Sunday, December 18, 2011

Temper Tantrums - a CPS/SDT collaborative problem solving and Self Determination theory perspective

Behaviorists view temper tantrums as ' manipulative ' behaviors by kids to get attention, get what they want and avoid demands placed upon them. They have learned that this  behavior works for them. 

Don't we all try to get attention, get what we want and try to avoid doing things we don't like ? Don't kids have legitimate needs ,  a need for autonomy and other concerns ?  Should we not try to see their world through their  eyes and acknowledge their frustration as genuine rather than calling it manipulative?  Why call having a tantrum in a mall because mom won't buy you a toy as just trying  to push buttons and get mom to give in rather than kid  being frustrated and falling apart.

Parents are advised to distinguish between tantrums caused by frustration in doing a task or difficulty in verbalizing stress , in which case kids need support- and the manipulative tantrums which are attention seeking, task avoidance and getting what you want. The latter would demand interventions - consequences like time-outs, grounding kids, loss of privileges etc . Being supportive and giving ' relationship' would be considered as rewarding ' bad behavior ' -  kids get relationship by acting badly.

These techniques may be effective in getting ' behavior ', but come at a cost of commitment to the underlying values and strain trust and  relationship with the parent. Relationship   is made conditional and used against kids to leverage good behavior. Kids usually abandon the idea that their parents will ever understand them, and offer support.

The CPS/SDT  - collaborative problem solving / self determination  theory view is that parents must focus on meeting their kids' needs ( not wants). Kids who exhibit tantrums have unmet needs and concerns -  autonomy, competence and relatedness. Kids exhibit high levels of emotional intensity- anger / frustration, driven by the fight/flight hormones, overwhelmed by stimuli, explode and have their meltdowns. People and kids don't decide to be manipulative and throw a tantrum to get you something.You need to have your buttons pushed and feel incredibly frustrated, angry and helpless. Even if parents do give in , which is very different from meeting their needs , kids are not going to learn to throw a fit , because throwing a fit pays.

Tantrums are ' symptoms of underlying problems. Behaviorists focus on the symptom, CPS/SDT focus on the whole child and the underlying conditions/problems giving rise to the tantrums.

There will be times where kids do things that are absolutely unacceptable and parents must thwart their intentions and compromise their autonomy. If we try to ensure that our interventions are not experienced as punishment and the relationship is not damaged we are in a good position to deal with the underlying issues and problem solve when the kid is calm.

The best way to deal with ' temper tantrums' is to avoid them  ' out of the moment ' by working on ' unsolved problems ' which reliably and predictably cause kids to look bad and fall apart. Finding realistic and durable solutions is not easy but one can permanently solve the actual problem. In addition to solving problems, using the  CPS process kids acquire many cognitive skills. If we can teach kids to ' think straight ' and problem solve they won't have to deal with frustration in the first place.

 Here we support the kid's autonomy in that he participates in finding mutually satisfying solutions, and his concerns are being addressed. We support his need for competence by solving actual problems and teaching skills and finally most important support the need for relatedness – being understood, experiencing support and  trust.

Helping kids to deal with frustration is in a way dealing with the symptom, rather than solving the problem causing the behavior. However in the moment , if we are good at observing our kids and picking up on their cues ,  we can help them monitor their emotions, the cues the body offers, recognize and name the frustration, disappointment, fear or sadness before it escalates to fury. We can  help them calm down, take a break, get some 'space ' exercise – repetitive physical motion ( we can talk how the exercise effects our bodies ),  breathing , meditation , go to their ' comfort corners' and chill down. We can validate feelings or more important needs and offer alternatives and choices in which they can experience autonomy and compensate for the loss of autonomy they have just experienced.

The you tube –  The Anatomy of a Tantrum

describes the 3 phases of a tantrum.  The tantrum begins with 
   1   yelling and screaming expresses lots of anger and frustration
   2 physical actions like throwing or pushing furniture
   3 crying , whining, whimpering

It is not a good idea to try and talk to kids during a tantrum or ignore them , but be there and give them some space. If we imagine how this looks from a kids point of view , there is a good chance that the kid is likely afraid of the own rage and terrified of being out of control, so better not to ignore them or to punish. Touching , or holding kids escalates things so we should try to use physical contact to a minimum to ensure safety.

Part of the tantrum is a result of kids having their autonomy thwarted. I see the physical actions as an attempt to experience some autonomy. It may appear to be pretty provocative. Parents should be careful not to fall into the trap and respond to these ' provocations' and let the tantrum play itself out.

The only intervention I have seen to work in the middle of a tantrum is the kid smelling a fragrance – that seems to reset the brain and produce dopamine that makes a person feel good .

After the tantrum is over , kids will seek to reclaim some dignity and sense of autonomy and potency. They will ask or try to be more autonomous. We can try to compensate their loss of autonomy and sense of self determination in one area by giving them more autonomy in another area. Alfie Kohn calls this ' compensatory autonomy support'.

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