Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Trouble, part two: The Robot Rampage

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.


Jordan Sadler, SLP said...

It sounds to me like you're doing *exactly* what you should and that you definitely deserve a Parent of the Year award for your supportive approach with your son.

Not knowing Ben I am not sure if this is helpful, but I'll share a strategy we use to help kids with these types of reactions at the clinic where I work (I believe we got it from a SCERTS workshop). If it doesn't help you perhaps it will benefit another reader.

We laminate a small square piece of paper that depicts and/or says "I'm MAD!" on one side. On the other side, we have a list of 2-3 things the child can do when he/she is mad. These can also be depicted and/or written out depending on whether pictures or words are most meaningful to each child. We decide on those things with the child's help in a CALM moment so that they are familiar when there's an angry outburst. As soon as the outburst begins we hand the card to the child (we have them on metal rings hanging in various places around the clinic and some kids have worn tiny ones on a belt loop for a short while). It has meaning for the child, helps him/her identify how they're feeling and takes some of our wordiness out of the moment - we can turn it over and just point to the choices for what to do when he/she is mad.

This has worked like a charm for lots of kids here, so I thought it was a good strategy to share! (I think I might be able to link you to a template for making this, if you're interested.)

jaki said...

very interesting and informative observation (and translation) of Ben's "inner workings".
For what it's worth, I think holding and comforting can never be "too much"!!

Anonymous said...

I see elements of that same panic in Chee at times. Lately it's not so much when she's mad, as when she's scared. I think. That's the trouble with a kid who has trouble expressing herself - not exactly sure what's going on inside that head all the time. And she can't tell me.

I really like your approach with Ben. And I understand reaching a point where you throw the traditional discipline methods out the window. Being a good parent is all about finding what works for your kid. And in that - you are definitely Mother of the Year material.

Thanks for sharing this. I can say I know just where you are coming from.

Anonymous said...

I can identify with the robot part of the tantrums, and can add that when witnessed by others Connor's robot tantrums were mistaken for naughty behavior. That he was making a deliberate, cognizant choice to attack his classmate & not really emotionally upset.

I would agree with you that when a child is in that 'fight or flight" state they cannot learn. I think the evidence and studies done about how we learn bear that out as well. I think responding to his needs with caring and calm is exactly the best thing to do.

Anonymous said...

When the robot rampage starts with throwing an object or hitting someone, do you imagine that he is looking for kinesthetic reassurance that yes, he still has some kind of control? (Mommy says I can't do that, but look, I can still move my arm just like I always could...?) If mom or dad tries to exert control and restrain him, is he afraid that Ben has suddenly disappeared?

Is throwing himself onto the pavement or pulling a bookshelf onto himself just a way to remind himself, "Ben is still here, because Ben can feel that he has just fallen down" ?

I guess I'm thinking about this stuff having just read a piece in this week's New Yorker by a neurologist. He's talking about stuff like phantom limb syndrome, but really it seems relevant to other types of conditions.

KAL said...

I think you're right on with this. I know that when sam is in the midst of his own "robot rampage" he will stop suddenly and say, almost desperately, "I need a hug." I know that input helps calm him and that he feels out of control. I think you can't do much else but trust your instincts on what Ben needs in the moment.