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!

Lecturing Kids Does Not Help Them Learn

Last week, my 6-year-old daughter took a toy away from her younger brother and then swatted at him as he attempted to get it back. I gave the toy back to my son and put her on the stairs for a time out. Following this, I began the familiar line of inquiry:

“Do you know why you’re in time out?”

“Yes, daddy”

“Why?”

A shrug and head down.

“What did you do to your brother?”

“He took my toy and I took it back.”

“And what else?”

“I hit him.”

“You know you’re not supposed to hit him. I don’t understand why you can’t just let him play. Those toys are for both of you and….”

Fingers go into her ears and her head faces down.

“I just don’t understand why you keep doing this over and over…”

Her head is shaking and she is making noises so she can’t hear me.

My attempts at turning this into a teaching moment get me nowhere, mainly because my daughter has stopped listening to me as soon as the first words left my mouth. Just for context here, my tone was not all that civil…I was frustrated and did very little to hide it.

In the moment, I am frustrated yes. But I’m also experiencing an overwhelming desire to impart on my daughter words of wisdom that will help guide her on the road of life, or at the very least, words that help her get the issue and stop.  What drives my passionate frustration is the fear that she is going to miss out on an opportunity to learn. Mixed in with my anxiety is a sense of urgency that if she keeps doing the same thing and keeps reacting this same way, then she will never learn. Fast forward twenty years, and she’s still covering her ears and singing “la-la-la” as her boss comments on her recent slip up at the office!

Change is Hard and it Takes Time

As parents, we often feel that if we could just say the right thing, a light will go off in our children’s heads and they will get it and remember forever. The reality is that for most parents, any attempt at imparting words of wisdom in the heat of the moment results in frustration.

Either our kids tune us out subtly by focusing on other things (like the lint on their shirt) or by not so subtly telling us to “shut up” and that they know already. We are left holding the bag…feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness. It’s important to know that these are the very same feelings our kids experience as we start our lecture.

While I am trying in vain to get my daughter to understand what she did wrong, she is simultaneously trying to get rid of the bad feelings she experiences when she does something wrong and upsets me. This dynamic makes my lectures, as well-meaning as they are, counterproductive.

As adults, when we are told to make adjustments at work, the assumption is that we understand and will comply. As parents, we know that as they get older, our children will have to make changes on a dime in a work environment. So we assume that they better learn how to do so now.

Often, these adjustments may be hard to swallow and might even be hurtful to our pride, but most people comply because the consequences of not complying could be severe. While comparing a child’s behavior change towards her brother and adjustments in a work environment makes sense, we’re not quite comparing apples to apples.

Change is Not Just Behavioral, It’s Emotional

The work example assumes that change happens mostly on a behavioral level. You work in a job, your boss tells you to do a task this way instead of that way. Your boss (and everyone else)  expects that you can put your emotions aside and will just make the change. We often expect the same turnaround from our kids, but forget that most often they have not yet learned the same level of mastery over their emotions. Therefore they can’t just do it.

My daughter hit my son because she is jealous and angry that she has to share anything with the likes of him. A better comparison of the change I am expecting from my daughter might be found in those everyday adjustments adults struggle with if they are not facing serious repercussions such as losing a job.

Everyday emotional change is the diet you’ve started and abandoned five times over in the last two months, or the physical exercise you were going to get at least three days a week, or that book you were going to start writing. I think these examples more accurately reflect the struggle our kids go through in making behavior changes, because they do not think of long-term consequences.

Kids are most often reacting to emotions in the moment, which influence the way they behave.  Even if our kids make the right choice or decision today, there is no guarantee they will do so tomorrow. This is just like that diet which can be thrown off by a rough day at work or a fight with a family member. Now imagine your spouse or your friend calling you out when you break the diet. “I noticed that box of Entenmann’s cookies have been dwindling…you’ll never fit into that bathing suit if you keep that up.” How would you feel? Likely pretty similar to what our kids feel when we lecture them.

