De-Coding A Child’s Temper Tantrums: It’s A Message For The Family

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Amy: As a family therapist, I have had many families come to me looking for help when their kid’s behavior comes unmanageable. Like an intrepid Sherlock Holmes, my training and experience have taught me to examine  the family relationship patterns  for clues. When I speak of “relationship patterns”, I mean those stubborn, repetitive  and mostly unconscious ways family members relate to each other. These patterns, which are difficult to know from the inside, exert powerful influence over our children. After all, our kids  depend on us, and they need us to be well.  It’s their business to figure us out, and to try to help if possible.  We are much, much  more powerful in the eyes of  our children than most of us realize.

Here’s a recent case that illustrates what I mean:

Terry and Mel, a polite, stressed-looking couple in their late 30’s, came to see me for help with their five-year old son John’s temper tantrums. They described him as “out of control”; at times his defiance included hitting his parents, kicking, and at one point he swung his arm hard enough to break his father’s glasses. The parents actually brought a video of this child in full Temper Tantrum Mode. When I briefly looked at this video, my heart went out to this child. He looked utterly beside himself, out of his little mind, jumping on the table, screaming, tears streaming down his cheeks. He looked completely tied up in knots and didn’t know how to get out. We scheduled an appointment for the following week with their son.

UnknownThe parents felt defeated by their little Hercules, who apparently dominated these two grownups, so it was funny to see them walk in to the office with this cherubic-looking five-year old in tow. This tousle-headed guy was as polite as could be as he played with the toys in my office. But  I knew that in order to be helpful I needed to see John in action, so I asked the parents to create a situation where this child would typically act up.  Mother decided to ask John to relinquish the Batman toy he was playing with. He refused, she insisted and….game on.

What a little bruiser this guy was! As he began to hit and kick, I watched the parents struggle helplessly for a minute or two. Then I asked Dad to contain this child, since obviously John’s own brakes weren’t working. What followed told me what  I needed to know about this strange phenomenon where a five-year old overtakes  two grownups.

Dad showed a real aptitude in taking control of his son. With my encouragement, he held him, not too hard, just firm and caring. John screamed bloody murder–“You’re choking me!”–while he kept trying to kick and bite. Dad held fast. As I praised the father, I asked Mom what was happening for her during this scene. She looked absolutely ashen, face tense, like she was holding onto her seat for dear life. She said through clenched jaw, “I worry that’s he’s going to hurt him” (meaning that her husband was going to hurt John.) I looked quizzical, “Actually, he’s giving this child just what he needs”, I said. A brief verbal check-in with the couple assured me that father had never lost control with his son. Not even close.

Unknown-1Mom and I continued to watch as Dad held firm. I said things to John like, “Wow, you’re so lucky that your Dad cares about you so much. What a lucky boy you are.” Etc. etc. I think my praise helped, since Dad became increasingly relaxed in his custodial role, even making a few jokes that made his son laugh. Mel kept asking his son, “Are you done yet? Can I take my hands away?” But this kid was tough, he didn’t quit. He had a lot of fight left in him.

Meanwhile Terry and I talked, and it became clear to me how this problem persisted. Terry said, “Sometimes Mel makes that face”–and she mimicked an angry, scary, face–indicating that she felt she had to monitor her husband’s parenting skills. Mel said, “why do you keep saying that?” He was annoyed that his wife kept disqualifying his efforts, painting him as a near- lunatic.

She said, “Sometimes you get so angry. I can see it in your face.” She mimicked again. Now Mel was clearly pissed, though quietly so. He said, “I get angry when I feel like I’m fighting both of you!” Bingo. Family Systems Lesson 101. My teacher Sal Minuchin’s words echoed in my ears: “When a child is taller than one parent, he/she is sitting on the other parent’s shoulders.”

Terry’s obvious anxiety as she watched Mel with her son helped to create a strong mixed message about what was expected from this child. It looked to me like she was trying to disarm her husband with her eyes. And what’s a five-year old to do? Should he obey his Dad? Fight to the death for Mommy? Pretty confusing for everyone. I ruminated out loud that John seemed like he didn’t know if he’s supposed to surrender or keep fighting the old man. That’s a tall order for a five-year old.

Unknown-2Meanwhile, I continued to admire Mel’s love for his son. Slowly, Mom joined in. She told John, “Daddy cares about you”. Her tone was softer. I think she started to worry less. Without explicitly stating it, it had become obvious that when Mel felt his wife’s support, everything and everyone became calmer. Even little John. He soon gave up the fight. As Dad released his arms, John put his own little arms around his Daddy and climbed up onto his lap. They remained holding each other for a few minutes. His mother stared incredulously. “He’s never done that!” I responded, “that’s because of what you did”, nodding to her and her husband. I credited her for the change in her son; Terry’s affirmation of her husband allowed their son to surrender, and be glad about it.

The session was now coming to an end. I didn’t want to talk to much about what happened; this family experienced something new in terms of their usual way of operating and I wanted it to resonate for a bit.  Mel felt empowered to take care of his son, to give this child what he so desperately needed–a firm, calm, parental hand. And this time, for the first time, Terry joined in. These folks got what they came for, though, as usual, not in the way they’d envisioned.

Terry made it clear when they initially came to see me that they were in the midst of moving, and might only come for one or two sessions.  This family made a good start, but most likely they’ll need some more help.   My guess is that Terry and Mel’s responses to their child have partial roots in the parents’ own lives. It’s not uncommon to see a woman who has grown up in a house with a violent or unpredictable father worry a lot about that quality showing up in her husband. Or there may some repressed or unaddressed conflicts between the parents themselves. In my experience, it’s useful, at some point in the therapy, to meet with the parents alone to  air/resolve any unfinished grievances. This is perhaps the best way, ultimately, for parents to care for their children.


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