05 August 2016

A Technique to Terminate Tantrums: Directed Self-Calming via Incentivized Alternative

I'm not totally sure on the name.  I just came up with it this morning, and hadn't spent any time thinking about it before.  I like the directed self-calming part...
How about I actually start at the beginning, instead of the end, eh?

Kids throw tantrums.

By tantrum I mean any combination of yelling, crying, and flailing, which is triggered by a conflict with another person which doesn't allow them to get whatever it is that they want.
Crying because an errant football hit them in the head as they were playing in the park would not count as a tantrum.

Kids, unfortunately, do not come with instruction manuals.

One would think that evolution would naturally guide us to instinctively know the best way to deal with children in a species that instinctively provides "parenting", but for some reason it doesn't.

This technique may have been come up with plenty of times, by many different people, and it may even be written down many places, but I personally have never seen anyone else use it, have never read about it.

I myself am not (yet!) a parent.
But I have several younger siblings, I did lots of baby sitting from teens all the way through to the present, and I even worked one summer as a full-time live-in nanny.

I have yet to find any child it doesn't work on, ranging from barely old enough to speak (less than 2), all the way to barely old enough to still be throwing tantrums (almost 7).  And it seems to work on the first try, even with a child whose parents and caretakers use completely different, even opposite approaches.

The hardest part, for most people, is more likely to be having the will to actually do it, and do it consistently.

The automatic response of most people to a child that is screaming falls into one of three varieties: empathy, weary annoyance, or anger.
In an empathetic response, you "feel their pain", you feel bad for the child that it feels so bad, and so you give them the thing that they want because you want them to feel better.  This seems to be a likely response of a new parent, a grandparent, or a former parent with grown kids.
Parents of a terrible two eventually get saturated with it, and stop feeling so much empathy.  For them the same response is done for a more practical reason: give them what they want just to quickly shut them up so you can get back to all the other stuff that needs to get done.
And then the other reaction is to reflect that tantrum back to the child: you start screaming back, only louder (because you have bigger lungs and are capable of being louder), perhaps demanding silence, or even threatening punishment.  You see this sometimes among the poor, the teen parents, and anyone else unduly stressed in life.

For those that feel empathy to a tantrum, there is something you need to understand; that's what they want you to feel.

Remember, the crying that follows being unexpectedly hit in the head is not the same as a tantrum.
Look more closely: the crying before a shot, and after, are different in quality.  The crying that accompanies the announcement of bath time or bed time is different from that which follows dropping one's ice cream in the dirt.
A tantrum is a special type of response that is directed specifically at adults and caretakers who are making a kid do something they don't want to do or not allowing them something they want.

While it may not be at all conscious in an infant (and is probably 100% conscious and deliberate in a 7 year old that is still doing it), it is none-the-less in a very real sense manipulative.
A tantrum is not an expression of emotion, not in the way crying due to pain or sadness or fear is. A tantrum is a way for a child to get what they want.  You can tell because they will never throw a tantrum if (as far as they know) no caretaker is there to see it.

You can tell even without knowing the context, because the behavior itself is different: the screaming in a tantrum is much louder, with a higher ratio of scream to cry, often with the head thrown back, arms flailing or kicking and punching, they may even roll around on the floor.  All of these are theatrics, they make it more dramatic for anyone watching, to indicate the severity.
Genuine expressions of emotion start inside, and leak out a little, and as such they tend to be a little smaller, a little quieter.  Certainly louder than an adult with the same feeling, but smaller than the same child throwing a manipulative tantrum.

If all crying seems the same to you, it makes you feel bad, and as a result you try to make them feel better - whether it is by giving them what they want, or even just providing comfort - then they have won, and they now control the relationship.
In the long run, though, everyone loses, because most of the time the adult really is the one who knows best, and the child who "wins" the conflict about staying up now is going to be miserable the next day when they didn't get enough sleep.

If that's you, try to look closer from now on, both to context and the different behaviors, that distinguish a tantrum from a display of genuine bad feelings.

For the people who don't necessarily feel bad for a screaming kid, but see it as a practical matter to give them what they want - from the child's perspective, there is no difference between the two, none at all.  Either way, they learn that they have an easy and effective way to get pretty much anything they want, or at least a compromise or concession.  Either way, the child controls the relationship, and in the end everyone loses.

