Friday, 12 July 2013

Time-Ins for Tantrums

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any
Other stair
Quite like
 - A. A. Milne Halfway Down

My tantrum education is going swimmingly, thanks mostly to my temperamental daughter. I hate to add my voice to the generalisation, but this is why people say girls are harder than boys. While it's in no way fun, it's given me ample motivation to analyse my relationship with the children and how that's reflected by my reactions to their temper loss.

Back in January I posted about dealing with tantrums, with the main conclusion being to stay calm and focus on getting them to calm down rather than on what caused the tantrum. Since then, both children have improved in their meltdowns, which is likely as much due to age as it is to my incredible parenting skills. However, I've adapted too. I became uncomfortably aware of just how much I was distancing myself from my children because they were losing their tempers.  I didn't want to reward their inappropriate behaviour, but equally, I wasn't giving them the support they needed to find the correct response to the situation.

A First Step in Conflict Resolution

I pulled out an idea I'd mentally filed away back when my son was a baby/toddler: the concept of a time-in instead of a time-out.  Instead of leaving your child on their own for a specified length of time, the parent sits with them and they talk through it together. (NB there are times when the time out is required so the parent can calm down; this obviously is not a viable alternative for those!)

I've never really gone in for time-outs anyway since I find them exhausting to enforce, but I used to send my son to his room when he was in his terrible twos, with the instruction that he could come out when he calmed down.  He used to come out immediately, but the muscle-routine of going up and down the stairs was enough to work him out of his temper.  That was all the calming he needed.

These days, he needs something more than a physical soothing; he wants to understand and to be understood.  As for my daughter, going upstairs and back down again has never worked.

A few months back, I posted about how a loss of my temper as well as my daughter's ended with us both on the top step of the stairs, sitting calmly until my daughter was ready to go bed.  This became our solution to bedtime protests for a month or so until gradually phased out.  But the top step of the stairs (or the bottom, depending which floor we were on) was such a good neutral spot that I started using it for other things.  I believe it was Supernanny who used the 'naughty step' for time-outs.  The same principle of convenience works for time-ins, but now the step is acting more like a Montessori Peace Table.

My new favourite Parenting Tool

A Time Out for Two (or Three)

Initially, I fell into using it for my son when he was acting up and I would have to remind him of the rules, or if he started protesting the rules.  I would call him over to the step and my daughter would invariably follow, so the three of us would sit there while I tried to put the reasoning behind the rules into four-year-old logic (and, if necessary, toddler logic as well). It puts me on their level, hugs can be freely given, my lap is available and--perhaps most important of all--we are away from temptation / the scene of the crime.

The downside is that the step encourages fidgeting, shifting from step to step, and general squirming of embarrassment.  I try and get my son to sit still and make eye contact, but I don't want to distract from the real issue--perhaps I should keep some fidget-soothers close by!

In general though, this has been very effective.  I don't always remember to use it--and there are certainly times when I am just too wound up myself for a time-in (as is familiar to any stay-at-home parent, the children are not likely to grant me a time-out).  Still, overall, this has worked well for us and we're having fewer genuine upsets.

What I should do in due course is to direct the children to go the steps when they are arguing with each other and talk through their dispute.  I'm not sure my daughter's quite ready for that yet.

A Comfort Zone

My daughter, not quite two and a half, cannot be talked through her meltdowns in the way my son can.  There are times when she gets completely hysterical and will scream and hit and kick and there's absolutely nothing we can do for her. Waiting it out doesn't work, as she generally goes until something distracts her--and that something won't necessarily work the next time. When she gets into that state, we generally spend about an hour trying to deal with it.

By far the most reliable method of soothing her is for my husband to take her while I disappear.  She won't calm down for him, but when I return after a couple of minutes, I will be able to cuddle her and get her back in control of herself.

But when it's just me on my own?  I have had limited success with holding her in front of a mirror, so she can watch herself as she cries which seems to give her some validation for her emotions. (Public restrooms, with their added soother of running water, are my refuge of choice when we are out and about during tantrumming). Walking away from her is useless since she will run after me and throw herself down again.

