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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What I Do About Tantrums and Hitting

I was recently asked what I do when Anders throws tantrums. The short answer is: Anders doesn't throw tantrums. Or maybe he does and I just don't call it tantrums as that feels disrespectful? Because he does get upset! He doesn't throw himself on the floor, but he does throw himself into my arms. 

Anyway, what I would do if Anders or any other child--or adult--were to feel something so intensely that all he could do was lay on the floor and cry is: I would kneel down by him, if he let me I would put my hand on his stomach for comfort, and I would just be there with him while he was sad.

Sometimes I am helpless to fix someone else's pain. Perhaps my husband really wants me to go out with him, but I am too tired, and I just don't have it in me to do that for him, and it makes him super sad. I can't fix it, but I can be very compassionate and kind about the suffering he is experiencing. The same with Anders, sometimes he really wants something that I am simply not willing to buy for him, and it makes him sad. I can't fix it. But I can offer to hold him while he is sad or simply be there with him.

This is a learned skill. Ten years ago I would have thought, "What a spoiled brat!!!" and that judgement would have blocked me from feeling compassion for my son, and I would have tried to "get him" to feel better or to repress or something. Today, I simply come into my perceptual brain and perceive. I literally focus my brain on the person suffering: his face, his pain, his tears, the tightness in his body--my mirror neurons understand how he is feeling and empathy pours out naturally. 

As long as I can stay in my perceptual brain there is no guilt, no anger, no embarrassment, no judgement. There is just being with a fellow human while they are sad. It's amazing how if I don't make it about me... it really isn't about me! 

Remember that it takes two people for one person to "throw a tantrum." Let's say my husband tells me that he wants to get Chinese food for dinner and I say I want Mexican. And he says that he really needs Chinese and he is not willing to go to two different restaurants so we can both get our needs met. Now I'm a little peeved. Why don't my needs matter?! So I'm like, "Ummmm, don't I matter?" If he responds compassionately everything will be fine. But if he responds with, "Now you're going to throw a fit because you're not getting your way!" or "Go to your room until you can be grateful you get any dinner at all!" or whatever other rude thing he could say, I will get Very Peeved and possibly "throw a tantrum." But if my husband had said, "I really really want Chinese and I just don't have it in me to stop at two restaurants. Would you be able to give me the gift of meeting my needs tonight?" I might very well say that I can give him that gift and the problem is solved. It takes two people for one person to "throw a fit." The person throwing the fit is usually doing so because he wasn't heard.

Moreover, when it's a kid--you are the adult in the situation so: if your kid is throwing a fit, guess whose fault it is? That's how I think about tantrums.

So it could be answered that Anders never threw tantrums because I never gave him the opportunity.

Until 2015. Man that year was so rough! In January our housemate burnt down our kitchen. We camped in that house in Los Angeles with no kitchen and throughout the construction until JULY. It was horribly stressful. And as soon as the kitchen was done, we moved to Nicaragua. More insane stress. So what happened? For the first time in Anders's life he started having some pretty terrible emotional outbursts.

He was around 3 1/2 and one day on a playdate his friend got upset and bit him and hit him and after that whenever Anders got upset for about four months he would try to hit or bite anyone near him who upset him. 

During those moments I would say, "I'm not going to let you hit me. Can I hold your arms?" 80% of the time simply saying that would stop the hitting. 10% of the time he would say, "Yes! Hold my arms!" and I would. I would hug him, bear style, and hold his arms. Sometimes I had to hold his head to to prevent him from biting. He would generally cry and scream and when he was quiet enough I would tell him something like, "You were feeling sooooo angry! Thank you for letting me hold your arms so no one got hurt! I love you soooo much." And then we would talk about what happened. Around 10% of the time, he ask me to not hold his arms but he would continue to try to hit and bite--so I would hold his arms anyway. He would usually calm down rather quickly, but this felt too much like a punishment for me to feel very good about it.

This hasn't happened in quite some time. I was actually not expecting it to happen at all with Anders. I do blame myself for it. I have compassion for myself as well because I know how hard the year was but like I said above: a person doesn't randomly go nuts. In every circumstance where Anders became a little nuts, it was easily my fault for not paying attention soon enough to what was going on. 

After a time Anders told me that he didn't like it when I held his arms, and so we agreed that I would not hold his arms if he would not hit me. For a few months when he got upset (maybe once every two weeks or so) I would see him hold back his arm like he wanted to hit me and then change his mind. It was quite incredible. Since moving to the farm our life has calmed down quite a bit and it has been a long time since Anders tried to hurt me, so long I can't even remember the last time.

 He is 4 1/2 now. The current thing we are working on with him is his attacking other people, people who don't know his boundaries--his body and his things. He gets super pissed when adults pick him up and move him places without his permission. He believes his body is his and people don't have a right to touch it without his permission. Ditto with his property. We are working on that, on how to communicate our needs in an assertive way to people of various ages, and especially adults and younger children who have a tendency to not listen.

I want to do a skit about this for YouTube, what my Hero would do in the adult world too. Say a guy in a bar punches John Galt. Does John Galt punch him back? It is his right to punch him back, after all. That's what John Wayne would have done! Or would John Galt call the bouncer and get the guy tossed from the bar and then follow that up with a law suit? That is also his right. That's what Ayn Rand would have done! Or does John Galt turn the other cheek like Jesus would have done?

My hero, let's call him Tom Garrett instead of John Galt since Galt is Rand's. Tom Garrett swiftly gets the guy into a krav maga hold and says, "What's going on man?" and lets the guy spew out his anger which would inevitably lead to him feeling his pain which would lead to crying which would end up with Tom letting the guy out of the hold while the guy finished expressing his feelings and then after the guy was done and feeling very grateful to Tom and feeling better for having released his feelings he would look at Tom and say, "Thanks man. I'm so sorry for hitting you. That was a real dick move. What can I do to make it up to you?" 

If you want to make this skit with me let me know. :)

It is only the compassionate move that leads to a healthy community and a healed relationship. So: there is no contradiction here. How I respond to an emotional Anders is how I would like to respond to an emotional adult. If I can. I don't think there is any shame in the other responses available to me. If I can be heroic in that moment, I am, and if I can't (because I have had a very bad day myself) I punch the guy back or have him thrown out of the bar and later we make up and I talk about how I wish I would have responded and the guy talks about how he wishes he hadn't have lost it in the first place.

There is no contradiction here when it comes to parents. Let's be heroes when we can. When we can't our relationship will be damaged--but it can also be healed. Attempting to cooly control children with punishment and rewards, manipulating them, lying to them--these things will destroy a relationship. An authentic emotional outburst won't. (Unless of course it happens all the time.)

*Note that when a child is 2 and under and hits the proper thing to do is to help him find something he can hit, not to stop him from hitting. Somewhere around 2 1/2 he desire to "hit SOMETHING" turns into the desire to "hit YOU" and that is when the strategy changes.

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