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Explosive, Fussy, Spirited, Or is it me??

I remember the first time my son "lost it."  It was in the car ride on the way home from a friends after Thanksgiving dinner.  Fast forward three years and here we are at Thanksgiving dinner again.  This time, the tantrums began early in the evening and continued until we packed everything up to leave.    Yes, most kids have tantrums and 3 year-olds are famous for them.  But, it just feels as though Jackson has more tantrum moments than calm moments.  I find myself tiptoeing around him at times, hoping that we'll make it through Trader Joe's, pre-school pickup, a playdate, a trip to the bank without a complete meltdown.  It is exhausting.

Back when he was an infant, I had Sears' The Fussy Baby Book.  I think I found some of it helpful.  At least I knew that I wasn't the only one with a babe that needed to be held ALL the time and was a terrible napper.  But, maybe it was the new first baby syndrome and I didn't try putting him down enough. 

Furing toddlerhood, I moved onto the Mary Sheedy Kurcinka book, Raising Your Spirited Child.  Having a 'spirited' child seemed like a good match for Jackson.  It seems like a positive angle on something that I'm sometimes not so positive about.  But, I didn't find enough in the book that  I could take and use in my interactions with Jackson. 

Here we are at three and next to me is the most recent attempt at understanding my son's temperment, The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.   The subtitle is, A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children.  Hmmm...that seems like a match.  A friend recommended the book and went out and bought it for me; we spent Thanksgiving together.  I'm game for trying something else.  I feel like I need some sort of road map for dealing with the non-stop explosions that occur over the just about anything and everything. 

This morning I opted out of heading downtown with my husband and son to check out the parade because I just needed a break.  It made me sad that I did not want to spend time with my family.  I know that's normal; but, I wish that it wasn't because of the fact that I just didn't think I could deal with another meltdown over the way the ice cream sandwich was divided, or the grape was being offered, or the way the sock was on his foot, or the fact that my hair was wet, or because the play glasses were not staying on, or the way I played the mama deer, or because he couldn't fold the clothes the way he wanted to, or the way the mittens fit on his hands.. 

Do other mamas feel this way at times?  What have you found that helps in these situations where tempers are flaring?  Any recommended reads?  Is it sensory overload, cognitive inflexibility; or, do I just need to ride out the 3's and hope for better times come 4? 


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So glad you posted this, Erica. I felt this way just this Thanksgiving Day. It was one continuous meltdown - not really a break at all from his "mood". Every time Carter's friend had a toy in his hand, he was right there to take it away. It was unbelievably exhausting, and I was so relieved when our guests left.
Today, the meltdowns included (only to name a few): dragging him kicking and screaming out of Barnes and Noble since he tried to open every Polar Express gift set he could see and then standing him a corner in front of the store could try to calm down, crusts being cut off his sandwhich, not being able to get his #9 block to fit in his clock correctly, and going to bed (to which he replied "no bed. no fluoride. no kiss mama.") For me, I tend to blame it on the fact that Carter does not nap enough, but even then, he more often than not wakes up grumpy. A sense of humor is always good to have even when the incessant whining and fake cries have you ripping your hair out, and if that doesn't work I have to walk away from the situation and give myself a "time out" to calm down. On the other hand, I am really trying to encourage independence to see if we can work on some of his frustrating moments. It seems Carter has the same issues with socks. If his socks aren't to his satisfaction, then that's something he's going to learn to fix soon enough.

I have an almost 3-year old who is really beginning to amp up the tantrums, but I always try to remember something I read in T. Berry Brazleton's book, which went something like, "if there is no audience, there can be no show." Of course, this doesn't always work (say, with the grabbing toys thing, where another child is involved) but I very often just walk away when my son is having a fit. Sometimes I might even say something a little droll or sarcastic, like, "Yeah, it's too bad when I do what you ask but I don't do it RIGHT..." When the tantrum has subsided and enough time is passed, I might try to talk with him about why he got so mad and whether it was worth it, but other times I just let it go. In the long run, I do think it helps him understand what behavior is not going to get a desired reaction, and this seems to decrease the negative behavior a bit.

I do think it is important to address the emotions the child is having, and not to make the child feel that you are insensitive to his feelings, but I also think that tantrums are like short-circuits sometimes, and are therefore something other than emotional. Whatever it may be, don't beat yourself up about it, and certainly take some guilt-free time for yourself to recover.