Lecturing is the Anti-Motivator

The lecture is counterproductive for kids because rather than assist in overcoming feelings of disappointment and guilt, it often serves to elevate the bad feelings that contributed to the behavior initially. Most often kids are not listening, because they are still trying to deal with the emotional letdown of having messed up.

The lecture gets it wrong because it attempts to convey information when the recipient is not able to receive it. For most people, doing something wrong is already an unpleasant experience, but doing something wrong and having someone lecture them on it is much worse.

The lecture I gave my daughter did not address any of the emotions that accompanied the incident before or after, and therefore the lecture does not address the heart of the issue. I asked: “Why do you keep doing this over and over?” This question goes to the heart of her continued transgressions and it is this question that needs to be addressed in order for her to move on and change her behavior.

Alternatives to Lecturing

Set the Limit and Walk Away: I put my daughter in time out. This tells her that her behavior was wrong and that is enough for the moment. If I can distance myself from her here, she will have time to process her mistake and move past the emotional sense of loss that comes with the mistake. She may then be in a position to discuss the mistake, once it is removed from the sense of loss. In the near future, I’ll post on how to handle the Time Out refusal.

Don’t ask why: I made the mistake of asking her why she did what she did and I got what I deserved: a frustrating head shake and the standard “I don’t know.” A better course of action would have been to speak to the emotions that led to the incident initially. “You hit him because you don’t like that he uses your toys, and it makes you angry, sad and maybe jealous to have to share.” It doesn’t matter if you’re absolutely right. Even if you’re only  close,  your kids will have a chance to reflect on what might be going on inside of them.  The long-term goal is that one day my daughter will say: “I’m angry that my brother took my toy!” rather than acting it out by hitting him.

Tell a story: Kids are defensive and sensitive about what they do wrong and about feeling negative emotions. A narrative about your own life, about the mistakes you made and how you dealt with them, is much less threatening. It sends the message that it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling. Less threatening means less defensiveness, which in turn means more listening and hopefully more learning.

Don’t expect changes overnight: There is no quota about how many mistakes children can make before they get it. Some things take one mistake, others take many. Once you give up hope, they will certainly do the same. As long as your expectation for change is there, so too will be their will to actually make the change.

Targeting Kids’ Emotions Can Help With Irrational Behavior

Parents: Ever wonder what’s going on when your child or adolescent does something irrational?

  • A favorite meal one night is the most “disgusting” food the next.
  • A simple “How was school?” is met with “Leave me alone you’re so annoying!”
  • A wonderful day of indulgence together is followed by  “I hate you, Mom…you’re so mean!”

If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing any or all of these scenarios, fear not! Focusing on emotions can help.

Emotional struggles define childhood

All of these scenarios share a common origin. They all stem from kids’ ongoing struggle to manage and regulate their emotions.  Childhood and adolescent behavior problems have roots in underlying emotions that, for a variety of reasons, become too difficult for kids to tolerate. Rather than face the (yucky) feelings directly, kids act out behaviorally.

Since emotions are a constant in our lives, we need to think about which emotions are at play in a given situation — whether it’s a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old.  Looking at childhood development and behavior through what I like to call an “Emotional Lens” can give parents extraordinary insight and useful tools to help kids cope and excel.

Seeing the world through an Emotional Lens

The starting point for all of the counseling and parenting I do is this:  all behavioral problems originate from kids’ struggles to manage their emotions.  And when we view children’s behavior through this Emotional Lens, we are far more equipped to help them.

I want to show you want I mean by applying this thinking to one of the scenarios above, which is inspired by my six-year-old daughter’s dinnertime behavior.  A favorite meal one night is the most “disgusting” food the next.  So what is the underlying emotion in this scenario?  It may sound surprising, but it actually has to do with the sadness and frustration that comes with her sense of loss. Usually when my daughter has an extreme reaction to dinner, she is reacting to an expectation she had about what she wanted (pizza, macaroni and cheese, take your pick) and realizing that she’s getting yesterday’s turkey meatloaf.

