It's Not a Tantrum, It's a Volcano

My Daughter is Like a Volcano!

Several years ago, I was on vacation in Costa Rica in a town called Arenal, which happens to be located at the base of an active volcano. One night, our guide pointed out a stream of lava flowing from the volcano. I asked about our safety and the guide explained that sudden and violent eruptions like at Mt. St. Helen’s or Mt. Vesuvius happen because a layer of rock covers the volcano and pressure builds up till it erupts. The Arenal volcano, on the other hand,  is safe because it lets out just a little bit of lava at a time, and therefore pressure does not build up.

The volcano is a perfect metaphor for what happens with children as they attempt to manage difficult emotions. Many children, adolescents, and even adults tuck difficult feelings like anxiety, sadness, and loss away, choosing to avoid them rather than confront them head on.

This strategy does not work for long, as these difficult emotions don’t disappear but instead build up over time until they finally erupt in an outpouring of emotion most commonly referred to as a “meltdown” or “tantrum.”  These eruptions can also take the form of panic attacks or physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.

The Arenal volcano provides the perfect solution. Allow a little out every day. No buildup. No eruption.

My daughter, who is now 6 years old, provides a good example of Mt. St. Helens in action.

Are You Sure You’ve Got the Right Kid?

As a four year old in preschool, my daughter received only positive behavior reports from her teachers.  Problem was, my wife and I couldn’t figure out who exactly they were talking about. Certainly not our daughter. The little girl they were describing followed directions well, worked hard on her schoolwork, didn’t give up, never cried or complained, and was generally easy going.

At home, our daughter was quick to anger, often cried and complained, did not follow directions well and was generally a pain in the butt. I’m being a bit dramatic here, but you get the point. She was certainly affected by things that happened at school. She often told us about a classmate not allowing her to play on the dinosaur or the work in class being too hard. If the reports from her teachers were accurate, she did not allow herself to show or let out any negative emotions at school.  Instead, she saved them all for the comfort and safety of home… Lucky us!

Let It Out!

Back then and now, my daughter would be best served by allowing some level of that frustration (emotional lava) out at school, just like the volcano at Arenal. This would mean working out playground disputes with her peers as they happen and telling her teacher that she is frustrated by the work that day.

However, she is young and at the beginning of her emotional life, and her current strategy in dealing with the myriad of difficult emotions at school is to just tuck them away. I think Freud had it right in some way when he hypothesized that our internal lives are driven by “psychic energy.”  Like energy, the negative emotions my daughter experiences at school do not dissipate over the course of the day.  They are tucked away, building pressure until she can get home and let them all out in the safety of her home.

Working with families in my practice, I often find that the parent or care-giver who is closest to the child receives the brunt of the volcanic explosions.  As parents, it falls on us to handle the burden of our children’s emotions as they are unable to do so themselves.  It is through this process that they will learn how to successfully manage and control how best to handle their feelings in the future.

Managing the Volcano

Often first attempts at managing the volcano deal with a focus on the tantrum and the host of behaviors that go with it such as hitting, spitting, teasing siblings, not following directions, screaming, bad language, and backtalk. Behavior charts, time-outs, or “1,2,3 Magic” are all strategies to address these symptoms. However, if we were to simply focus on the behavior as the problem, we miss a big part of what’s going on.

Not the tantrum, but the inability to deal with difficult emotions as they happen is the issue at heart. The solution is to get our kids to face issues that trouble them rather than tuck them away. Here’s how:

Expect Explosions:  By accepting that emotional outbursts are an important part of growing up and learning to manage emotions, we as parents are better prepared for managing them when they inevitably come.

Remain Calm in the Face of Emotional Lava: When kids explode, they have reached a tipping point where they are no longer able to contain the difficult emotions that have been gathering for days. Bear in mind that all the difficult behavior and sharp words that accompany a melt down are our children’s attempts to give the overwhelming emotions to us. “I don’t want it; you can have it.”

Exploding ourselves gives these overwhelming emotions power and weight. Staying calm sends the message that they are manageable and gives our kids an opportunity to begin handling them on their own.

My wife and I are trying to follow these ideas, but we are nowhere near perfect… we sometimes get angry and erupt. There’s no need to be perfect, provided that you can repair the damage afterward. This means talking with our kids and explaining why we got angry and erupted. It is helpful to also address the reasons why we may have erupted that don’t pertain   to our kids: “I’m not feeling so good today” Or: “I had a really stressful day at work.” Or: “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Don’t Try to Make it All Better: Younger children are notoriously unreliable reporters and teens are notoriously tight lipped about what’s bothering them. Pushing for more information can often be the very reaction that tips the scales towards eruption; trying to figure out what’s wrong and fixing it may not lead anywhere in the moment. Giving kids space allows them the time to calm down and come to you when they’re ready to talk. This is always more effective than trying to force anything. They want to tell us and they want us to listen rather than tell them what to do.

Create a Narrative: Even if you don’t really know what happened, give a label to the feeling that is presented to you in the meltdown. Usually the way we feel in these moments is the same way our kids feel…out of control, frustrated, angry, etc. Along with the label, try to create a plausible story about what you think may have happened before or what may be going on at the moment.  “You were really sad that your classmate didn’t let you climb on the dinosaur.” Or:  “You are really angry and frustrated that I didn’t let you go to the mall alone.”

