Although I separate tantrums into two categories (Reaction Tantrums and Processing Tantrums) in my book ‘All About Tantrums’ the reality is, the often co-exist.
Sometimes both happen at the same time (Tantrum Priorities: What to Focus On When Your Child has a Tantrum!) and sometimes there is a changing landscape in a tantrum where our children move from one type to another. When this happens, our experience with tuning in to our children’s body-language and tone of screech is vital for tantrum management.
Case in point:
When our eight yo, Sam, was about three or four we had an event to get to. It was one of those non-negotiable situations where older brother, Joe, had to be somewhere and it was our turn to fit our lives around him.
Sam did not want to go. He did not want to get in the car. He did not want to fit his life around Joe.
This is classic Processing Tantrum material – coming to terms with something in our life that we would rather wasn’t there or hadn’t happened. This is about consciously accepting unpleasant stuff and these are pretty painful to get through. (For all involved.)
I got myself and Joe organised, and Joe hopped in the car and belted himself in. I did not focus on Sam at all while we did all this, except to say without sarcasm, “I know you don’t want to go, it’s a shame isn’t it?” I said this many times. Many. Times.
Sam screeched and kicked, and screeched and kicked some more, and arched his back a couple of times. He got gently but firmly put into his car-seat and buckled in. He continued to screech and kick for another five minutes or so. I began to drive, all the while continuing to be empathic and unwavering.
After that five minutes or so, he took in a deep breath and the screech changed in pitch and type. He sobbed, “Mummy, I want a cuddle.”
I pulled the car over to the side of the road. I hopped out. I gave him a cuddle, wiped his tears, gave him a kiss, made yummy eye-contact, hugged him again and then we continued on our way.
He returned to the original type/pitch of screech. I kept driving. He stopped.
This tantrum did not involve any Physical Internal Drive: he was fed, had slept, had been involved in adequate archetypal play and I knew he felt (generally) emotionally connected to me, etc.
Initially, this was all Rational Internal Drive: his conscious will, to do what he wished, was trying to over-ride his stronger biological drive to learn how to be part of our family group.
The change happened as he came to terms with the unpleasant truth that his conscious will was/is less powerful in his life than my calm/empathic determination that he would stay safe within the family group (I could hardly leave a 3/4 yo at home alone).
He was learning, at a conscious level, that I would keep him with me. While, initially, his brain didn’t like the process – because this type of wiring involves intensity and speed, and makes us feel uncomfortable inside our skin – at the point of change, the wiring was finishing and his body felt like a safe place to be, again. This is where his Emotional Internal Drive took over his brain and body, and he needed help to calm. He needed, in a deep powerful biological sense, to feel emotionally reconnected to me – even though he was the one who had disconnected.
Just to be certain that he would be held safely within the family, his conscious will tested that I would hold the boundary. When I did, his whole system was able to settle – there were now new/reinforced pathways in his brain: he was learning what was ‘normal’ for our family group. (I did not have to teach, reason or punish.)
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