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A Tale of Two Tantrums

Young boy having a temper tantrum
This is the second in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.

Picture this: You are in a store.  Two young children are nearby with their parents.  Each of them suddenly erupts into a tantrum.  Your intense irritation leads you to utter, “What those kids need is some good, old-fashioned discipline!”  In that moment, you want those parents to make those children stop crying and do whatever it is that their parents have told them to do – now!

When our emotional brain reacts to an aversive event, it ignites an intense desire to regain control, driving us toward coercion and punishment. This is a reaction to the immediate moment.  Think of it as looking through a camera lens that is ‘zoomed in’ on a small part of the scene, showing you only the irritating behavior.

Now ‘zoom out’ to see more of the scene, and what preceded it. You see that one child has had a nasty flu for several days.  You see the other child’s father speaking to her in American Sign Language.  She’s been trying to explain her feelings to him through signs, but he hasn’t understood her.  Your perspective shifts and you realize that these two tantrums are happening for very different reasons: the first because of exhaustion, the second because of frustration.  You quickly realize that punishment wouldn’t help in either situation because it wouldn’t address the actual issues.

Interestingly, the Latin root of ‘discipline’ is discere, which means ‘to learn’ or discipere, which means ‘to grasp intellectually.’  Discipline is about learning, understanding, processing, resolving – actions taken by the child, not done to the child.  It is an active state of constructing knowledge.  But how do you foster this when you and the child are both stressed out?

1. Think long-term

The way we respond to stress is what the child is learning to do. The child is likely to attend to, process, remember and re-enact our response at a later time. How do you want your child to respond to conflict with peers? Keep this foremost in your mind.

2. Reduce the stress

Over recent years, we’ve learned about the importance of ‘self-regulation’ – our ability to calm ourselves when we’re upset. When we can calm ourselves, we can zoom out and see more of what’s going on, helping us to respond constructively and fostering the development of self-regulation in the child.

3. Think about how the child sees the situation

When we’re frustrated, we tend to attribute blame to the child – “He’s defying me;” “She’s misbehaving on purpose.” This feeds our anger and our drive to punish.  But the child also has a perspective on the situation.  The child could be tired, hungry, unable to express herself, frustrated by our behavior, or not yet able to self-regulate.  When we consider the child’s perspective, we’re more likely to respond constructively.  And when we model perspective-taking, we nurture that ability in the child.

4. Ensure the child’s physical and emotional safety

Adults’ first responsibility to children is to keep them safe. When children are scared or anxious, they aren’t able to take in information, process it and remember it the way we hope they will. The might remember how scared they felt in that moment, but this is not the same as constructing knowledge or understanding. We learn best when we are calm and open to new information.

5. Involve the child in resolving the situation

Taking things away, isolation and other punishments don’t help the child to acquire skills. When we talk with the child about our perspective and theirs, and ask them for their ideas about how it can go better next time, we are helping them practice conflict resolution, as well as nurturing their insight.  ‘Discipline’ is a participatory process that helps children gradually learn how to solve problems without aggression or coercion.

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Dr. Joan Durrant is a Child-Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Family Social Sciences in the Faculty of Human Ecology at the University of Manitoba.  Dr. Durrant’s research focuses on the psychological, cultural, legal and human rights dimensions of corporal punishment of children in Canada and worldwide. She was the principal researcher and co-author of the Canadian Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth.

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