Twelve and Throwing Tantrums

At twelve years old, Sam has tantrums on the scale of a two year old. She is still learning how to handle her emotions appropriately. Fortunately, these tantrums are limited now mostly to yelling, some stomping around and some door-slamming, so we’ve seen improvement. Each time she gets in trouble for acting out in this way, we remind her that she earns consequences not because she’s gotten upset, but because of her behavior when she is upset.

I find her tantrums extremely stressful. Way more often than I’d like to admit, I’m walking around on edge because I can feel Sam’s emotions building, and I anticipate a fit. Somewhere along the way I must have decided it was my job to control Sam, that I could control her and that I should. Saying that out loud or writing it, I know it’s ludicrous, but I catch myself believing it anyway. I feel the adrenaline and cortisol rising in my blood when I sense her becoming agitated. My stomach ties itself in knots, my breath constricts, my chest caves inward, and I think, futilely, I must prevent her from acting up again. This is where I get pulled into a struggle with her, where it’s been hardest for me to disengage. I’ve become a lot better at it, though some of the time I put on a performance of calm that conceals distress so palpable I can barely stop myself from trembling. And it’s here that I realize that what I’m trying to teach her–how to deal with his emotions in a healthy way–is just what she’s teaching me. She’s showing me what not to do (flip out), and as the adult, I’m trying to remember to breathe, choose my words with care, and act instead of reacting. That’s not easy for me as an adult, so I can appreciate his challenge as a twelve-year old (with PTSD) in handling herself properly when she feels this way.

An acquaintance who happens to be a psychiatric nurse shared a theory with me the other day. She said we develop some important emotional skills when we’re around two years old, that this is what’s going on during the so-called “terrible twos,” that we learn then to moderate our behavior when we feel strong emotions. And this makes sense, because at two years old, Sam was being seriously abused. Could it be that this part of his development was interrupted? Since that conversation, I’ve been able to feel more compassion for Sam when she fails to control herself as I would like. I’ve been able to maintain a more genuine calm (despite my stress) in the face of his upset. And I still want to help her as best I can to develop the skills she needs to control herself.

Kevin and I often debrief after one of Sam’s tantrums, and its usually to remind ourselves of what we already know. Experience demonstrates that when we decline Sam’s invitation to join her in her drama, it all fizzles out much more quickly. Still, we occasionally let ourselves get sucked in despite ourselves. We argue with her. Routinely, we used to declare consequences during one of her tantrums on the theory that it would show her we meant business. This only escalated things like fuel on a fire, so eventually we learned (mostly) not to do this. It’s not that consequences aren’t ever in order, just that giving them while she’s acting up has proven counter-productive. To date, the best advice we’ve heard has been to disconnect, to take away the audience. When she’s upset, Sam wants to argue aggressively, and to do that, she needs someone to fight with her. We’re still learning how not to be drawn in. Kevin still argues with her more than I do, and we have argued about that. I say, if one party (the adult) stops, the argument is over. Sam can’t keep it going by herself.

This is something we more or less agree on, and it’s often difficult to remember in practice. Like Sam, we’re so attached to being “right.” But as the parents, we hold the power, and we give it away if we allow Sam to hijack a conversation and turn it into a shouting match. It’s hard to walk away when she’s saying something obnoxious, defiant, or otherwise disrespectful, but it quiets her more quickly than anything.

It’s not always feasible to walk away. If we’re cooking dinner, or working in the living room, we cannot evict ourselves every time Sam acts up. So we tell her to go to his room. Usually, eventually, she will stomp his way up the stairs and slam her bedroom door in classic angry-kid fashion. But sometimes she seems intent to perform an aria of outrage. It’s as if she believes she could make us cave if only she could rage loudly enough. If that’s the aim, it’s puzzling because it has never, ever worked. Not once have we ever given in to a demand when she’s disrespectful or obnoxious. Which leads me to believe that if she’s not getting her way from it, she must be getting something from it, or wouldn’t she have dropped the habit by now? I suspect what she gets is some release. She gets the feeling out.

We’ve talked about that with her. “You can have your feelings–they’re always okay–and you don’t have to get in trouble if you can do something else to get them out. Go to your room. Listen to music. Go outside and ride your bike. Punch a pillow. Write down your feelings. And you can talk to your therapist about it. She can help you, give you some ideas of some things you can do instead of having a fit.” She doesn’t say anything to this. Her expression seems to say, “yeah, maybe.”

A few months ago, I did something different. Sam was carrying on and escalating about homework or something, had refused to go to her room, and began rapidly increasing his volume and intensity. She even started jumping up and down–just like a toddler. Spontaneously, without thinking, I began to do it, too. “I can yell, too!” I said. “I can act like this, too! Aaaaaaaaah!” And I jumped up and down.

Sam stopped cold, like she’d been struck. Her whole energy shifted. The rage turned to what looked like sadness or grief, and she ran outside crying, telling me I was mean and horrible. I felt really bad, and at the same time I realized that in a way, it had worked. She had shifted.

I told myself I wouldn’t do that again, but since then I have done it, about three or four times. Last time, before I did it, I said, “Sam, lower your voice. Would you like me to start talking to you the way you’re talking to me?” And on she went, and so I mirrored her (that’s the word I would like to use, because it’s kinder than what I fear may closer to the truth: mocking). Within thirty seconds she was leaving the room of her own accord. She wasn’t any happier, but she was removing herself.

Sam and I have talked about it. When she’s in a positive mood, she talks freely and openly about what’s going on with her during a tantrum. Last week, I said to her, “I know it doesn’t feel good to you when I act like you when you’re doing that. But honestly, it’s the only thing that has ever gotten through to you to make you stop for a minute. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want you to see what you’re doing.” She just nodded.

Two days ago, when we were talking about alternatives to yelling when she’s upset, she said, “You can always act like me again.” She seems to agree that when I’ve done that, it’s helped her shift. But I don’t like it.

Effective or not, I am not sure if mirroring her like this a good idea. I do know that it doesn’t feel good to me, and based on that, I am resolved not to make this a habit. Still, when all else fails, I often feel at a loss for what to do, how to respond. I guess in those cases, I can always take my own advice, whether or not it’s convenient, and disengage. Just walk away.

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