Thursday, August 20, 2015

Three Year Old Tantrums– Making Peace

Peace Table


Three year old tantrums are like tsunamis. You don’t know how big the cataclysm will be until it’s on top of you, and you can’t stop it once it has started. You just have to be prepared beforehand and get to higher ground. 

As my daughters have moved from the developmental stage identifying themselves with me to seeking individuality and choices, the transition has been rocky and full of temper tantrums. As much as I would like to point fingers and blame their tender youth, I myself am not always the example of maturity I wish to be. I try to let myself off the hook because I am not a yeller, but I’ll say it before someone else rats me out: Bull-headedness and snarling are patterns God convicts me about regularly. Oh God, you multi-tasker, you! Using me disciplining my kids to discipline me! 

So here we are with long, massive meltdowns in very public places, but that doesn’t even matter because I happen to know you can still hear that little voice shrieking inside the house from down the block. Thank God we don’t live in an apartment at this point!

As I said, there’s no stopping it: The element of surprise is impotent. Punitive action and reasoning are equally fruitless. It takes a good 20-30 min. before distraction is an option. Mostly tantrums just have to be forestalled before they start. 
Sure, I know that means eating real meals at regular intervals. Of course it means getting regular sleep. Gee, thanks, parenting sites. I'd never have thought of that on my own!

The key for me was realizing what my daughter was trying to accomplish with her tantrums. On the surface they seem whimsical –in a bad way– but for her it is all about feeling like her rights were trampled on and having no recourse. Her solution might not be the same as your child's solution because her reasons may be different than your kid's. But if you think it may help, read on! 

What has really helped is having a family peacemaking strategy. The work of making peace is not best done by the clear-headed outside observer. It has to start in the heart of the person who is angry and sees the wrong. We have found my daughter's temper escalates when she sees no recourse for due process and justice.
My idea and my children’s ideas of justice don’t often coincide at first, but having a calm, consistent road to travel together makes a difference.
Here are the tools I want to give them: A desire for justice, capacity for mercy, a chance to cool down, a template for respectful discourse, empathy, and experience with un-begrudging compromise. The terrible thing is that this list doesn’t describe my heart of hearts! My own desire and practice are far from perfect, so this is for me too. 

My efforts at cool down time and respectful discourse had so far been blown away in the blast of living fury that is my second-born, so I needed a new strategy. We tried a Peace Table ala Montessori, and it is working surprisingly well! The idea is to have a neutral place for conflict resolution and the promotion of peace. The genius of it is that it gives my kids an avenue for positive action, not just violent protest. 

Supplies: On the table we have a rose in a shallow bowl- not a long stemmed flower in a vase, because vases are easier to knock over, and long flowers can be turned into cart whips by furious children– and a battery operated candle. 

Step 1: If someone in the home is feeling upset or experiencing conflict they can present the involved person with the rose, and it is part of the social contract that they go to the table together to resolve their difficulty. 
Step 2: Whomever is holding the rose has the right to speak, and anyone else has the privilege of listening. 
Step 3: The rose is passed between them until they resolve the matter. 

Having physical tools to hold as protocol for the intellectual/emotional process of conflict resolution is grounding and reassuring for them. It keeps them on track. There is a Montessori book to introduce this activity, but role playing was enough, and in fact, quite revelatory for us!

The purpose of the battery candle is that it is an extra task and treat for the angry child to turn on, allowing for a few more split seconds of cool off/distracted time. Every instant counts! Also they are mesmerizing and cheap at the dollar store! Another advantage to having a dedicated space for this is that it is proactive. Choosing from a small selection of activities from the table is a self-directed action. I see cool down time-outs as preventing anyone or anything getting hurt, but the angry child sees it as punishment or banishment, which compounds the drama. I want them to grow up knowing that they don’t get positive or negative consequences for how they feel, but for what they do with the feelings they have. Mature people find activities that de-escalate themselves when they are angry, but sometimes we stop kids from de-escalating by mandating things that make them angry. Once again, anger is fine, being destructive and rude is not. They have to be dealt with separately. 

When I said that role playing was revelatory, what I mean is that I discovered a reason my explosive child has a short fuse: Her fuse is not that short, it’s just that her sister is a pyro. As I found myself trying to negotiate a pretend argument for the rights to a toy I don’t even care about, I discovered that my oldest drives a really hard bargain, and she denies others acknowledgement that they have a real case. While she looks level headed and peaceable to authority figures, she looks like a tyrant when you are standing eye to eye. It raises the point that making peace is everyone’s job. No one is exempt. The burden of it can’t only fall on the people who burn for justice. Acknowledgement and sensitivity are really important. Without empathy the person who is wronged just comes off as a complaining troublemaker, and that is unjust too! As a mother it is tempting to focus my efforts on the child who is most publicly embarrassing, and who inconveniences me most, but my job is to help both the explosive child, AND the kid who casually plays with emotional matches. One is no less important than the other. 

 The spiritual component is something we are working on as well, but not in the tsunami moments. Jesus said that when you try to feed pearls to swine, they turn around and eat you. Raise your hand if that’s happened to you when your kids are angry! I find my relationship with God, my prayer life, and the help of Scripture invaluable, like pearls, but when my kids have a hunger for justice they don’t appreciate moralizing.   

Becoming peacemakers is a life-long, not week-long evolving process. Additionally, peacemaking is not just about resolving conflict, but about developing an eternal perspective, deepening one’s walk with God, developing love, practicing patience, and self-control. As my children master the peacemaking skills we started with, I expect to swap in other activities at the peace table. 

Here are my ideas: 
  • Calm-down glitter jar,
  • Music player with Scripture songs,
  • Books about peacemaking... any suggestions? 
  • Stones with applicable Bible verses on them,
  • Tactile celtic knot tracing activity to introduce labyrinth prayer aides,
  • Recorder for work on taking deep breaths, and 
  • Puzzles for taking time to cool down.
The end of this story hasn't happened yet, but we have gone from 2 huge tantrums a day to 1 or 2 short ones a week. My daughter has been swallowing back the fearful rage and seeking healthy things like cuddling and talking about it since we have a plan. The rose is something she can present to parents too, and be certain her appeal is heard. The table also gives us a benchmark for the minimum of what is required to work something out. Often I would see my older daughter sulking about something her sister did. She always claimed to have tried to work it out, but I wasn't sure. Now I can tell them "If you haven't invited your sister to the peace table, you haven't tried to work it out. If you aren't willing to do that, you can sulk in your room, but not in our space." Very effective! 

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