Imagine that we can plot a tantrum on a graph…
The “y-axis” is “level of tantrum” and the “x-axis” is “time.” The tantrum shape is a bell curve, divided into stages. The first stage: there’s no tantrum, but then there’s some sort of trigger, after which behavior begins to worsen. It escalates to its worst level (dysregulation zone) and after time begins to reduce, eventually coming back to ‘zero.’
The place where parents are most motivated to intervene in their child’s behavior?
That top (orange) area.
The place where interventions are LEAST likely to do any good?
Also that top (orange) area. (Aha.)
Flip the illustration over (or look at the bottom half) and you’ll see the bell curve shape reproduced, with 5 differently colored columns. These columns coordinate with the stages of the tantrum, and include advice on best techniques for managing behaviors during that phase.
Parents, this is a cheat-sheet! A short-cut to understanding and better responding to behavior. Use this to pick effective interventions based on your child’s brain functioning at any given moment.
To say it another way–this helps make sense of your child’s tantrums, explains why some things you do just make things worse, and gives a parent guidance for what TO do instead.
This is the concept that parents, over and over, have told me has been most helpful for them, in understanding and managing behavior.
(PS. “Tantrums” aren’t just for toddlers! Teenagers and you and me–we all have a version of tantrums, too!)
I’M SO EXCITED THAT WE NOW HAVE THE ARC TRANSLATED INTO TWO MORE LANGUAGES:
- The Arc of the Tantrum infographic in Spanish. (click link for .pdf format)
- And Indonesian! Really!!!! The Arc of the Tantrum infographic in Indonesian.
- By the way, if you are fluent in another language and would like to see this infographic in your language, contact me. We might be able to make it happen.
- The **Webinar**! This blog post is a ton of information, striped down to its most basic level, but the webinar gives you a chance to hear the concepts explained more thoroughly, with more examples and details that make it easier to understand and implement. Our brains typically need to interact with information more than however long you spend on this page to be able to use that information. Give yourself the gift of more support! Join us live or watch the replay anytime.
- The Arc of the Tantrum infographic in English as a pdf file. This is the better file for printing. Put it on your fridge! Give it to a friend or a teacher.
- The Arc of the Tantrum 3 minute sampler video
- “Are you going to let her get away with that?” blog post
- The Kids who Need the Most Love will ask for it in the most Unloving Ways
Imagine that interactions about behavior in your parenting life can be neatly divided in to two categories of situations. Overly simplistic, yes, but work with me here for a minute. Depending on the category, I propose that two distinct types of situations, goals, and behavior management strategies apply. And, knowing which category you are dealing with (and keeping an eye for how much time you spend in each one) is an excellent asset for parenting well.
Category 1: Finish Line Parenting
Finish Line Parenting is what 99% of us were employing this morning at 7:30am. In my house, weekdays at 7:30am during the school year often look about the same. PUT ON YOUR SHOES! WHERE IS YOUR BACKPACK? HERE’S YOUR LUNCH! ACCCKK HURRY UP! I might not be actually yelling, but I am often wound up a bit and/or micro-managing, Worse, there are the days when the usual techniques aren’t working, and parents feel like the only way they are going to get their child out the door in time is to use bribes, threats, yelling, consequences, etc.
I call these situations “Finish Line Parenting” situations, because in those moments, our priorities are about an outcome, ie the ‘finish line.’ The finish line might be getting to school before the tardy bell, hustling a tantruming child away from judging eyes, or getting your child to back away from a busy street curb, but your primary goal for that moment is about achieving something external IN that moment.
When parents have short-term goals, and a child’s participation is necessary for success, there is a potential for conflict. If our child doesn’t just happen to feel like doing whatever it is that we want them to do, and we don’t think that the goal should be postponed or discarded, we are left with a situation where the only way to achieve our goals is to make another person to do what we want. The techniques for doing that are generally techniques that use power, like the above named yelling, bribes, threats, etc. Our focus on a short-term result, when combined with our child’s non-agreement, means that we will likely need to use our power in order to control our child. This, while necessary at times, is a parenting technique that comes with some less desirable side effects.
Think about a time when you felt like someone didn’t care about what you wanted, but rather only their own opinions & priorities. I’d wager that it felt bad to you, and our kids are no different. Overused power and control techniques tend to result in lower relationship closeness, increased deceit, and more power struggling.
Now, having said all that, I will also strongly say that I don’t think it’s possible to parent without doing this some of the time. Children, by definition, are immature and unable to always make decisions based on long-term health and well-being. Part of our job as parents is to make them do things even if they don’t want to. So, don’t read this like I’m saying that Finish Line Parenting techniques are bad. They aren’t bad, they are just better when used thoughtfully and sparingly. Our goal should be to limit their use, and look for situations where we can pull tools from the other category.