My wife and I have been trying to practice what I preach in my professional life and I’m happy to say that my daughter is starting to get it. While she still has difficult moments, she is also much more prone to using words to express her feelings rather than exploding. Knowing that we’re on the right track has also helped my wife and I to relax more during eruptions. What a relief that this stuff actually works!

The Thankless Job of Parenting

Just because you do something nice for them…

As we wrap up the holiday season, our kids head back to school from the long vacation, and we have a new year in front of us, there’s no better time to reflect on the thankless job of parenting.

We’ve all spent lots of money on gifts, on trips away to places that our kids might enjoy, and on fun activities to fill the space left empty by the absence of school. Does all the fun stuff we do for them translate into appreciative, well-behaved children?

The other day I took my daughter to a bouncy play space and for ice cream afterwards. She had a great time. When we got home I told her that the next stop would be the tub and she screamed, “I hate you daddy! You’re the worst person in the world!”

My first thought was “WTF!” But what I said (a bit too loud) was, “How could you say that to me when I just took you out to a bouncy house and ice cream?” She said, “I don’t care, I hate you!” Things were going well.

This brings me to a truth of parenting that I myself am still having trouble accepting: Our kids are not going to behave themselves or change their bad behaviors simply because we do something nice for them.

Quid pro no!

Trouble often starts with a concession.  When I say concession I mean the times when we buy or do something for our kids because they’ve asked and asked, or just because it’s the holidays and there’s an expectation that we’ll indulge. In these cases, we tend to concede either because we want to make our child happy, because we’ve worked out a deal (“If I get you this then you…”), or just because we want them to shut up about it.

Even without “the deal” I feel that we often fall prey to thinking that there’s an unspoken implicit deal – an “I did this for you, and I know you’ll do for me, too.” This deal is the slippery slope that causes trouble in families.

The problem is, as with most things we do for others, we have at least a small vested interest in receiving something in return for our efforts. Even the most saintly of parents has the expectation that their child will thank them when it’s warranted. But while gratitude is an important value to impart, it’s also really important to limit our expectations about how our children should behave in return for the good deeds we do for them. Parents’ high expectations often leads to disappointment because most kids just don’t get it.

A loss is a loss

Of course I got mad when my daughter acted rude right after I indulged her for the whole day. I was simply asking her to do one thing in return. This “one thing” highlights my expectation of our deal (“I did this for you, and now you should do this one thing for me, too”). The implicit deal is the problem because I was set up to be let down.

Am I taking a soft stance here? Am I setting the bar low and, by doing so, I’m at risk of raising an ungrateful daughter? I say no.

In the context of a whole day of fun, my daughter’s angry reaction is her way of dealing with the loss of the moment. She isn’t comforted by recounting the day’s highlights and only wants to continue doing what she was doing before I brought up the tub. I think the tub also represents a clear end to her day of fun, and this only exacerbates her sense of loss. The loss she feels now is more powerful than memories of that “dumb bouncy house” from hours before.

My daughter can’t really see things from my perspective: the effort, time and money I put into taking her out and the effect that her mean words have on me. A child’s capacity for empathy – or putting yourself in another person’s shoes – doesn’t really begin to happen until age 7, and even then there is a huge learning curve.

If we’re really being honest about it, most of us didn’t truly understand what our parents did for us until we ourselves were parents.

Don’t take it personal

The less I make the battle of the tub about me and how my daughter has let me down, the better I will be able to handle dealing with the loss that she feels and is learning how to control. Kids are always learning how to control their emotions around loss. Even when they finally begin to get a handle on this during their tweens, hormones kick in during adolescence and the mood swings and tantrums are revisited with the added bonus that we can’t just pick them up and put them in their room.

Accept the loss when they can’t

While I’m by no means a professional when it comes to keeping myself calm when my daughter melts down after a day of indulgence, sometimes knowing that she’s actually suffering a real sense of loss is enough to keep me from really losing it myself (most times). As hard as it may be, validating her experience of loss in this moment (“You’re really upset about having to take a tub right now”; “You had such a great day today and taking a tub feels like the fun day is ending”) will help her identify the sense of loss inside.  Perhaps the next time she’ll be able to bear it, just as I’m bearing it this time.

Say it now so they can say it later

In addition to validating my daughter’s feelings and providing a calming voice to soothe her experience of loss, my words also help model a way for her to cope in the future. By using words to explain what’s going on inside her, my daughter will learn to gain control over these difficult feelings and also hopefully gain support from those with whom she shares her feelings.

Just because she does it at home…

Like many kids, my daughter is mostly a good citizen out in the world, even if she sometimes acts like an ill-mannered troll at home with my wife and me. Since I have proof that she’s learned her basic manners, I can put aside my concerns about her politeness and sense of gratitude so that I can address the more consequential issues around her learning to cope with loss. She knows how to act properly in most situations; she just lets out all her pent up feelings at home where she feels safe.

Repair the damage

There have been many times when my anger and frustration have caused me to say things that I regret. When this happens it’s important for me to always revisit the incident when my daughter and I are calm. These harsh words cause damage if left unchecked, and talking is like an emotional bandaid. Explaining that I was angry and why can make all the difference in whether my daughter continues to carry around those harsh words or lets them go.