Friday, June 29, 2012

Fire and Fuel – Behavior and Cause

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn,

My son just turned two on Sunday. He's been spirited since he stopped having reflux pain when he was about 10 weeks old. He fits all nine traits of the spirited child that you write about in your book, Mary. He's ALWAYS been prone to tantrums, but we've worked on trying to navigate them by giving him lots of warning about changes coming (i.e. "in a few minutes we're going to change your diaper, or get in the car, or get in the highchair"). Recently, though, he's gone from bad to worse with the tantrums and these are usually caused when he doesn't get what he wants. Here's an example from yesterday: He wants a specific type of cracker in the car which I simply don't have, so I offer him another... this makes him go OFF THE WALL with screaming, so much so that he starts shaking and can't breathe. I have spoken with my therapist, who's very helpful with raising a spirited child and she tells me that I should say, "This must be very frustrating for you" and then just let him continue to "express himself". But when that crazy type of screaming goes on for another 10 minutes, it's really difficult for me to a) not snap and b) not try to just placate him by literally turning the car around to go to a grocery store and buy him the crackers that he wants.

What would your suggestions for us when the crazy tantrums happen with a 2-year old who's seemingly too young to reason and communicate with easily?

Thanks in advance! ~ Susan

Dear Susan,

When we start thinking about children’s behavior the actions that we see are what we call the “fire.”  Behind every “fire” or behavior there is a fuel source or a reason.  In order to extinguish the “fire” behavior we have to be certain we are addressing the right fuel source, specifically what the child is feeling or needing.  Obviously there could many potential fuel sources and the possibilities may seem overwhelming which is why we use a framework that includes four key areas to consider.  They are temperament, development, stress and medical issues. 

If a behavior is fueled by temperament you will say, “It has always been this way and others see it in different situations and environments too.”    If it’s development it’s a new behavior tied to a developmental stage or growth spurt.  So the first question related to development is to ask, “Is this child within six weeks of his birthday or half birthday when growth spurts commonly occur?”  Or, secondly, is the behavior typical for this age - like a two-year-old saying “no” even when he wants something.  Behaviors tied to stress often occur out the of blue, but when you think back to when they started you can identify a particular event or situation or change in routine that occurred, such as an illness, a grandparents’ visit, new baby, switch to a new classroom etc.  Behaviors fueled by stress also often fall into what we call “shut down” and the child who could dress himself, suddenly can’t.  Or the child who would go upstairs by himself refuses.  Changes in sleeping, eating and toileting also occur when the fuel sources is stress.  So you will see more middle of the night wake-ups, meltdowns, changes in eating, toileting accidents and difficulty listening.  Often in our work we’ll address behaviors first from temperament, development or stress and see what’s still occurring after we do so. 

If the child is not successful despite these efforts to address the needs, then we’ll move to the fourth framework which is medical.  In this case the behaviors are not responding to strategies that usually work and the intensity of them is more than typical.

Going back to your question, you are preparing him.  From the developmental point of view you are setting a limit.  We can expect a two year old to protest, but to also get over it reasonably quickly.  If no significant stressors have occurred in his life, then in this situation due to the intensity of his reaction, we would encourage you to explore potential medical factors.  Medical factors could be minor like an ear infection, to more significant issues such as allergies or developmental issues.   We hope this framework can be helpful as you step into the detective role identifying the true fuel source so you can support your child. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Emotional Coaching

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn:

Our family recently visited an arcade.  The first time our son tried one of the games he won so of course he then expected to win every time.  When he didn’t, he got really sad and then ran away.  I tried to talk to him about feeling disappointed but he growled at me and then started flailing at me.  Where did I go wrong?   Tonya

Dear Tonya:

You were on the right path, showing concern and attempting to address the “real” fuel source.  A challenge as an emotion coach is to know who you are working with because the approach changes depending on the child’s “type.”  Fortunately you don’t have to be a specialist to identify your child’s “type” he will show you with his behavior.  A child who runs or hides when upset is one who needs space and quiet to calm.  The child who covers his ears or looks away is also telling you he needs silence in order to be able to think and process his emotions.  He is not ready to talk.  The one who growls when you ask about emotions prefers to discuss the facts. 

Trouble can occur when, what your child’s behavior is showing you he needs, is directly opposite from what you prefer when you are upset.  So if you are more extroverted, your desire is to talk things through.  When disappointed, you’d want a hug and someone to listen while you poured out your woes.  

This is where you have to stop yourself, switch out of your preferred or most natural response to one that “fits” your child better.  Step back to give him space so he doesn’t need to run away.  In a quiet, calm voice say to him, “I’m here.  I will help you.”  Then stop talking.  Wait.  When he turns to look at you, or moves toward you then you can begin seeking understanding.  But if this is a child who rejects the “feeling” questions skip them and switch to seeking the “facts.”  Ask questions such as:  “What’s up?”  “Tell me what happened?” “Did someone say/do something mean?”  “Did you have a plan?”  The introverted thinker will calm and work with you. 

Question:  What makes it hard to give a child time to process his/her emotions?  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn:

My spirited son has just turned eight.  We had a party, a small gathering of friends which works well for him.  He had a great day. Today his behavior is horrid.  He is very easily frustrated, yelling and rude.  I just talked with him and he told me he is upset that his birthday is over.  Any suggestions of how to help him , and what we could do next year to avoid this again?  Cassidy

Dear Cassidy:

You are not alone.  Requests for private consultations surge after major holidays.  So let’s do a little digging.  We always want to look for the fuel source – the real feeling or need behind the behavior.  Could he be exhausted? His preference for small groups makes us wonder if he might be an introvert who enjoys the celebration but finds it draining.  Or was he so excited he didn’t sleep well?  Did he eat more sugar than is typical?  A change in diet can have a dramatic influence on behavior.  Did he have expectations for the day that were not met?  Or is he experiencing a very common “let down” after a big event? 

Let’s assume it may be the latter so respond as an emotion coach teaching him that what he is experiencing is called a “let down.”  Other people experience this feeling too.  You might even share a “let down” you remember.  By giving it a name and describing it you empower him to verbalize the sensations he is encountering so that he can clearly communicate it in the future and work with you to plan for success.  If he is more introverted he may wish to plan a quiet, low-key day following a big event in order to recharge.  If he prefers extroversion he may wish to plan a play date to ease the transition. 

If the “real fuel source” is fatigue, overstimulation or dietary – you would do the same thing.  Name it, describe it, let him know he is not the only person who experiences those feelings and then together plan for success. 

Question:  Think about your child’s temperament and your own.  What do you need to ease a “let down”?  Is your need similar or different from your child’s?