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!

Holiday thoughts: Why the diaper bag is ruining our children

A few weeks ago I was at the park with my two-year-old son.  After about fifteen minutes of play, he came over to me and demanded, “Bar!”. What he was asking for was a Trader Joe’s cereal bar. For the parent who doesn’t know about these, they’re like an oversized Fig Newton filled with your choice of Apple, Blueberry, Strawberry, and now Cranberry, just in time for the holidays!

On most occasions (up until now), I’ve thought it cute or even marveled at his use of language. But this time, there was something about his tone that didn’t sit well with me. His tone was one of privilege, like a king demanding his wine or a prince his pony.  He expected that I’d give him that bar then and there.

What really gave me pause wasn’t just his expectation or his attitude. It was the idea that perhaps always having the bar available for him might send the wrong message and do him a disservice developmentally.  As we move into the holiday season, it’s a question that weighs on me (and most other parents I know) even more heavily then usual: should we be giving our kids everything they want, when they want it?

Need or want?

My son demanding instant gratification is not the problem. Doing so is his right as a two-year old. The problem is that I had not one but two fruit bars in the pocket of the diaper bag, ready and waiting for him should the “need” arise.

Need is not the right word here, since he certainly wouldn’t starve during playtime at the park. Does he really need anything for a 45-60 minute trip to the playground?

When I got home I took an inventory of the contents of the bag for this short trip to the park (a five minute walk from our house):

3 diapers
2 picture books
1 box of crayons
1 container of wipes (anti-bacterial)
1 container of wipes (sensitive skin)
1 bag of Annie’s cheddar bunnies
1 bag of grapes
1 sippy cup of water
2 TJ’s fruit bars (blueberry and strawberry)
2 bottles of hand sanitizer (pocket size)
3 matchbox cars
2 packages of squeeze apple sauce
To be fair, several items in the bag stay because they’re actually essential. In my opinion, the diapers, wipes, and one form of hand sanitizer fall into the “need” category. The rest are “wants” and I use them to pacify my son when he gets distressed.

Here’s a typical scene.  My son sees another boy who rides up to the playground and parks his scooter.  The boy walks away, and my son wants to take the scooter for a ride. I stop him from taking the scooter, but he begins to cry.  My attempts to redirect him to the swings or the slide don’t work.  I reach into the magic diaper bag to grab a strawberry fruit bar.  Problem solved!

His comfort or mine?

The playground example raises the question — who is the fruit bar really for?  Yes, my son is much happier while eating the bar than he was just moments before when he didn’t get his way.  Most parents, myself included, would admit that parenting is just easier when we give our young kids what they want, when they want it.

Television and video games are used in the same way.  The kids are driving me nuts, I say the magic word “show,” and I’ve just bought myself at least a half hour’s worth of peace. This peace and the peace I carry around in the diaper bag comes at a cost, though, which only gets more expensive as my son grows.

Many of the diaper bag’s contents offer instant gratification.  The more I reach into the bag to pull out what my son wants at that moment, the more I risk that he won’t be able to calm himself down when he inevitably doesn’t get what he wants.

You can’t always get what you want

I mentioned my diaper bag metaphor to a friend and fellow psychologist who has two kids (ten and five).  In speaking about her older son she said, “There are hurts he’s dealing with now that can’t be cured by a diaper bag.” My friend was lamenting the simpler days when the cure for her kids’ tears was as easy as reaching into the bag and pulling out a fruit bar.  Her take was that there’s no point in bursting their bubble before we have to.  While part of me understands the sentiment, another part of me knows it’s not so simple. We often give our kids what they want because we can; but just because we can, does that mean we should?

How often do you hear parents say that they want to give their kids all the things they never had as a kid? The parents I hear this from are often productive and accomplished people.  I think one of the big reasons they are as successful as they are is because they didn’t get everything they wanted.

The problem is that aside from my wife and myself (and doting grandparents) no one else is going to try to give my son exactly what he wants.  In reality, disappointment looms around every corner.  And the more I reach into that diaper bag, the more he’ll be unprepared emotionally to handle the inevitable losses he’ll suffer when he doesn’t get the things he wants.  He’ll also be unprepared for figuring out strategies to get what he wants through other creative means or by finding satisfaction in alternatives (a Plan B).

There’s been a lot of research and talk recently on the importance of having traits like grit and tenacity in order to tackle the increasing demands that our education system places on students.

While grit may be a proven recipe for success, many of our kids just aren’t learning the skills that foster these traits, in life and at school.

It’s the same at two as it is at fifteen

As much as this post seems to be about how to parent young children, I’m actually thinking more of the teenage boys I work with.  A majority of the kids I see are struggling with problems related to doing their school work.

Most of these boys are described by their parents as “naturally smart,” but “unmotivated” or “lazy” when it comes to doing homework and studying for tests.  Also, many of these boys have gone through a full battery of psycho-educational testing with few if any answers as to why they aren’t engaging in school as their capabilities would suggest.

Many have carried the diagnosis of ADD or ADHD for years; however, their parents have become frustrated with the diagnoses as their kids excel at the things they enjoy doing, like playing video games or spending hours chatting online with friends.  Conversations with these boys and their parents often leads me to the same conclusion:

These boys aren’t able to calm themselves and delay their gratification long enough to sit down and do their work.

I see the schoolwork struggle in the same light as I see my son’s struggle.  My son is feeling a sense of loss because he’s not getting to ride the scooter he covets on the playground.  When I take out the fruit bar to redirect him, I’m providing him a diversion from experiencing pain and loss.  By avoiding the pain, he misses out on the opportunity to begin to learn how to soothe himself.  This is not unlike the teenage boy who, when faced with a tough homework assignment, decides to divert his attention with YouTube or his Xbox rather than soothe his growing anxieties about the work he has to do.

So…deny and let them cry?

It may seem like I’m saying just don’t give them what they want and let them cry it out.  That is sort of true.  But with some important caveats.

Give them what they want…sometimes: As with most things that have to do with indulgence, the key is moderation. Often we give into our child’s demands because it’s just easier for us then having to deal with a tantrum.

There is no reason to completely stop giving in, but perhaps pick and choose times to stand your ground, and be sure to do it when you are feeling up to the task of weathering the storm. By picking and choosing our battles according to our own stamina, we can put ourselves in a much better position to help our kids work through the tough feelings they will undoubtedly experience.  Doing this also allows us to be a bit more mindful of the times when we do give in and the times we don’t, so that over time perhaps the split is more 50-50 then 80-20.

Supportive tears: Allowing our kids to simply cry it out may not produce well-adjusted children. Narration and validation of their feelings is key.

By narration I mean providing my son with a storyline or narrative about why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. This can help him recognize and identify these feelings as he grows. I can say to him “you’re really upset right now because you wanted to use that scooter and Daddy did not let you.”

Validating his feelings will allow him to identify and accept the feelings he’s having rather than trying to simply get rid of them.  For example, “you’re really angry at Daddy for not letting you ride that boy’s scooter” and “you’re really sad because it would be so fun to ride it.”  An acceptance of sadness and anger can help kids be more willing to face these emotions later rather than working hard to avoid them.

These techniques are especially important for young children like my two-year old, but kids of all ages can benefit from them.  And during the lead up to the holidays, these strategies are more important then ever, since the list of our kids “wants” undoubtedly outweighs their lists of “needs.”

What was in your mom’s diaper bag?

A PS here: I asked my mom what she would take with her on day trips to the park or other excursions. She said, “Oh, I took a bottle or drink and diapers, but I didn’t have that big bag that you lug around!”

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”


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.