Sunday, December 18, 2011

Temper Tantrums - a CPS/SDT collaborative problem solving and Self Determination theory perspective

Behaviorists view temper tantrums as ' manipulative ' behaviors by kids to get attention, get what they want and avoid demands placed upon them. They have learned that this  behavior works for them. 

Don't we all try to get attention, get what we want and try to avoid doing things we don't like ? Don't kids have legitimate needs ,  a need for autonomy and other concerns ?  Should we not try to see their world through their  eyes and acknowledge their frustration as genuine rather than calling it manipulative?  Why call having a tantrum in a mall because mom won't buy you a toy as just trying  to push buttons and get mom to give in rather than kid  being frustrated and falling apart.

Parents are advised to distinguish between tantrums caused by frustration in doing a task or difficulty in verbalizing stress , in which case kids need support- and the manipulative tantrums which are attention seeking, task avoidance and getting what you want. The latter would demand interventions - consequences like time-outs, grounding kids, loss of privileges etc . Being supportive and giving ' relationship' would be considered as rewarding ' bad behavior ' -  kids get relationship by acting badly.

These techniques may be effective in getting ' behavior ', but come at a cost of commitment to the underlying values and strain trust and  relationship with the parent. Relationship   is made conditional and used against kids to leverage good behavior. Kids usually abandon the idea that their parents will ever understand them, and offer support.

The CPS/SDT  - collaborative problem solving / self determination  theory view is that parents must focus on meeting their kids' needs ( not wants). Kids who exhibit tantrums have unmet needs and concerns -  autonomy, competence and relatedness. Kids exhibit high levels of emotional intensity- anger / frustration, driven by the fight/flight hormones, overwhelmed by stimuli, explode and have their meltdowns. People and kids don't decide to be manipulative and throw a tantrum to get you something.You need to have your buttons pushed and feel incredibly frustrated, angry and helpless. Even if parents do give in , which is very different from meeting their needs , kids are not going to learn to throw a fit , because throwing a fit pays.

Tantrums are ' symptoms of underlying problems. Behaviorists focus on the symptom, CPS/SDT focus on the whole child and the underlying conditions/problems giving rise to the tantrums.

There will be times where kids do things that are absolutely unacceptable and parents must thwart their intentions and compromise their autonomy. If we try to ensure that our interventions are not experienced as punishment and the relationship is not damaged we are in a good position to deal with the underlying issues and problem solve when the kid is calm.

The best way to deal with ' temper tantrums' is to avoid them  ' out of the moment ' by working on ' unsolved problems ' which reliably and predictably cause kids to look bad and fall apart. Finding realistic and durable solutions is not easy but one can permanently solve the actual problem. In addition to solving problems, using the  CPS process kids acquire many cognitive skills. If we can teach kids to ' think straight ' and problem solve they won't have to deal with frustration in the first place.

 Here we support the kid's autonomy in that he participates in finding mutually satisfying solutions, and his concerns are being addressed. We support his need for competence by solving actual problems and teaching skills and finally most important support the need for relatedness – being understood, experiencing support and  trust.

Helping kids to deal with frustration is in a way dealing with the symptom, rather than solving the problem causing the behavior. However in the moment , if we are good at observing our kids and picking up on their cues ,  we can help them monitor their emotions, the cues the body offers, recognize and name the frustration, disappointment, fear or sadness before it escalates to fury. We can  help them calm down, take a break, get some 'space ' exercise – repetitive physical motion ( we can talk how the exercise effects our bodies ),  breathing , meditation , go to their ' comfort corners' and chill down. We can validate feelings or more important needs and offer alternatives and choices in which they can experience autonomy and compensate for the loss of autonomy they have just experienced.

The you tube –  The Anatomy of a Tantrum

describes the 3 phases of a tantrum.  The tantrum begins with 
   1   yelling and screaming expresses lots of anger and frustration
   2 physical actions like throwing or pushing furniture
   3 crying , whining, whimpering

It is not a good idea to try and talk to kids during a tantrum or ignore them , but be there and give them some space. If we imagine how this looks from a kids point of view , there is a good chance that the kid is likely afraid of the own rage and terrified of being out of control, so better not to ignore them or to punish. Touching , or holding kids escalates things so we should try to use physical contact to a minimum to ensure safety.

Part of the tantrum is a result of kids having their autonomy thwarted. I see the physical actions as an attempt to experience some autonomy. It may appear to be pretty provocative. Parents should be careful not to fall into the trap and respond to these ' provocations' and let the tantrum play itself out.

The only intervention I have seen to work in the middle of a tantrum is the kid smelling a fragrance – that seems to reset the brain and produce dopamine that makes a person feel good .

After the tantrum is over , kids will seek to reclaim some dignity and sense of autonomy and potency. They will ask or try to be more autonomous. We can try to compensate their loss of autonomy and sense of self determination in one area by giving them more autonomy in another area. Alfie Kohn calls this ' compensatory autonomy support'.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Beliefs and the language of parenting

In my previous blog article I suggested that parenting styles depend a lot on the language of parenting parents have been exposed to.

Beliefs etc also play an important role here.

'You can also reverse the order of causality here. I think that parents' intentions, their values and beliefs, determines how much they will respect their children, try to satisfy their needs, thus influencing t the kind of language they use.'

What is the relationship between beliefs and the language of parenting ?

