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.
There are multiple resources for parents on this website related to the concept “The Arc of the Tantrum,” and this blog post is here to help you navigate to find them more easily.
- The Arc of the Tantrum infographic as a PDF file. This is the better file for printing.
- The **Webinar**! Join us live or watch the replay anytime.
- 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.
The Arc of the Tantrum video has been hugely popular, so I’ve made another one. This one is on a topic I speak about in various ways all the time: Behavior is Communication. Click below for 2 minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of coaching on understanding your child’s misbehavior. (and see directly below for a rudimentary transcript.)
Behavior is Communication, notes from the video:
- Imagine that your child’s misbehavior is a misguided attempt at fulfilling an unmet need.
- A few examples of typical unmet needs: power, attention, overwhelm, intense engagement. (Intense engagement: that extra level of attention children need from us, and they can get it from us in positive or negative ways, ie: “OH! I’m SO proud of you!” versus “WHAT are you DOING!?”) They want the positive intensity, and of course it’s healthier, but they will settle for the negative because kids desperately need doses of that intensity from their parents.
- We can learn to translate our kids’ misbehavior—translate what you see them doing, and see if you can identify what the unmet need is that drives that behavior—what’s underneath it, behind it, driving that misbehavior. This frees you up to respond to the need behind the misbehavior, instead of simply reacting to that behavior.
- When parents can identify the unmet need, we can (a) help them get their needs met better, and (b) minimize the unwanted behavior without having to resort to control or punishment techniques, which makes the parent-child relationship a little easier, smoother, and better.
- So that’s that: behavior as communication: learn to translate your child’s behaviors, identify potential unmet needs, and respond to those needs instead of the (symptomatic) behavior.
My house is quiet. I have a pot of stew on the stove that will feed my husband and me suppers most of the week. All the laundry is clean and put away and I’ve had an hour to play on the computer with no particular purpose. When I finish writing this essay I will read myself to sleep. I’ve talked to both grown daughters and had a happy IM conversation with a grand daughter this evening. As much as is possible in an uncertain world, I feel happy about where they are in their lives and unworried about their well-being. There is no crisis. No urgency.
I remember when the pace of my life was very different, so fast I could barely stop for breath between the needs for homework help, listening, limits, dance tights without a rip in the toe, decisions about everything every minute, and dishes that piled up dirty as soon as they were washed. And there was my professional life, growing in fits and starts. the idea of “life work balance” made me laugh. One afternoon during that crazy time, my girls and I walked up the hill to the library and I found a book which gave me a story that let me catch my breath. It even predicted the calmer life I’m living now. I don’t remember the title of this book, but it was the story of the seasons on a mid western farm.
In the spring everything is fresh and hopeful and busy as the last of the snow melts and the family prepares the ground and plants the crops. They work hard in spring, but they play too. There is time to pick flowers for the table, sing over the dishes, admire a rainbow. Then summer comes and the urgency of work overwhelms the family. Everyone works from dawn to dusk, and has to. There is just so much to do to keep the crops growing, and there are no guarantees. A storm can destroy a crop in an afternoon. Or it might not rain at all. Uncertainty and urgency fill every heart and every moment. Finally, the heat begins to ease off. The first crop comes in, then the next. The family is able to enjoy its harvest, to rest on Sunday afternoon, to take time for board game at the table or a roll in the leaves. At last all the crops are in and the snow begins to fall. The days are short and the evenings long and quiet, and the family sits by the fire and mends tools worn down over the summer, tells stories from that busy season, and remembers.
That day at the library it hit me between the eyes that my young mother life phase was like summer on the farm. And like summer, it was just a season, to be negotiated as gracefully as possible, lived as wisely as possible. It was just a season, a hard, rich, fast paced season, which would pass. And it has. I’m in the middle of my autumn now, crops pretty much in, winter coming but not yet. I watch my daughters buy school supplies, fix lunches, worry about jobs, and I remember when that was me. Or I see a young mother in the grocery store with a toddler in full tantrum and an cart full of melting food and I want to tell her, “Summer is just a season. Summer passes. The harvest comes in.”
Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individuals & couples. Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still. I asked her to write today’s post after she told me this story in person (after a conversation in which it was obvious that I was feeling very “summery” (as I now think of it.) Victoria has been featured on this blog once before, on helping children grieve. If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 512-458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh AT aol DOT com.
Thanks to the generosity of St. David’s Episcopal Day School, I am thrilled to invite you to a FREE 2 hour Beyond Birds and Bees Workshop.
