Parental advice literature is chock full of guidance about how to deal with temper tantrums.
Don’t give in to the demand. Let the episode play out. Keep the kid safe and simply let the storm pass – walk away and ignore the behavior when possible.
This assumes you’re dealing with a typical tantrum. The kind where the child cries and screams, sits or lies on the floor, maybe rolls around for effect, but essentially stays in one place. Spend more than twenty minutes at Target on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll see at least one excellent example.
I’ve never seen Ben do anything even close to this. Ben’s tantrums are unique enough that the normal parental guidance doesn’t really even make sense.
Chris came up with a fitting way to describe Ben’s tantrums when he coined the term, “the robot rampage.”
A robot rampage is usually triggered by frustration and loss of control: the DVD we’re watching skips or freezes, something goes awry with the train track, we set a limit on something Ben is doing.
The episodes start off with an immediate, reflexive action. He grabs, throws, pushes or hits what ever or who ever is in front of him. Emotion triggers his muscles to react, bypassing cognition entirely. This is the lizard brain at work.
Unlike a lot of children who start to cry at this point, Ben rarely cries during the robot rampage. (Hence the term “robot.”) He often shows surprisingly little emotion except for what I would describe as focused determination combined with controlled panic.
After the initial burst, Ben will, for example, walk – not run - over to something else in the room and throw it, or knock something off a table. A stern reprimand this point tends to throw gasoline on the fire, often causing him to escalate and become more aggressive.
So we just hold him and try to calm him down.
It's hard to know when the worst is over. We've seen him appear calm and have let him out of our grasp, only to have him walk into the next room and attempt to pull a bookshelf down on himself, or throw himself on the pavement of a parking lot, or scratch the face of a playmate.
This strikes me as totally different than what people refer to as children “acting out.” Acting out implies the child is aware of being watched and is performing – in order to get a reaction or make something happen.
Ben’s rampages are indeed some kind of communicative act, but they are not manipulative the way that a typical toddler tantrum is designed to say: “I hate you and you are making my life miserable with your rules and limits.” Ben’s robot rampages seem to be saying, “Help me. I don’t know what else to do.”
Often, the look in his face when I've picked him up to restrain him is one of fear and surprise rather than anger, as if he's saying, "Holy crap. What just happened?"
As his language has been developing, we are noticing that the rampages have become a bit less robotic in nature. He’s more likely to tell us what he’s upset about before he starts to react physically (i.e. “Oh, no! The sticker book is RIPPED!) and it’s easier to engage him in the midst of things, to redirect him. He is a little more whiny, a little more expressive, a little more like a typical kid who’s having trouble.
We often will encourage him to cry since it seems to help release him from the tension of being stuck in frustration. “You have a mad feeling stuck in your body right now.” I’ve started to tell him. “Crying helps get the mad feeling out of your body.”
Most parenting advice urges not to “give in” to the tantrum because you are teaching the child that this is an effective way to get what he or she wants.
But what this approach assumes is that the child is able to learn in these moments. I don’t believe that Ben is receptive to learning when he is in these anxiety-driven rampages. This is not a teachable moment.
That’s why we’ve taken to treating tantrums like panic attacks rather than misbehavior. You do not punish a person who is having a panic attack – you try to help them change the state they are in, from anxious to more calm, which is exactly what we do with Ben.
So, if holding a child and comforting him is giving in, then by the typical standard, I’m not going to win any mother-of-the-year awards.
The panic attack metaphor guides a lot of what we do to try to help Ben through difficult times. It certainly isn’t always successful, but, it’s the best we’ve got – especially when we’ve got a rampaging robot on our hands.