Most parents share the same long term goals for their children - independent, caring, responsible, inquisitive, confident, happy, self –reliant, kind, thoughtful etc. The question is why parents adopt conditional and controlling strategies when they have negative effects on relationships, social and moral learning and intrinsic motivation. What is holding parents back?

Alfie Kohn talks about  4 ( overlapping ) categories - what we see and hear , what we believe ,what we feel and as a result of all those , what we fear.

What we hear and see  -   I call this the language of parenting that we pick up from our parents, how we were raised, their influence today calling on us to give children limits, boundaries and enforce them with firm discipline and consequences.

 Most parenting books focus on how to get your kids to comply without you even asking them.

Doctors prescribe medication and tell you to treat the symptoms with behavior modification techniques.

 The alternative to authoritarian parenting and punishments is called  ' authoritative parenting – warm and loving with firm limits and boundaries. Dianne Baumrind has described 3 parenting styles – authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. Authoritarian and authoritative parenting is essentially the same ' doing to ' approach. Punishment is not so popular these days , so we use 'consequences' a nice euphemism for punishment , language which is  more palatable, especially if they are natural or logical. 'Honey catches more flies than vinegar ' so use praise and rewards and not punishment.

' Doing to strategies are pretty easy  and can be very effective in the short run in gaining compliance ( the negative impact in the long term – not do obvious )while ' working with children asks a lot from us.

Most parents believe they love their children unconditionally and behave towards them in a respectable way.

What about beliefs – how we regard children, their capabilities, and how they should be treated  etc ? 

'The immediate consequences , or surface appeal , of traditional approaches to raising children can explain a lot, as can the influence of people around us. But I think we also have to consider some widely shared beliefs and values that make people more rexeptive to those approaches.  '   Alfie Kohn

The way I see it – what we hear and see provides us with the language of parents , our beliefs make us either comfortable or uncomfortable by how we parent.

Those parents who feel uncomfortable and then discover another language of parenting – collaborative problem solving, children do well if they can and not children do well if they want to ,  and children do well if their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are met will be relieved and will embrace a different style of parenting.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Language of Parenting

It is possible to distinguish parenting styles by the language used. 

Do we talk about rules , limits and boundaries , compliance or the needs of children ,expectations and guidelines, collaborative problem solving or consequences, rewards or intrinsic motivation, understandings, perspectives and concerns or adult – child contracts.

 The differences can be summarized as a ' working with ' approach or a ' doing to ' approach, placing the locus of control on the kid or on the adult. Are we interested in compliance or meeting the needs of our kids ?

Parents of troublesome teens and especially those who are returning from a stay in a residential or therapeutic treatment center are encouraged   to make a behavior contract with their kids . These contracts  state very clearly house rules and the consequences /punishments to be imposed when these rules are broken. The message given to kids is that this is my home and if you want to stay here, you need to keep to the rules. The approach does offer kids a clear picture of parent will and a certain predictability of what will happen, however it is flawed .

Kids concerns are not voiced but ignored and even parents' concerns, their  underlying concerns behind the rules are not shared. Kids just hear a rule and not the concern and value underlying the rule.  Rules are essentially solutions to problems or concerns. If discussion does take place, the family is creating a  contract which is more suitable for an economic relationships  , like one  between a boss and employee. Discussion  usually is in the form of negotiating the rules, rather than each party explaining their concerns   and giving their perspectives.  

If a rule is broken , the inevitable response is a consequence or a punishment. When we talk about expectations not being met , our response is not to impose a consequence or ask how can we motivate the kid but to ask what is getting in the kid's way  and how can I help.

Rewards and consequences give the message that we don't trust the kid to do well and make a contribution without the threat of a consequence or a bribe. Relationships are based on understandings , sharing concerns and perspectives and then collaborative problem solving.  Consequences undermine relationships , and instead of dealing with a problem , create  new problems and issue s– the imposition of the consequences and all that surrounds them.

A  'working with'  relationship as opposed to a 'doing to ' relationship  places the locus of control on the child . The limits and boundaries are intrinsic to the child and are an expression of his values and personality.

'' The question - Thomas Gordon , the author of P.E.T – Parent Effectiveness Training says is not whether limits and boundaries are necessary but the question is who sets them ? Is it parents unilaterally imposing limits on their children or are parents and kids working together to figure out what makes sense?

The question then becomes what kinds of limits and boundaries are we talking about - how specific or behavioral should they be as opposed to broadly conceived guidelines that can inform a lot of our activities - a limit on not hurting other people , addressing the needs of others etc 

Don't we want kids to derive limits and guidelines on how to act from the situation itself and what other people need ? If so, then our coming up with limits, and especially specific behavioral limits and imposing them on kids makes it less likely that kids will become moral people who say that the situation decrees a kind of a boundary for appropriate ways to act and I will be guided by that my whole life , not just internalized but it's about what's between me and the other I come across.

An example would be the different thinking a kid would have when faced with a bowl of cookies and would love to eat all of them because ' I am hungry and I love cookies '. When the parent imposes a limit – ' You can take only one cookie ' = I cannot take more because mom said I can have only one or else , or where the kid thinks ,' I would love to eat all the cookies but there are others kids around too and they are also hungry so I will make sure that everyone has cookies too.' When parents say ' you must share because I said so' and follow up with a patronizing pat on the head ' good sharing ', the wrong message gets internalized. I am sharing because mom says so and because I will get a verbal reward for sharing. ''    Alfie Kohn  interview