Beyond Birds and Bees (SOLD OUT)
This workshop covers:
- Age-appropriate ‘Sex Ed.’
- Normal Sexual Behaviors, from birth to pre-adolescence
- Red Flag Behaviors: when to worry and what to do
- What’s an “askable parent”, and how to be one
- Typical questions kids ask, and how to answer them!
7 Things for Divorcing Parents to Discuss
When you start dating, what guidelines will you follow with regard to introducing the children to your significant other? Setting up expectations in advance can make a world of difference in a process that often leaves parents feeling fearful and powerless. Consider talking about these questions with your ex:
- When and how will you tell the kids you are dating someone?
- How will you explain the new dating relationship to the kids? What will the kids call him/her?
- Will you text/talk on the phone with the new SO when you have your kids with you?
- Will you go on dates during your custody time (meaning the kids are with a babysitter)?
- How long will you date someone before:
- You talk about them with your kids?
- Allow the kids & your SO to meet?
- Have outings/activities with your kids and your SO at the same time?
- Allow the kids to meet your SO’s kids?
- Go on outings with the SO & his/her children? Overnights?
- Allow the SO to come over to your house?
- Allow the SO to sleep at your house when the kids are present?
- What role will the new SO play with the kids? Will he or she discipline? How will you handle the inevitable difference in parenting styles?
- Do you want to introduce your new SO to your ex? (Do you want to meet your ex’s new SO?)
Parents should realize that as each party moves through the divorce process, naturally they will each grow apart from each other and will be increasingly less able to influence the other. Furthermore, it’s hard to think objectively about one’s new SO when you’re in the exciting and love-struck phase of a new relationship. For both of these reasons (and more,) I highly recommend setting up some mutual expectations about how to parent around new romantic relationships as soon as possible. I hope these questions give you a starting off place for the conversation.
Parents come to see me for this specific question more than almost any other single question. Although divorce is a very challenging time for families, the silver lining is that there are many choices that parents can make to protect and take care of their children during this time. Below I share 5 of the more important things to do/think about/remember when first sitting down to tell your kids that their parents are divorcing.
Before you meet with the kids:
- Sit down with your spouse and agree on the basics of what you want to say to the kids. You will want to craft a very brief statement, including:
- The core message at its simplest form, and
- A small concrete example of why you are separating/divorcing. The reason should be explained in a brief, neutral, non-blaming, concrete way, using minimal details. Referring to something your children have already been witness to is an ideal choice for an concrete example.
- For example: “For a while now, your father and I have been arguing a lot. You have even seen some of our arguments.” Then dad might plan to say: “We have seen a marriage counselor to help us work things out, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to. So, your mother and I have decided that we are going to live separately for a little while.”
- Still with your spouse, prepare for questions. Different ages and personalities and situations will all respond differently, but here are a few typical examples: “who is moving out?”, “where will I live?”, “will I still get to go to school/karate/music lessons/my friends’ house?” Kids are concrete thinkers, and their typical reactions center around the concrete ways that this change will affect them. Discuss these likely questions, and mutually-agreed upon answers with your spouse.
- Privately, do whatever you can to ready yourself emotionally. You may need to practice saying the words. You may need to cry or yell or throw a fit (privately) prior to this meeting. This conversation is for your children, and it’s a big one–they need you to be emotionally available for them.
During the conversation:
- Deliver your short, prepared statement to the kids.
- Stop talking.
- Sit back and take a deep breath.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your children at that moment. Take another breath. What faces is she making, how tense is his body?
- From this point forward, your primary goal is to be tuned in to your kids and what they need. Don’t talk too much, but don’t hurry the conversation, either. Stay tuned in to what you think your child needs at this point. (Space? Answers? Permission to be sad, or angry, or worried? Try to give it to them.)
A few more notes:
- Both parents should be present and participating in this conversation.
- Pick a time/place that is private, quiet, and unrushed. (more here on WHEN to tell the kids.)
- Parents should primarily talk about themselves, or both parents together, and avoid making too many statements about the other parent (in order to avoid provoking–we want a smooth, peaceful conversation.)
- Your children may want more information and details, or not. It is normal to want them, and it is normal not to want them. Every child is different.
- If they ask specific or inappropriate questions about wrong-doing etc, please remember that the appropriate response is to lovingly but firmly refuse to answer! “I understand that you want to know more about that, but it is a private matter between Mommy and Daddy. “
- If you get an appropriate question that you aren’t sure how to answer, please remember that you can tell your child “That’s a good question. I can’t give you an answer right now, but your father/mother and I will talk about it and get back with you soon.”