Category 2: Growth Parenting
Growth Parenting moments are those when we can choose to opt out of our otherwise goal-directed activity, and let our child’s preferences or needs take priority. Growth parenting techniques vary widely, but typically involve lots of calm energy, patience, and good boundaries, and sometimes also include physical calming, playfulness, reflection, validation, and parental time-outs. Growth parenting lets the child’s needs set the timeline. Growth Parenting techniques are flexible and responsive to the situation, and especially to the needs of the child.
Growth parenting techniques are what we are employing when, for example, we see our child struggling with something, and we think twice about intervening. Growth parenting is when we see our child getting more and more upset because they didn’t get the thing they wanted, and we take a deep breath, stay present but not over-involved, and let them wrestle with those difficult feelings in an age-appropriately independent manner. Growth parenting is when we offer calm connection during hard times, and wait until later to handle needed feedback or reparations.
Growth parenting is when the trip to Target you thought you were about to take gets set aside because you realize that the priority is now giving your child a chance to practice tolerating some uncomfortable emotion. This is no longer Target-shopping time on your calendar. Target can wait. Your new agenda item for 2pm is “Let my child practice feeling and tolerating and managing difficult emotions.”
Growth Parenting techniques can challenge us–it’s hard sometimes to stay calm when your child is escalating and not being cooperative. The effort pays off, though, because these moments facilitate long-term growth and maturity for our children, particularly around the critical skills of tolerating and managing difficult emotions. The other payoff–these techniques strengthen our relationships.
Telling them apart
Last thought– improving our ability to differentiate between growth and finish line parenting moments is really where the rubber meets the road. When I can see that a moment isn’t a finish line parenting moment, it instantly steers me towards a way of being with my child that is inherently de-escalating.
If you’d like to put this in to practice, identify 2-3 moments recently where you parented as though it was a finish line moment, but can now see that it did not have to be. Once we begin to identify them in real time, there is freedom and connectedness in those moments.
I don’t spend much time advising parents on how to punish more effectively. In fact, I tend to tell parents that I am not a big fan of punishment at all. So, a parent rightfully asked me the other day: “Well then, if not punishment, what DO we do?
What a good question! Most parents punish because they believe that’s how to get kids to behave appropriately. (But actually research has proven that more punishments do NOT equal long-term improved behaviors, and can sometimes make things worse.) So here are 3 things that help achieve the goal of cooperative, positive, appropriate behavior more effectively, while helping to maintain a positive and long-lasting parent-child relationship.
- Show kids what you DO want them to do, and support them, encourage them, catch them doing it, praise them. Give them positive options!
- Change the child’s environment so that it supports positive behaviors. Simple example: don’t keep the jar of cookies where your 3 year old can reach them. More complex example: figure out how long of a playdate your kid can handle before falling apart. Keep playdates within that time frame until you’re both ready to experiment with incremental increases.
- Figure out what’s behind the unwanted/negative behaviors. Behavior is a communication, I like to say… what is your child’s behavior saying to you? Hint: it’s usually something along the lines of: “I’m tired and over stimulated” or “I can’t handle this much freedom,” or “I really need more time with you/attention from you,” or “Something’s not right with me,” or “I am not getting enough opportunities to feel powerful and in charge of my life.” When parents understand what the child’s behavior is communicating, they can better meet the underlying need… which generally has a positive effect on the unwanted behavior!
There are many, many more ways of shaping behavior, but these are some favorites, especially the last one. A little understanding goes a long way. :^)
When our kids are sick and we don’t know what’s wrong or how to deal with it, we usually go to the doctor. We don’t feel conflicted about seeking that professional’s help, and we don’t wait until things are so bad that our child is comatose. But for some reason, with behavioral/emotional/relationship challenges, people can be reluctant to seek help, often waiting until the problems worsen and get cemented in place. John Gottman says that, on average, couples wait 7 years before they seek the help they need. I think that parents do better, and seek help much sooner, but it is so important to remember that therapy can be supportive at any stage, and can help improve relationships by resolving minor challenges before they become a major problem.
When a child has behavior problems, parents come in to my office, and say that they worry that “x” behavior might be a sign of something very serious. I understand that fear, I really do (I’m a parent, too.) But, it’s not just when something’s terribly wrong that we can get help from a professional. Even when “everything’s fine,” it’s possible for a professional to help parents identify and improve the small hangups in their daily life. A skillful child & family therapist can help parents tweak a particular area, and–via the magic of the parenting relationship–even if the parents had little to do with creating the problem, they can still be largely responsible for fixing the problem.
So what is a small area of your daily life that you’d love to see get better? Bedtime? Transitions? The dinner table? A difference of opinion between you & your spouse about how to handle something? Homework? Mornings? Chores? I encourage you to seek out a supportive, non-judgmental therapist who specializes in kids/families/parenting. Please feel free to email or call me if I might be of help!