What great stories! Not great, I mean, but reassuring somehow. Fionn just had his 4th b-day, and his tantrums are freaking PHENOMENAL. Seriously. John (hubbie) and I just try to hold it together; not bicker or yell at eachother or him in the midst of the chaos, 'cause that makes it so much worse. Then Fionn gets all power drunk..."Look! I can tear the whole household apart!" We are all hotheads, and it's easy for mom and/or pop to get sucked into the drama...now we are really committed to the whole "united front" thing. We can argue, discuss, and diffuse later, away from the analytical eye of our tormenter, and beloved son. He is a sensitive kid, but is just in a ridiculously fragile phase right now. Growth spurt? Food allergies? New baby syndrome? In need of a constitutional homeopath? I have no idea. It's funny...I can almost always see the situation clearly and offer possible solutions when it's a child/parent at my school in crisis...with my own preschool aged son I have this big blind spot.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing these stories. I actually found myself in tears two days ago due to these exact kinds of tantrums. I kept thinking, "What am I doing wrong to make her behave this way? It must be me because this behavior is so irrational."

I have since gained some perspective by talking to friends, my mom and reading this blog. It seems to be pretty normal behavior at this age. The question is how can we control it? Sadly, I don't know. But I like Michelle's quote about if there's no audience there's no show. And Hau has a great point about independence. Many times if I can find a way to give Emma a sense of control over something (like carrying a shopping basket in the store, brushing her own teeth, etc.) she forgets to try to fight for control over the things that, to us, don't seem to matter (like socks fitting right).

And another mantra I've heard about punishment, "Be fair, firm and consistent," seems to help me figure out when to try redirection and when to pull out the big guns (time outs).

I have to say that I'm a pretty firm disciplinarian. There are certain things that are never OK and will always result in one warning and then a time out (such as hitting or disrespectful behavior) and I think my daughter knows these limits and usually doesn't push them too often. But there are times, like the other day, when she seems to sense I'm feeling a little vulnerable and pushes all the right buttons, sending us both spiraling out of control.

One thing I've learned is to always try to stay one step ahead of her, sensing when she's going to have a freak-out about something and getting her redirected before the freak-out erupts into time-out-earning behavior. This, of course, is exhausting and I still struggle to do it consistently.

Another key I've found is staying detached. Sometimes I pretend she's a friend's child. Because when she freaks out and I start taking it personally (like the other day), thinking that I'm doing something wrong to make her behave this way, or thinking that other people will think I'm a bad mom when they see her behave that way, I get really hurt, angry and resentful toward her. Instead of acting like a parent, I'm reduced to a child myself.

My mantra when things get dicey is temperament, temperament, temperament. Now that my big-personality son is in kindergarten (and past the most volatile toddler and preschool years), and I have a zenlike toddler, I can see just how much comes hard-wired from Day 1.

Which is not to say the way we parent is irrelevant! (Freakonomics be damned!) But, in my experience, kids are simply predisposed to react in certain ways. As they get older, they learn how to temper some of those inborn reactions, but it takes a long time. Sigh.

I spent so much time when my son was a toddler berating myself for what I figured must have been substandard mothering, for why else would he act that way? I also worried about how his behavior reflected on me.

Time, good friends and teachers, and having a second child has helped build my confidence in my abilities as a parent. I can also better appreciate my son for who he is, instead of wanting him to fit some predefined mold of "the good child."

As for what other people think of me? Somehow it no longer matters. That is the biggest relief of all!

But what to do when it's five o'clock and your kid is writhing on the floor of New Seasons? I find the more detached-but-friendly I am, the better it goes. That is, I'm not detached like an automoton, and I'm not grimly cheerful. I just aim for matter-of-fact and relatively pleasant and that usually keeps things moving.

I also find that plenty of sleep (7-8 hours per night, if you can get it, which I know isn't necessarily possible) and time off (also tricky, I know) helps immensely.

I admit it, we were smug for the first 2 years of my son's life. He was a pretty easy baby - slept well, ate well, cheerful and affectionate. Then he turned two - we had hitting and biting phases, grabbing (or tackling) toys from other kids, pushing, tantrums/freakouts. Luckily, I had a group of friends with kids of the same age that knew he hadn't always been so difficult. But when a mom that didn't know us would react/comment on his behavior ("it must be really hard for you" or flinching when he came near her kid), I felt like a horrible parent and that his behavior was a reflection of me. My husband and friends would reassure me that I was doing fine, it was just his age, etc., but it's hard to step back and truly believe that sometimes.

Then he turned 3 - and REAL tantrums have started. Not so much of the physical stuff (course, it's not gone away entirely, either), but can be super sassy and defiant.

So today, my husband and I were asked by the preschool teacher to stay after to discuss Luke's behavior. We just moved to PDX the end of November and were psyched to find a spot for him anywhere. His preschool is a Waldorf program and we liked the philosophy behind it and again, were happy to find a spot. I asked if the other kids/boys were all really mellow (we know a little girl who goes there and seems very easygoing) because our 3 year old is definitely all boy. It's only the 3rd week and the last time when I asked how he was, she said "he's a little rambunctious and gets the other kids excited, but he was fine". TODAY it was that he was pretending to be a superhero, saying he was going to shoot and kill, not sharing, pushing, etc. Apparently the other kids got all amped up, some got upset, meltdowns started and general chaos - instigated by my son?? When the teacher took him aside and tried to talk to him, he didn't want to listen and looked scared and just kept saying, "my mommy and daddy care about me" ... broke my heart to hear that.