BF Skinner (the "ring a bell, make a dog salivate" guy) may have over-reached in his theories - we are much more complex than simply a collection of conditioned responses - but that doesn't mean he was wrong in his observations.  If you positively reinforce a behavior, you can expect to see more of it.  Every time you give in to a tantrum, for whatever reason, you are in effect telling them to do the same thing the next time they don't get their way.  When you come across a 7 year old who is still throwing tantrums, you don't have to meet their parents to know what technique they've been using to deal with them.

Therefor the most important thing in dealing with tantrums is NEVER give in to them (at least while the tantrum is still in progress).  Never ever.  Not even if it was something you were planning to give them all along (in which case, in response to the tantrum itself, the reward needs to be delayed).

With the anger response, yelling, threats, or punishment, you certainly don't have the problem of positively reinforcing negative behavior.  Quite the opposite, they get negative feedback, and are more likely to learn that tantrums are ineffective, and stop doing it.
However, it is very far for ideal, for its own reasons.
The whole thing that you want to teach the child is that their emotions is not an excuse for unacceptable behavior.  You want to teach them to calmly ask for what they want, and to be willing and able to accept it if they don't get it.
One of the most important ways a child learns how to be is by watching adults.
The anger response models bad behavior.  You are telling them not to scream as a way to get what they want, yet you are screaming at them to get what you want (for them to stop screaming).
It is hypocritical.  And kids tend to notice stuff like that.  Even if not consciously, it sends the message that expressing emotions or getting what you want be screaming, or by force, or whatever, is normal and acceptable.
It may stop the tantrum in the moment, but in the long run, this response too is counter-productive.


So what should you do instead?

This is what I do:

1) If in a crowd, or around at least one empathic, annoyed, or angry adult, take them to a separate, private, preferably quiet space.  This isn't always necessary, but other people, even other children, can undermine the rest of it.

2) Get their attention, by saying their name louder than they are crying.  You may have to yell, but note this is different than "screaming at" them.  You only need to talk in a loud voice in order to be heard over their screaming.

3) Offer them a set of two choices, preferably one better than the other, but where neither is as good as what they want.  Make clear those are their only options.

4) Tell them that they can get their prefered choice ONLY if they stop screaming.  Continuing to cry (as in tears) is acceptable (don't actually say that, but know it yourself.  Just because a tantrum is manipulative doesn't mean it isn't concurrent with genuine unhappiness), but screaming, flailing, hitting, throwing stuff, etc, means they get no choice, they get the worse option.
Depending on the individual, and the circumstances, this often works instantly, though other times it may take half a dozen (loud, but calm) repetitions to sink in.

5) Many times, kids can turn off a manipulative tantrum like a faucet.  When they realize that what they are doing is getting them worse results, and that it is in their own best interests to stop, they usually stop.  However, if they already got themselves too worked up, sometimes they can't even hear you, in which case the only option is to leave them there on "time out" for a minute or two while they calm down enough to at least be able to comprehend your offer.

That's it!


Here's a couple real-life examples, to hopefully make it more clear.

1) I'm at a restaurant with a family.  The little one is sitting across from me.  There are two bowls of chips on the table, one of them between us.  The little one decides that bowl is hers, and announces that no one else can have any.  Everyone continues eating them though.  She pulls the bowl to herself, and she is rebuked, prompting much crying and screaming, and even a little flailing.
All the relatives at the table try to console her, with no effect.  This goes on for several minutes.
Finally, I intervene: I take all of the chips away from her.
I tell her "hey, if you keep screaming, you get NO chips.  If you stop screaming, you can have ONE chip".  She stops crying like someone through a switch.  From 100% to 0%, just like that. And I hold up my end of the agreement, and give her one single chip, which she accepts, and eats in silence.

Note that offer of one chip is not giving in.  She was free to have as many chips as she wanted to begin with.  What she wanted was ALL of them, to herself.  Her "reward" for ending the tantrum is actually still less than what she had to begin with, it was simply better than the alternative option of zero chips.

Real Life Example 2)  I'm out with a bunch of kids, including one a little over 1 and one a little over 2.  The two of them have never met before, but play together spontaneously.  The 1 year old offers a toy to the 2 year old who happily and gratefully takes it.  But then the 1 year old reaches into the 2 year old's toy bag and takes a toy, to which 2 year old responds "mine!" and snatches it away.
I tell 2 year old he has to share, just like the other kid shared with him, and in response to that he demands all of his toys back.  This demand is refused, and he starts screaming.

