Javi is 18 months and one week old.
Apparently my parenting style requires a lot of thinking. While some mamas can trust their instincts completely, I find I often have to think my way through the latest challenge we’re facing. Neither terribly dogmatic nor aligned with a single real “style,” things have to make sense in my head before I can comfortably and consistently act.
Life stops working well, I realize I’m not a very enjoyable human being, I stop to consider why, I realize X isn’t working because of Y, I think, I strategize, we adjust.
My instincts tell me something is good or bad, but I find I should only act based on a pre-thought plan.
Case in point: my son’s tantrums.
He’s 18 months old and really good at it. (Sleepless in Seattle reference, anyone? Anyone?) In the past few weeks, my sweet and funny child has become a grenade about to blow. He’s lost his sh*t over the dog looking at him, the cat getting up and moving, me touching him, me not touching him, having a fork, having a spoon, not having either, having both but wanting a knife… etc, etc, etc.
I knew this was coming but misunderstood the depth of feeling and hysteria we’d experience. That he’d experience and we’d, well, experience. Sigh. Regardless of the trigger, in a few moments he could be on the floor in a full on meltdown with nothing to do but ride it out. The other night, after an evening of sh*t-losing, I took him into a dark room and laid down until he could pull himself together.
Such big feelings, such a little body.
My strategy had been to wait it out. He needs to learn how to handle frustration and anger and sadness and all of these big feelings, preferably now before he can do real damage to himself or other people (physical or emotional). The tantrums aren’t the most fun, but they’re a useful experience, and the only way out seemed to be through.
But. BUT! It didn’t fit together in my head. Surely we could be doing something to help, even if we couldn’t skip this stage?
Yea, so, big surprise, we’ve been getting a little lax about structure and schedules around here. The adults get stir-crazy and need to spend time out of the house, so whomever is on duty has been taking Javi out somewhere. Anywhere. We also had a lot of toys out and available to him, loud, bleeping, blinking toys and scads of little doodads he liked to scatter about and (sometimes) pick up and put away. And, finally, he’s gotten sucked into devices. Before, we lamented his unwillingness to spend more than 30 seconds on the iPad. Now, instead of handing it over when asked, he throws his body over it and dares me to remove it. (I do. Sh*t-losing ensues.)
I have read a lot of parenting books over these years and tossed all but two: Montessori From the Start and Children: The Challenge*. I like the Montessori method because it prizes autonomy and respect while offering constructive and practical steps to follow.
Example: once children understand object permanence, merely taking a desired thing out of their sight isn’t enough; they can now hold a picture of it in their heads. Explaining that they can’t have the thing merely reinforces the picture of the thing in their heads. Instead, help them divert their own attention by describing something else in enough detail that they can replace the picture of the thing they can’t have with the new thing.
A, ha! It’s not just about distracting them for a moment – which feels manipulative to me (“Look, a bird!”) – but about helping them switch their attention to something more appropriate (“Wow, this water in the bath is so wet. I can swirl it with my hand and pour it from a cup. Do you want to get in the water now?”).
I like Dreikurs’ book because it suggests actual interventions and explains why they work. Example: when a child is doing something they shouldn’t, we must make sure the outcome fits the behavior. If my son kicks the dinner table, threatening to make him go to bed early is punitive and doesn’t make too much sense other than, “Do what I say or I will take something away from you.” Instead, we move his chair away from the table. Now he can’t kick it and he’s not as close to us as before, both bad things directly caused by his actions. “If you do this,” we’re saying, “that happens. And if you don’t want that, you must stop doing this.”
Two nights ago, I confiscated every battery-having toy in his room; put away more than half the books on his shelf; took the slide down and stashed it; boxed away all but a handful of toys. We’re limiting his screen time to during breathing treatments or while on the potty. After yesterday’s naptime disaster, we’re sticking to the clock whether he seems sleepy or not. We already don’t move him physically without first giving him the chance to do it himself. We already warn him that one phase is about to end so he can prepare for the transition. We already allow him to do most things at his own pace in his own way. I’m thinking we should try to learn sign language again, though he’s a pretty clear communicator already. The frustration seems to be because he can’t do something, not because we don’t understand what he wants to do!
I will continue to help manage his world using the methods above, but I will also accept that meltdowns will happen until he learns how to handle the feelings. Seeking to avoid them altogether defeats the purpose of the learning phase… and if he’s going to melt down, it may as well be at the boundary I want rather than the last one I’m willing to set.
*A caution on that second book: skip the intro chapters. It was written half a century ago and, though the goal is a more “modern” approach to parenting in line with what we consider the norm today, the explanation for why that’s necessary is… old school.