This was a huge concern for me for a few months. In worrying through the problem, I felt certain that consistency was going to be key in resolving this issue and that I had to use a soothing mechanism that we were in the habit of doing outside of tantrums--something familiar. So I started sitting down on the step.

I should make it clear that this does not have a 100% success rate, but it is a clearly established habit now.  My daughter throws herself on the floor, and I go to the step and ask her if she wants to sit with me.  She has the choice of sitting on the step next to me or on my lap, but she must sit herself down--I explain that it is not safe for me to pick her up when she isn't in control of her body. I also explain that if she kicks/hits me, then I will have to leave. (I generally move to the other end of the stairs if needed.)

I don't scold her for the tantrum, not even for the hitting.  I don't spent a lot of time talking to or looking at her.  I am just there.  If she quietly presses up against me for comfort, I'll rub her back and help her sit down.  Generally, once the storm has passed, we'll sit in silence, with her in my arms and her face resting against my shoulder. Increasingly often, she'll never build up a full head of steam but will sit down next to me quietly until she's ready to get on with whatever she was protesting. By this point, I can spot very quickly if this is a time when it's not going to work (though that's not much use without a plan B).

I'm such a scatterbrain that it's easy for me to be impatient with the children when I'm trying to focus on something else. Nevertheless, for the past few months I've been trying very hard to stop what I'm doing and make time to deal with angry children. It's not always possible, but I've come to the conclusion that that's the relationship I want to have going forward--talking through their moods with them rather than scolding them for their loss of control. (Why yes, my paranoia about teenager years is starting early!)

If nothing else, it's a big relief just to have a plan in the event of a meltdown.  Not even the most hysterical of screaming children is worse than the helpless feeling when you have no idea what to do.


  1. Great post! Not much of the tips apply to George, he is quite the exception to many a rules, but some of them seem to apply to the emerging tantrum-thrower toddler that is his brother. I know we are still some time away until full fledged tantrums, he is after all just one year old, but nevertheless, it is still good to know how other mums deal with it.
    Incidentally, I have too started to reconnect with my children after the intense exhaustion has passed a bit. It helps that George had an immense cognitive explosion recently and Stevie is sleeping better. :-)

    1. This year when I've finally started feeling like I can get enough sleep again has been *much* easier on my patience levels. Still not perfect, but when will it ever be?

      Good luck with George! It's frustrating that what can work so well for one child won't work at all for another!

  2. There's a lot I like about this plan! Sounds like it's really working--I like the part where she rests her head on your shoulder. Lovely! I've been trying a rotating series of approaches in the hopes of finding one that works every time, and mostly we do okay. I admire the way you can be so logical about it. I feel like even when I know what would probably work I either can't be bothered because I'm so RESENTFUL OF MY TINY CHILD or I have so many other things going on I can't focus. That's why the "drop what you're doing and offer some support for the angry child" is nice. And I like that you're not all up in her business, just there if she needs it. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    1. "Drop what you're doing" is the hardest part. Clearly there are some times I genuinely can't do it.... but there are plenty of times where I have to remind myself that actually I *can* stop and make time for my child, and that's always a wrench.

      Also, as Mina and I were saying above, it helps a lot when the children are old enough that *we* are getting enough sleep again. I expect you'll find this all much easier in another year, even though your stock of toddlers will have doubled!

  3. Great tips. I am definitely going to try some of this; 2 toddlers is kicking my butt. I've been sending B (3.5) to his room lately, when he's completely out of control. He is a true introvert, and actually prefers that to us hugging him and being up in his business. He'll come down in a minute or two usually and then get his hugs. L (22 mths) has severe separation anxiety and limited language skills at this point (but just started tantrumming last month) options for him were limited, but I like the sitting on the stairs approach a lot.
    I can't wait until we are regularly sleeping again. L seems to lose the plot on sleep every couple of months or so (when we travel, or he gets sick---which is still very frequent) and then it takes weeks of torture and screaming to get it back on track. Yes, my patience is so much better when I'm rested...