I pick him up, take him inside the house, and stand him on the bed in front of me. I let him cry for a few seconds, then requested he stop screaming, which he (of course) ignores.
"Hey, [insert name here]" I call out, "do you want to go back outside and play?"
He shakes his head yes while still screaming.
"If you want to go back outside and play, first you have to stop crying".
[the two options presented are playing outside or indefinite time out]
He keeps screaming.
I repeat it again.
He keeps screaming.
I tell him he has to stay here, and I am leaving, once he calms down he can come out, and walk out the door, closing it behind me.  I wait about 10 seconds and walk back in, and then make the same offer again:
"If you want to go outside and play, you have to stop screaming".
He stops.
"ok, good, now: are you going to share?"
He shakes his head 'no'.
"ok, well then we can't go outside."
He makes a face like he is going back to tantrum mode - but I cut it off before it begins: "if you start screaming again, you can't go outside at all" and he doesn't start.
"If you go outside, are you going to share"
He is quiet a couple seconds, and then shakes his head 'yes'.
We go outside right away, and...
he picks up his toy bag and hands one toy each to everyone there - child and adult!
I was actually shocked, he went over and beyond the agreement!
A few days later his mom (who wasn't there for it) reported back that when asked what he had done that day, he said that he had trouble sharing, and he had to go inside, but then he shared.
!! :-) !!

Real Life Example 3) Me and a couple others are all watching a kid - a little under two, just barely verbal.  He rather suddenly starts crying at scream volume.  No one is sure why.  The other two just keep trying one thing after another to comfort him, to no avail.  Finally I take him aside, set him down, and take a step back.
He expects comfort when he is upset!
He reaches his arms up for me to pick him up and hold him...
So I ask "would you like me to pick you up"
He manages a meek "yes" in between sobs, along with a head nod.
"First you have to stop screaming, then I will pick you up".
[the choices are not screaming and being held, vs continuing to scream and not being held]
It takes a couple times before he is able to gain his composure, but within a few seconds he is completely over it, and I pick him up.
Weird thing is, once he recovered, I asked him why he had been crying, and he had no idea!
Well, whatever, it still worked, so all is well.


And, when it works, all is well.
It has been suggested to me by a well meaning adult who got only a brief synopsis of the technique that instructing a child to stop crying was in effect having them "repress" their feelings.

Whether or not that person was really being serious, I'm not totally sure, but I bet a lot of people will have similar first reactions, so I may as well address it preemptively.

The short answer: there is no such thing as "repressed" feelings.

Just like with "repressed memories", a Freudian idea which became re-popularized due to one crackpot psychologist who was thoroughly debunked and subsequently sued by his clients, modern psychological science has pretty much conclusively found the common perception of the idea of repressed feelings is invalid; but the idea has taken hold so strongly in popular culture that almost no one is aware of the debunking, and still believes there is such a thing.

We like to believe that human memory is like a video camera: everything we experience is recorded exactly as it is experienced, and later we can play it back, with perfect accuracy.  In reality memory is more of a network of generally associated ideas.  Furthermore, it is very well established that the product of those associations can be easily and predictably modified, sometimes resulting in very vivid memories which are completely false - but with as much confidence as any other.  Tell a story more than once, and the second time you are remembering the story you told last time, not the actual events.

Similarly, the idea of repressed emotions depends on the assumption that there is some "real", concrete thing which exists, someplace "in" the mind - sort of like the anthropomorphized "feelings" of Pixar's Inside Out.

While memories of skills (using a spoon, riding a bike) represent an actual rearrangement of neural connections, emotions are regulated by hormones and neurotransmitters - chemicals.
They are a state of being, not a "thing".
In both cases the concept of repression makes no sense, because there is no thing to repress.
While it is certainly possible to forget things, once you have completely forgotten it, it is just plain gone.  It makes for good movie plots, but real life amnesiacs don't get their past memories back. "Recovery", when it is possible, means being able to begin forming new memories.

A feeling is an experience.  Which means that if you aren't experiencing it, it doesn't exist.

