If At First You…

Do you have a fussy eater? Are you treading a tightrope with a ‘difficult’ child? Is bed time bedlam? Has temper wheedled its way into your once-upon-a-time quiet house? Might the dreaded letters ADD and ADHD have threatened your peace of mind? Wow! Didn’t child rearing seem so much easier in our parent’s day?

Take Natan for instance. Natan lives with temper. He can be the sweetest big brother; amusing his bored younger siblings, helping little Esti to ride her bike, sometimes even helping mummy with the dishes but then, crash and  smash, yell and bellow and …well what can we do about such behavior. So mummy goes to speak to the school (she found the invitation from his teacher on a screwed up piece of paper tucked into Natan’s lunch bag.) The school expects parental co-operation; show him who is in charge; try taking away his privileges; time-out may calm him down; don’t so much punish him, just let him experience the natural consequences of his behavior. Mum leaves, tail between her legs, and goes home ready to enforce the new regime. Meanwhile at home Natan is, of course, on best behavior. He has tidied up the house and helped with the lunch preparations but the toast he was making burnt making him burn up with rage. The toast was flung and stamped on. The sister was screamed at for not smelling the toast in time. One of his little brothers mugs were broken causing a mournful wailing which irritated Natan even more. Meanwhile mum was not sure what to do first said. “O.K. Natan, go to your room until you can behave a bit more calmly.” Natan comes back and is told that he will have to pay for the damaged mug and is handed the broom to sweep up the toast. He throws the broom to the other side of the room (narrowly missing the window) and storms out of the house shouting out thoughts of distress and unfairness as he goes. “Hmmm.” Thinks mum, “I’ve known more successful strategies in my time.”

Then there’s Shulamit. Oy, Shulamity! I could say so many lovely things about her but…..it’s the smell that gets me. She usually cleans her underwear but the smell permeates the house. She says that she’s trying. I know that it upsets her but……

So what can Shulamit’s mum do? She can join forces with Shulamit against the real problem:- that well known, sneaky, cunning monster variously known as ‘Stinky Poo”; “Mr. Black”, “The Brown Stuff” or whatever epithet Shulamit can come up with. The fact is that Shulamit and mum both have a strong interest in “It” being deposited in the toilet bowl and not in Shulamit’s underwear but neither of them have succeeded in reaching that goal by “going it alone”. On a calm, smell free time have a chat about how difficult “It’ is for both of you. Get a name for “It” and then work out plans of how to trick “It” into going into the toilet bowl and not sneaking into the underwear. Shulamit can tell you how “It” manages to catch her unawares. You can perhaps make up exercises to build up Shulamit’s resistance to “It”. You can compose anti-“It” songs together. If Shulamit wants, the rest of the family can join in the campaign cheering for the successes and hissing against that sneaky “It” for the misses. The campaigns are usually such fun that the family might well miss it when “It” holds out the white flag and contents itself with the toilet bowl. The secret of success is never to forget that everybody in the family is on one side and only “It” is on the other side.

Well, that was quite easy, now for temper. Temper is not quite so easy because here the child is really misbehaving, isn’t he? Sometimes mummy does think that Shulamit is dirtying herself deliberately but somehow it’s not so difficult to see “It” as the villain in this piece. Temper however, to say its “Temper” that’s the villain and not that badly behaved child; that takes a much bigger change of direction. So let’s just see what it would look like if mum could take that imaginative jump.

Temper is having a grand time; he has his victim (Natan) obeying his commands most of the time. Natan’s parents are making him even more uncomfortable. Their methods sometimes work a little and give Temper the odd set-back or two, but generally Temper manages to put on a good show. So, why not try to deal with the real villain of this story: TEMPER. ‘Temper’ is making everybody unhappy especially the temper tantrum child.

Just like with Shulamit, everyone in this family has an interest in reducing the power of ‘Temper’.  You may be thinking to yourself: “Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do all this time? No, that is not what you have been trying to do. You have been trying to make a child who is misbehaving with temper tantrums behave correctly. Tantrums will not be tolerated. Can you see that you are on one side and your child is on the other?  So let’s change the premise that “my child is bad tempered” and substitute that “my child is being victimized by ‘Temper’” Then you, your child, any siblings and any others you/the temper victim might think relevant could bandy together against ‘Temper’. ‘Temper’ is that influence, creature, monster that talks your child into behaving in such a destructive way. It’s time to make your child into a ‘Temper tamer’– a pretty demanding profession by all accounts.

Well, if you want to tame a temper, the first thing you need to do is to find out how ‘Temper’ works. How does ‘Temper’ convince your child that it is worth his while to lose it, to fight, to hurt, or otherwise attack?  Perhaps it starts by whispering the old ‘not fair’ song “Its not fair that I have to clean the table, its not my turn”; then a little bit of ‘poor me’ helps- “Why is it always me…?”: a drop of comparison never goes amiss- “X always gets more than me.”; redden the face a bit; lift up the foot and drop it to cause a stamp; read out the list of previous injustices and there you have it…TEMPER. If we were fed that particular menu, we might well at least feel like frothing at the mouth. Actually, the only one who will know how ‘Temper’ tricks him/her into a tantrum is your child. So one day, when calmness is reigning, perhaps at bedtime story time, or during ‘our special five minutes together’, have a conversation with your child about ‘Temper’

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my fill of temper.”

