggest ways to make it feel better - he refuses to entertain any of my suggestions. OK, I say, then let's finish our errands. He acts like he's going to run away. I have learned through long experience that he WON'T. He'll go so far, and if I'm not chasing him, he'll eventually come back.

If I chase him, I'll have to pick him up or haul him along by the arm, and that's the fight he wants. I just wait, staying as calm as I can. He eventually comes back, complaining vociferously, telling me he hates me, etc. We run our errands - sometimes he cheers up after a while, sometimes he doesn't, but I try to treat him like he's more grown up than he is, and has a dignity worth preserving, and absurdly it works.

And I didn't get here through philosophy, exactly, I got here because he is too damn big for me to carry any distance, now, and he can really, REALLY hurt me if he tries. I realized I was going to have to put my money where my mouth is and use my words.

Songbird said...

Before the Internets, we felt isolated and inadequate. (I still sometimes feel that way, but I do have a 13-year-old girl now, and the Internets always seem to help!)

Ms Jewl said...

Staying calm - definitely no matter what other techniques go along with it - staying calm is the trick. And if someone was pinching my nipple (which thankfully Lyra never has) well, I don't know if I could stay calm. Kick, thrashing, screaming - this I can take. So, kudos to you for keeping your calm through that.

And CG - what a great and thoughtful person she is. I'm amazed that she was able to put so many of her thoughts down like that. I'm not sure that Lyra - who has good control over her emotions, nevertheless still has tantrums - but I don't think she could ever articulate her feelings this well.

MISA said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
coffeedrinkingwoman said...

Pockets has trouble controlling her emotions, too - in a "this is out of the norm" sort of way. She's older than CG, but what really helps her is to use my very quietest voice, and ask her what is making her so upset, and then to listen very carefully, and then, once she's talked, to suggest a redirection (there, doesn't talking make you feel better? Lets go get something to eat.). Then, once she's calmed all the way down, we talk about better ways to handle whatever was upsetting her. A year of this tactic, and she's a much more in control in kid. (Okay, so the time fram emay not be so encouraging, but when the emotional issues first boiled over, we were afraid they were forever. Also, a good talk therapist is totally worth it.)

abebech said...

One small recognition has been so important for us: Littlebun is the family barometer. Though we are outwardly pretty calm and even, Littlebun's anger rises in response to an increase in our pressure (even and perhaps especially when that pressure is coming from him). I'm going to check out those sites, but recognizing that Littlebun was a good indicator of my inner state (a lesson from Raising the Spirited Child) is beginning to make a big difference here.