We like to believe that we are rational, as well as in control, and that leads to assuming straight-forward linear relationships: something bad happens, which causes us to feel bad, which influences our behavior.  The real human mind is more complicated, and emotions are part of a complex feedback network, some of which we have control over, and some of which we don't.
For one thing, our feelings are a result of our thoughts and interpretations of our experiences, not a direct or inevitable result of circumstances, which is why cognitive behavior therapy and "re-framing" are so effective.
But even that doesn't fully show the ephemeral nature of feelings: psychologists find that the physical act of (forcing) a smile or frown can actually affect your mood.
In absolute opposition and contrast to the idea that not expressing feelings intensifies them and expressing them "releases" them, the reality is that the act of "catharsis" only increases negative emotions.  You experience what you express just as much as you express what you experience. Yelling and punching a pillow don't make you feel better, they make you feel worse.
When one instead focuses and calming down and letting go, the bad feelings don't get stored away somewhere; just like your memory of the name of the kid that sat 4 seats over from you in 3rd grade, they simply cease to exist.

In stark contrast to the idea of greater psychological health from never "repressing", emotional regulation is one of the most significant skills a young child can develop:

One of the key developmental tasks in early childhood is the attainment of emotion regulation (Grolnick, McMenamy, & Kurowski, 2006; Kopp, 1989). Beginning in the preschool years, children gradually develop the ability to attune their emotion to best support situational demands (Kopp, 1989). In this context, emotion regulation (ER) has often been defined as the ability to initiate, maintain, and modulate emotional arousal in order to accomplish individual goals and facilitate the adaptation to the social environment (Thompson, 1994). ER has been related to a wide variety of domains of functioning, including social competence, peer acceptance (e.g., Calkins, Gill, Johnson, & Smith, 1999; Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2002), as well as academic competence (e.g., Grolnick, Kurowski, & Gurland, 1999). On the other hand, problems in ER are often related to behavioral problems and psychopathology (Cole, Teti, & Zahn-Waxler, 2003; Gilliom, Shaw, Beck, Schonberg, & Lukon, 2002). In particular, problems in regulating negative emotions in early childhood have been found to be associated with both internalizing and externalizing problems at school age and beyond (e.g., Buckner, Mezzacappa, & Beardslee, 2003; Silk, Shaw, Forbes, Lane, & Kovacs, 2006). Given the significance of ER, particularly the regulation of negative emotions, it is important to understand how children develop a repertoire of strategies for regulating emotion and factors that are associated with the development of ER. Through infancy and the preschool years, the development of ER is considered as moving along a continuum, from passive, other-reliant strategies to increasingly active and autonomous strategies (Grolnick et al., 2006). Individual differences in ER also arise during these formative years. Calkins (1994) has specified two critical domains in the process of acquiring ER skills: internal elements, including biological reactivity and behavioral traits, and external elements including parental caregiving styles and the training they provide.

What these things combine to tell us is that throwing a tantrum - even if it starts out conscious and deliberately manipulative, (and even more so if it doesn't) - will cause even more stress and unhappiness itself, beyond whatever the triggering event was.  And then it will continue to make life harder overall in the long run as well, with effects ranging from academic performance to social acceptance.
Conversely, helping a child end the tantrum as soon as possible will, in itself, reduce stress and unhappiness, as well as having long-term benefits that will last a lifetime.
Research on normative development has demonstrated that parents’ socialization practices play an important role in children’s Emotional Reactivity [ER].... Parental involvement has also been found to support children’s initial attempts to use active ER strategies (Grolnick et al., 1996, 2006). Furthermore, parental support for autonomy is thought to relate to children’s capacity for effective self-regulation.


So, anyway, about that name:
Directed Self-Calming via Incentivized Alternative

It seems a little paradoxical in a way, being "directed", yet "self" calming - it is "self" calming, because ultimately the child themself is making a conscious choice to end the tantrum.  That makes it in contrast to, for example, distracting them, letting them cry themself to sleep, yelling or threatening, or giving them whatever it is that they want.  All of those are markedly external factors in ending the tantrum, where the child has little to no conscious deliberate control over it.
However, the adult set up the conditions in which the choice can be made, which makes it directed.
So that part I'm happy with.
The "incentive" is whatever is the better of the two options the child is presented with, and the "alternative" refers to the fact that there are two choices.
So it kind of makes sense, right?  And it has that ring to it that people love giving to stuff to make it sound all fancy and legitimate.  But the grammar feels a little off, in a way I can't quite place.

Anyway, if you have a suggestion for a better thing to call it, let me know.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you ask a question, I will answer it.

NEW: Blogger finally put in a system to be notified of responses to your comments! Just check the box to the right, below, before you hit "publish"