Losing is hard!

As adults and parents, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could experience a sense of loss from having to eat meatloaf again. Often my reaction is “Really?!” “You’re really upset about that?”  I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment.  But my reaction to her seeming irrationality is never helpful and only serves to further fan the flames.

While I can’t necessarily stop her from being upset, nor can I always get her to come around to the idea of having yesterday’s dinner again, I can help her learn how to more effectively deal with the sense of loss she’s experiencing. This will better prepare her for dealing with the many future losses to come (like tomorrow night’s dinner).

How do kids learn to manage their emotions?

Accepted theory on emotion regulation says that children first learn to identify and categorize emotions by seeing emotions reflected in others. This process is called mirroring.  Mirroring is what you see when a parent or adult makes ridiculous, over exaggerated faces to a baby. These faces allow the baby to see a happy face and learn eventually to label it as “happy”. Baby also learns to match what she sees as happy with what it feels like inside to be happy.

Eventually children learn to identify in themselves what they are feeling, make inferences into the way other people might be feeling, and use words rather than actions to help control these emotions.

Adults are better at managing their emotions because they’ve had more practice. An example of this is a couple that’s having a heated argument.  One partner is beginning to feel angry and recognizes this feeling based on the internal cues she’s learned to associate with anger (like her increased heart rate, rise in body temp and pressured speech). She says to her partner, “I need to get away from you right now, because I’m getting really angry and might say or do something I’ll regret.”  What she’s doing here is crucially important: she identifies her emotional state, steps away from the heat of the argument, and calms herself down.

I wouldn’t say that all adults have mastery of this skill.  But compared to adults, children really struggle with it. Kids often have a difficult time pinpointing the emotion that gets triggered, and they act out their frustrations through bad behavior or tantrums.  The goods news is, though, there are a number of ways we can help foster these skills in our kids.

So getting back to the meatloaf, my daughter has very little control over how she processes feelings of sadness and loss. Ultimately, the goal is to help her to recognize the sense of loss within herself so that she’s able to talk through it.  Rather than pushing her plate of food on the floor or knocking over her chair, my daughter will eventually be able to say, “Awww, I really wanted to eat pizza tonight, Daddy.  I’m so disappointed!”…. at which point I will fall on the floor in shock.

Ways to help kids along emotionally

There are a few things we can all do to help our kids gain more control over their emotions.

Create a narrative: You may not know the exact reason why your child is doing the crazy thing they’re doing, but use your best guess. A good guess is that they’re feeling disappointment and sadness over a perceived loss.  Basically, they didn’t get what they wanted.  By putting “feeling” words to their experience, you’re helping them see the root of their frustration so that one day they can identify and verbalize it themselves. “You’re really sad/angry/frustrated that you didn’t get pizza tonight.”

Stay calm: Staying calm affords kids the opportunity to get through the emotion on their own and also helps them see that these emotions aren’t overwhelming. If you can handle these difficult feelings, then perhaps they can handle them too.

Normalize the feeling: This might be the hardest thing to do, harder even than keeping calm, since empathizing with tears over meatloaf isn’t easy. However, doing so will send the message that it’s normal to feel sad/angry/frustrated. This puts kids into a better position for working through tough emotions rather than trying to fight or avoid them. Many of the teens I work with who struggle with serious behaviors like substance abuse, self harm and suicide not only try to fight the negative feelings they have but also beat themselves up for feeling them. The more we can be OK with kids’ feelings, however irrational they seem at the time, the more they’ll be OK with them too.

Use media as a medium: TV, movies, YouTube, video games are all potentially teachable material for kids regarding emotions. Talk about the characters and their feelings. Speculate on what the characters are feeling and why they might be feeling that way. Talking about a character’s sadness is a lot easier for kids than talking about their own feelings. It allows kids to explore emotions without getting defensive and creates space for kids to begin accepting these feelings in themselves.