Head over to Southwest Parents to see a short (4 minutes!) video covering some basic information about talking with your children about sex. FYI, this video is kindof funny, because I say “use the correct terminology for body parts” without actually saying the correct terminology for body parts. Silly, I know, but the folks paying the bills really wanted things to be G-rated. (*) So other than the phrase “talking to kids about sex,” it is safe for work, even! :^)
If you’d like a refresher on what words I would have used, check out my article called “What are the correct names for private parts, anyway?”
(*) For the record, I think using the correct words for our anatomy is appropriate for all ages.
As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death. I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief. Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one. Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free. The link below will take you directly to the video.
Here’s another question I received from a friend, reprinted with her permission.
Our daughter is 2.5. She naps really well at school, but only gets a nap about 40% of the time on weekends. At home, she hummssssss with energy, and she doesn’t calm down. We have tried:
- Recreating the day care environment with nap mat, music and dark curtain
- Recreating our night time routine that works great – books, songs, etc.
- Holding her and rocking her, this helps some
- Consequences for not napping, mostly time-outs
- We have tried desperately to not lay down with her, sleep with her or drive her around to get her to fall asleep, but we have done all of these things in emergency situations.
She is a cranky, unhappy child when she doesn’t get her nap. I get sad too.
My questions: 1) Is there something else we can do to calm her down? 2) What is the consequence for getting out of bed? For #2, we use time-out for other things and it works, but the time out area is her bed in her room, so that doesn’t work so much at nap time. Later consequences (you will have to go to bed early if you don’t take a nap) don’t work.
Do you have any parent coaching tricks?
From a child’s perspective, school and home are as different as apples and giraffes. Plus, different relationships = different behaviors, so I encourage you to give up on the idea that since she does something at school, she can be expected to do it at home, too.
Your comment about how she hums with energy strikes me as a spot-on Mommy intuition. I think you’re tuned in to the source of the problem already–weekends are soooo exciting! You and Daddy are there! All Day Long! And sister, too! WOWWW! Asking her to stop being with you, and to calm down enough to let her body relax into a sleep state–well, that’s a pretty challenging task for such a little girl. Sure, her body needs it, but learning to listen to our bodies and make good choices in how we care for them is a lifelong process–challenging even for most adults. So, cut her a little slack. (by which I mean, remind yourself that this problem is soooo normal and age appropriate!)
A word about consequences. Decades of research into behavior modification has unequivocally proven that a purely consequence-based system for shaping behavior is NOT effective. In other words, we have to do something other than punish unwanted behavior, if we want that behavior to actually stop. I go even further, because I believe that consequences and punishments can sometimes escalate into bigger problems, like an endless loop of frustrated parents and children who experience the bulk of their parents’ attention via punishment, which often leads to a damaged parent-child relationship. Also, using consequences (delivered later) to a small child where the problem is her not settling in to sleep is almost guaranteed not to work. It’s really, really, really hard to force someone to sleep… try as we might, a person kindof needs to accept sleep–to allow sleep to entice them in to settling down.
You mentioned that you have tried “desperately” not to lie down with her for naps, but you also said that you have had success with holding her and rocking her. That, by the way, strengthens the argument that her weekend time with you is just much more valuable than sleep… so consider that one solution would be to help her combine the two. She will stop napping in a year or so anyway, and I promise that you won’t be lying down with her when she’s 16–a little naptime snuggle for the next year is really about as painless a solution as I can imagine. You don’t have to stay in there the whole time (unless you fall asleep yourself, which of course happens all the time to tired parents!) but lying with her will help her body relax, and plus it gets the two of you some sweet snuggle time.
When she gets a little older, and she is able to control herself a little bit more effectively (2 year olds are wild monkeys!), you can start giving her an option at nap times: lie down and sleep or stay in your room for X minutes. Then you just redirect her back to her room if she forgets and tries to come out, and you make sure to set a timer, and plan to put her to bed a little earlier to make up for lost sleep, but without making a big deal of it. Plan to repeat the redirection back to her room about 1000 times.
One more thought: She may be giving up her nap. It’s a very difficult and sometimes extended period of time that parents hate. When kids transition out of a nap, ya just try to make the best of things. Help her nap every other day, maybe. Run her ragged in the mornings on the days when you think you can get her a nap. Put her to bed early when she doesn’t. Try some Benadryl. I’m kidding about the Benadryl. :^) Good luck!