Here's the deal - we don't watch tv (no cable, no antenna - just videos - though we try not to be righteous about it, we're just easily sucked into being zombies); we don't encourage the whole guns-shoot-kill thing (but most of the little boys I know still seem to pick up and run with that whole thing whether you encourage it or not); we're politically progressive and THINK we're liberal - BUT we do take him to fast food on occasion, he has seen popular tv shows/cartoons at other people's houses, he has figured out how to have an AMAZINGLY loud screaming tantrum ... are we too mainstream for Waldorf and/or is it the right fit for him?

I know we haven't been going that long and I don't think I'm pulling a mama-bear defensive/my-kid's-an-angel thing - I know he can be a handful/stinker/little sh.. but he's my boy and I love him dearly and I feel badly that he's causing so much trouble for the other kids. I worry that he's got some issue that's making him act out. My husband thinks I'm overanalyzing and that he's acting according to his age, but when it seems like he's the only one behaving that way ...

Also trying to remember that the last 2 months have been full of changes - move to pdx, away from friends, potty trained, mommy in hospital twice, new house, new baby, going to school. We've heard alot of "I miss (insert friend's name) and they miss me", "I miss our old house", "Mommy, don't go! Are you coming back?". I want to be sensitive to all that and cut him some slack, but that still doesn't excuse bad behavior.

Any comments/helpful hints/reassurances that my kid isn't the only one would be appreciated!

What Is ‘Unconditionality’?

by Scott Noelle
From Issue #5 of Transforming Parenthood

Unconditional love is widely considered to be one of the most valuable gifts that parents can give their children.

Ironically, many parents set out to love their children unconditionally and then feel bad about themselves when they fall short. In other words, their self-esteem is conditional — contingent upon their success at loving unconditionally!

Some parents believe that giving selflessly to their children is proof of their unconditional love. But parental self-sacrifice is an insidious form of conditionality that diminishes both parent and child. Its true colors are exposed when the self-sacrificing parent eventually snaps and says, “How can you treat me that way after all I’ve sacrificed for you!?”

What gets us in trouble is focusing too much on what we’re doing and not enough on how we’re being. The behavior of unconditional loving (what we do) arises from a particular state of mind (how we be), and I call that state of mind unconditionality. It makes the difference between superficially unconditional love and the real thing. And our kids can feel that difference!

Let’s take a closer look at this, starting with a practical definition of unconditionality:

Unconditionality is a state of mind in which you are willing to allow well-being into your experience... NO MATTER WHAT

This definition implies that the experience of well-being is always available to you — that you can have more well-being simply by letting it in. There are many people in this world — perhaps you know some of them — whose lives seem to prove this point. They have a high level of well-being despite poverty, disabilities, an abusive childhood, or other circumstances about which most people would feel quite unwell. But it’s not that well-being is somehow more available to them, it’s that they are more skilled at achieving the state of unconditionality that lets it in.

Unconditionality is selfish in the best sense of the word, because your own well-being becomes your top priority. You give to your child only what you can give happily, and that sets in motion a pattern of giving that continually increases your well-being instead of feeling like a drain. This leads to more generosity, not less.

Unconditionality increases your sense of freedom; it never limits your choices. It’s entirely possible to be in the state of unconditionality and passionately desire conditions to change.

Unconditionality increases your creativity as you deliberately create the inner experiences you desire, regardless of external conditions. So you can have not only unconditional love, but also...

unconditional joy
unconditional peace
unconditional acceptance
unconditional appreciation
unconditional empowerment
And the list goes on... Whatever you want to experience!

An Inside Job

Notice, however, that the list doesn’t include “unconditional obedience” because your child’s obedience is an external condition.

Unconditionality is “an inside job.” It’s about how you interpret external conditions. It’s powerful because, while you can’t always control conditions, you can always change your mind. You can always find thoughts that feel better (or at least bring you some relief) when you think them. And how you think eventually influences outer conditions.

You might ask, “Well, what if my child won’t obey me? There’s nothing joyful about that!”

And I would ask, “Are you sure?”

You see, if you decide up front that you’re going to enjoy your relationship with your child unconditionally — no matter what — then what you are actually doing is opening up your creative channels. You are saying to yourself, “I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off, but I’m open to finding a way to enjoy (or appreciate, or be at peace with, etc.) anything that happens between me and my child.”