“I’m all right just now. Please don’t start me off again.”

“That’s just it, what does temper do to start you off?” For us bystanders it’s like someone dropped a match into a keg of dynamite!”

“You’re just bystanders. Just imagine what it feels like on the inside”

Find out how ‘Temper’ fools your child into having a tantrum and then you might start planning strategies to combat and lessen ‘Temper’s  influence. Offer yourself and the other members of the family as helpers in the temper taming campaign. If the child has another name for temper taming, use it.

Strategies against such powerful and cunning opponents need to be worked out by resourceful and imaginative people. You can all have a go but the younger members of the family will be at an advantage because their imagination knows no bounds. Now that you have exposed that sly fiend ‘Temper’, the whole family can get involved in keeping it out of the house. In the meetings of the campaign staff you might play loud music so ‘Temper’ doesn’t hear , or talk in a code ‘Temper’ doesn’t understand, or write to each because ‘Temper’  can’t read. You all know now that your child is being acted upon by a crafty, scheming enemy, so you have to be crafty and scheming back. Perhaps ‘Temper’ can be captured before the tantrum detonates and then it could be swallowed. An agreed-upon warning showing that temper seems to be on the prowl might help. Why not make up a special ‘trip up’ tongue twister that the child could say before he/she loses their temper “Two totally terrifying Temper tamers trip up temporary tempestuous tidal tantrum waves with triangular betentacled toasted tongues” . Strengthen resolve with some anti-‘Temper’ exercises. You could even design and sew a ‘Temper tamer’s’ uniform to be worn during anti-‘Temper’ excursions. These are just a few ideas. Your children will probably be able to outdo them with their eyes closed.

What happens if, despite everything, ‘Temper’ raises its ugly head and your blood pressure? As soon as the temper subsides have a debriefing. How did ‘Temper’ get to your child this time? Was this time any different from the standard temper bursts? Check if the tantrum was less violent or lasted less time- it’s a good idea to have these sorts of measurements on tap. Perhaps your child apologized for once or apologized faster this time. Any improvement is a call for celebration and perhaps a victory ceremony. You could all sing a victory song, share a bar of favorite chocolate, record it on a temper taming strategy chart etc. If this time was a full blown no change TANTRUM, then, if you must ask who is to blame, the answer is ‘Temper’.  You all tried, yes all of you, and this time ‘Temper’ scored.

Do you find the idea of rewarding your child after a temper loss horrifying? Do you think that such treatment lets your child ‘get away with it’? Does this apparent ignoring of bad behavior go against all you learnt in the parenting classes you went to? You are no longer trying to train your child. You and your child are trying to unmask and then limit the influence of that sneaky tantrum producer known better as ‘Temper’.

Most people will agree that trauma can influence people to behave in difficult ways. Mothers of teenagers will attest to the fact that a tired, hungry adolescent is not at their best. In these cases we find no difficulty in putting the blame where it belongs, not on the person but on the ‘influence’, the ‘problem’. So here to its ‘Temper’ that’s causing the tantrum, not your child. Your child is just tantruming.

We might call ‘Temper’ a ‘Yetzer Hara’.  You might think that this is just another let out for the child. The ‘Yetzer Hara’, is a challenge ‘Will you stick to your values or won’t you?”. It’s no big deal to remain saintly when your whole world is smooth sailing. The ‘Yetzer Hara’ gives you a chance of earning something if you succeed but there is always a risk of failing. Joining your child in the challenge to ‘Temper’ or what ever the problem is increasing his chances of success. It is not your child deliberately disobeying. You’ve tried the route of child/parent blaming and it didn’t work. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. When we adults ‘blow it’ in the areas we are working on, perhaps with a touch of harmless gossip, or a raised voice, or disturbing someone’s sleep we pray long and hard that Hashem will forgive us. So why are we tempted to give up on ourselves and our children so quickly after one, two or even three failures? Use realistically minimal measures of success and you will realize that half a minute less of temper is a real live, neon lights success story; one less broken plate is a home run.

It’s the problem that’s the problem, not the child.

You can use this method, this way of understanding events with all sorts of problems with children, with adults, and even with teenagers with CBP (‘Comfy Bed Paralysis’) that universal syndrome that keeps teenagers in bed well after the alarm has rung. Why not try congratulating those teenagers when they bounce out of bed to get up for a tiyul and ask them how they managed to beat CBP this time. You could even stand them a slice of their favorite pizza or an ice-cream for their success and then you’ll both be laughing together. It must be genuine though. You really have to know and believe that, what’s going on over here is a victim struggling against ‘Problem’, and you are genuinely offering to help the victim’s efforts; you are both on the same side.

This method is also used by Narrative Therapists for a whole gamut of ‘problems’. It has rung up success after success in fighting anorexia, chronic asthma, schizophrenia, OCD, chronic eating problems, aggression, anxiety, depression etc.. The same method has saved many a marriage. But the problems this method can work with need not be so severe.  It can help in our everyday difficulties.  We’re not dealing with psychosis. We just want to get along with our parenting.

So…..Don’t take the problem so seriously, have fun out-foxing it. Step back into the world of ‘anything is possible’, join the ‘National Society for the Demotion of Pesky Problems ” and get started.


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