Yeah, tantrum-ing kids can be pretty unpleasant. They can be especially hard work if we’re knackered, stressed or ruminating about something other than them. It’s easy then to slip into the roles we were, inadvertently, taught by our parents or other significant people in our lives. These roles are not useful but they are familiar – and these are automated reactions; no point beating ourselves up about having them. But we can pause, choose to make changes and then see those changes through.
Karpman’s Drama Triangle is a way of understanding how many of us live our lives. It includes three key roles: victim, rescuer and persecutor. These are particularly prominent during a conflict situation when many of us naturally embed into these roles and seek to reinforce them. I know, so not helpful. During the conflict we might move from role to role but the key for our brain is that we stay within the triangle. It’s familiar and we are comfortable with familiar. Breaking that triangle makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable within our skin – these are signs our brains are rewiring.
So, example…our 3.75 yo son, Ed often wants to eat ice-cream for breakfast. For many reasons, this is not OK in our house. If he packs a tanty when the boundary is set, I have four ways I could respond to that tantrum – and THREE are not useful.
Unhelpful Approach One – Victim:
I could tell him how unfair he was being to me and point out how many things I had to think about or do of a morning. I could scold him because we have already been through this before and, really, how dare he challenge the boundary again because he is making my life so difficult by doing so. I could allow him to eat the ice-cream and then make a lot of noise about how hard he makes my life. I could tell him or imply he didn’t deserve to have a mother as wonderful and saintly as I. (Yes, you may gag now.) Which ever way I do it, as a victim, I make it all about me and my emotional needs and not about him or what he really needs at this time.
Unhelpful Approach Two – Persecutor:
I could use my body or words to cause him pain. I could make this all about how dreadful he is and tell him that he is an awful dreadful child who will never be ‘good’. Which ever way I do it, as a persecutor, I make it all about my power and might, and not about him. I am asking him to learn and rely on ‘the rules’ to get through life. I am asking him to become externally focussed and not trust his own instincts. In this role, I am unable to tell the difference between his needing a boundary and my needing to be the boundary-setter.
Unhelpful Approach Three – Rescuer:
I could start using this as a time for teaching. I could reason and debate with him and then pat myself on the back for being such a wonderful parent and doing such a lot of work. I could give up my own need for breakfast or my other boys’ needs to have my focus from time to time and give myself totally to the issue of teaching Ed all the stuff he needs to know about healthy breakfasts. Can you see the problem? In any situation, but particularly conflict situations, the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most work. Except, I already know about decent diet and why ice-cream is not a great choice as a breakfast food, and after about 10-15 words it’s unlikely he’s hearing me anyway. Which ever way I do it, as a rescuer, I am assuming what he needs to know and teaching him in a way that makes me feel better about MYSELF. If I’m a compulsive rescuer, I actually don’t want this resolved because I gain a lot of self-worth from the rescuing and helping and assisting that I do. I am embedding him in the role of ‘victim’ so that I can get MY needs met.
Approach Four: What Actually is Helpful?
There are five things to do that will help this situation calm and will reduce the amount of Boundary Testing tantrums experienced over time.
1. I am organised and have his breakfast ready or almost ready. Yes, I may have considered his requests from previous days but I have made that decision. (Too many options is a huge cause of stress in modern life.)
2. I calm myself. I have to work out where his stress ends and mine begins: I (figuratively or literally) step back; I breathe deeply; and, I reclaim the energy I am sending him. I work on my own poise and serenity. I focus on the ONE key thing that matters at this moment in time – he needs to eat healthy food.
3. I make a statement of fact or a very brief explanation: ‘ice-cream is not a breakfast food’; or, ‘ice-cream is not helpful to your brain and body while you’re at kindy.’ (I am not debating or reasoning with him, I am stating how things are – calmly and pleasantly but also firmly.)
4. I, as gently as possible, peel his fingers from the ice-cream container and carry him over to the table where I already have the healthy alternative prepared. If he climbs, falls or jumps down from his seat, I leave him where he is and, while staying nearby, continue on with chores I have to do. If he tries to fetch the ice-cream again, I stop him from getting to the freezer and carry him back to the table.
5. I give him a cuddle when he asks for one. I feed him if he asks to be fed. I sit with him on my knee if he wants to eat that way. I talk to him about other things if he engages in alternative conversation. Or I will make an alternative healthy breakfast for him to eat in the car. (None of these are pandering to him – all of them are acknowledging that his physical and emotional drives are way more powerful than his ability to be rational.)
Why it Works:
A. By not engaging in debate, I allow his brain to learn that some things are unacceptable behaviours in our house and that eating healthy food is important. He is learning; I am not teaching.
B. By moving his body physically in the direction I want him to go, his brain automatically begins to refocus. He is hungry. He wants to eat. And his Physical Brain Systems are far more powerful than his Rational Brain Systems. The first time this happens, he may take a while to settle but eventually the change in focus is enough for him to eat the healthier option.
C. By calming and remaining calm I can use all of my brain systems to stay out of his drama. I can set the boundary in a way that is useful to him without imposing my agenda or personal shadows on the situation. We can all stay out of Drama Triangles – where it’s emotionally and psychologically healthy.
The full alternative to the Drama Triangle? Try this post:
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