Once a state of unconditionality is well established, uplifting thoughts will come rushing in through those open channels — even when your child chooses not to obey you — and you will find a way to enjoy, accept, appreciate, or otherwise feel good about your child (and yourself) in that moment.

But in a state of conditionality — letting external conditions determine how you feel — your child’s disobedience would trigger a cascade of negative thoughts:

My child doesn’t respect me.
I’m a terrible parent.
Other parents won’t respect me if I let my child get away with this.
If my child doesn’t learn obedience, she might run out into a busy street!
How is he going to get along in the world if he can’t follow rules?
And before you knew it, you’d feel as if your child were about to die or go to prison! Conditions would likely worsen because your child would intuitively feel your fear and negative expectation, and his or her nature is to obey that.

In other words, what you say you want your child to do is less influential than the “vibes” you are putting out, which can be roughly divided into two categories: resisting or allowing. You are either resisting conditions or allowing well-being, and you can tell which way you’re going by how you feel. Resistance feels bad, heavy, or tense; allowing feels good, light, or relieving.

What kind of thoughts are likely to come to you in a state of unconditionality?

Nothing is worth sacrificing my peace for.
It’s good to know that my well-being is not dependent on what anyone else does or thinks.
I’m bigger than this. I’m more powerful than this condition.
My child is reminding me that having control over others is unimportant.
I appreciate that my child is not a mindless lemming!
My child is learning to find his own way.
I love that my child knows what she wants.
I’m grateful to my child for giving me this opportunity to practice unconditionality.
And so on... Now you are emanating a vibe that your child instinctively knows is the Authentic Flavor of Life. It is irresistibly yummy! And while there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the obedience you originally wanted, it’s a certainty that the quality of your relationship will improve in that moment, because you have unilaterally uplifted it!

Over time, your ever-improving relationship will make the issue of obedience more-or-less irrelevant. Each of you will be “obeying” your natural desire to enjoy the relationship. This applies to any behavior issue.

An “Unconditional Surrender”

I remember a particularly stress-filled evening when my first child, Olivia, was two years old and she refused to get in her carseat. We were on our way home after an all-day excursion and had just stopped at a gas station. My wife and I were exhausted and we just didn’t have the energy for a struggle.

But old habits die hard, and I struggled anyway, eventually trying to force her into the carseat. And she — bless her fiery heart — would have none of it! She fought with every fiber of her being to uphold her dignity, until I finally gave up. I surrendered. But I was not defeated; I simply realized that I could have a much better time doing anything other than fighting my beloved child.

So I relaxed and told her she didn’t have to get in the carseat. I decided that I was willing to wait patiently in that parking lot until she was ready to buckle up and go, voluntarily. I told myself, “I don’t need conditions to change in order to feel peace now,” and I looked for something — anything — more pleasant to focus on.

My solution was to rest my chin on the steering wheel and indulge in the simple pleasure of people-watching — there were plenty of interesting people coming and going about the gas station. (This isn’t rocket science! Just reach for any thought that brings relief or feels better when you think it.)

Meanwhile, my daughter, feeling the shift from resistance to freedom and lightness, dawdled and tinkered with the various knobs and buttons in the car for about three minutes. Then she climbed into her carseat and let me buckle her in without protest.

I believe this rapid return to peace was, in part, due to the fact that I was willing to wait “forever” — meaning, I was totally focused in the present. In other words, my unconditionality gave her the space and time she needed to find her own way. And with that sense of freedom, we both found a way that was in accord with our shared desire for peace, freedom, and respect.

My story illustrates the paradox in which unconditionality leads to positive changes in conditions, but it doesn’t work if your intent is merely to change the conditions! You’ve got to make a commitment to unconditionality for its own sake — because you want the power to enjoy life under any conditions.

Our children give us ample opportunities to practice this, and sometimes they persist with undesired behaviors until we get it. It’s as if they’re saying, “Mom, Dad... I’d really like to go along with you, but I’m going to wait until you’ve let go of the idea that I have to change for you to feel okay... I don’t want to deprive you of the wonderful feeling of knowing where your well-being really comes from.”

Unconditionality empowers you to create what you want from the inside out, while conditionality requires change from the outside in. When you truly shift inside, you can taste the deliciousness of well-being instantly, and any subsequent outer change is just icing on the cake.

I'm glad I just read this. Every time my 2.5 y/o freaks out, I immediately freak out that I am a terrible mama.

Perhaps this isn't the case.



We wanted to share that we've just gotten an email from Sue, who has just formed a yahoo group specifically in response to this post:

"In response a while back to this post, I created a Yahoo Group for parents dealing with kids who are highly sensitive, spirited and/or explosive. A few Urban Mama-ites have joined but it would terrific to expand the support. Can you please let folks know we'd love to have them in our group and they can check us out at:


or subscribe at: PDX-Spirited-Explosive-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Thanks for all you do."

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