Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Horrendous Tantrum, Desire to Punish, and What I Did Instead

originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle

Dear Blog Readers (I hope there are a plural number of you),

In the interest of full disclosure about non-punitive discipline and the parents who practice it and the children they practice it on, I am going to blog about the worst freaking tantrum incident we have had (maybe ever). It happened today, and, besides giving people a glimpse into the worst and best of what we do, I also just need to vent a bit. Warning: If you think that non-punitively disciplined children behave well all the time, please sit down before reading this. And if you are not a parent, please remember that these days are few and far between, and don't let this post be the impetus for your tubal ligation or vasectomy.

It all started with a lovely canoe trip on the Chattahoochee. We ate snacks, fed ducks, jumped in and out of the canoe, paddled, and had a lovely time. After the canoeing, we were planning on going bike riding along the river. When it was time to stop swimming and go to get dry clothes on in preparation for the biking (we had mutually agreed on a number of minutes to swim), Livy sat down on the ground and started to cry. So, I told her to get up and come along, and I started walking toward the bathrooms. She cried louder that she needed to clean herself off (conveniently in the swimming hole), and I told her we could do that in the bathroom.

Now, having a hard time leaving is something we often experience, so I said my usual thing about how leaving with grace and dignity and a decent attitude is a part of getting to come back. Then I reminded her that we were about to go biking. Here is where we started to deviate from the usual and into the crazy-making kind of behavior that makes me want to sell her to gypsies. For some reason, unknown to me, she just lost it. She was crying and refusing to get up and follow me, so I said, "Follow me now," and I walked away. She didn't follow until I was way down the sidewalk, and by then, I was feeling mad and miserable, and I just wanted to go home. So, I said, "Livy, I have had it. We're going. I don't want to bike ride with you when you are acting like this."

As you can imagine, she got even angrier and sadder, and she wouldn't get into the car. So I said the usual child-doesn't-want-to-do-what-must-be-done thing: "You can get into the car on your own, or I will put you in." She said that her choice was to go bike riding, so I said, "Sounds like you do need my help," and I made to pick her up. And here is where she did what she never did before. The child actually ran away from me. I was so mad that I wanted to hit and yell and punish and generally beat her (physically or emotionally) into submission. Thank goodness I didn't do those things, but I did raise my voice a bit and said, "Get into this car now" in a kind of mean and serious voice. She did, crying and screaming the whole time about how she still wanted to ride bikes.

On the way home, she unbuckled her seat belt, in order to make me mad, I think, and to get me to stop and go back. I pulled over, buckled her back, and held her hands until she said she wouldn't unbuckle it again. At this point, I was furious, and I did yell at her to keep it buckled. I am sorry that I yelled, but not too sorry, cause it was not the worst thing I wanted to do to her, and it was the worst thing I did and only this once.

Once we were back on the road, she said (and by that I mean howled) very mean things to me about wanting to go to her dad's house and not wanting to live with me anymore. As any divorced parent knows, these are the most hurtful and scary words you can hear. I live in perpetual fear that the parenting I know is right will make her want to choose to live with him when she is older. I know it is my obligation to do the right thing anyway, but you can imagine the sting of her words, in light of my worries. But, though this story may seem like it is at the lowest point, here is where I really did well. I let Livy see how much this had hurt me. I asked her how it would feel to her if I told her I didn't want her to live with me. She got a stricken expression on her face, and she said, "Really sad." I told her that was exactly how I felt when she said it to me. She saw that I was crying, and she apologized and told me that she did want to live with me and that she loved me and that she was so so so mad. At her age, she thinks an apology makes everything okay, and I explained that I was still very hurt and very mad about her words and about her behavior. She cried all the way home.

We talked some after we were both calm about why I would not bike with her after such an awful tantrum. I told her I was too mad, and that it would not be fun for me to spend time with someone who treated me so badly. We talked about some other (more healthy, rational, and kind) ways to tell me that she is mad instead of saying very hurtful things. We talked about how scared I feel when she takes off her seatbelt and how I will not let her sit in the front seat (we have turn off airbags) if I cannot trust her to use a seatbelt like a grown-up. We talked about how people still feel horrible, even after you say sorry, if you are cruel to them. We talked about the way you have to treat other people if you want them to do things for you and to do things with you. We talked and talked and talked, hugged and kissed a lot, and reconnected.

Livy hasn't had a big tantrum in a very long while, and this was the first time I really showed her my feelings about it. I decided she was mature enough to see the consequences, not just of her actions (huge fits end the fun) but also of her words (mom is crying and her feelings are incredibly hurt.) It is interesting to me, in retrospect, (when I wasn't feeling simultaneously furious and crushed) how much of an effect it had on her to see the result of her actions on our relationship. It was a huge learning experience, and she said to me afterward without any kind of prompting, "Biking isn't as important as loving you, Mama."

Overall, I am pleased with how I handled this situation. Honestly, keeping my temper for the most part seems like a triumph worthy of a freaking arch being built in my honor. Punishing Livy would have made her feel bad (mostly for getting busted, as I remember from my own childhood) and would have given her the feeling of being off the hook once the punishment was over. The non-punitive way I handled it allowed her to feel the natural consequences of behaving so badly (people don't want to hang out with you, people get their feelings hurt, relationships will take time to mend) and didn't encourage her to feel that since she had served her time, it's all over. She knows that we have lots more talking to do and that the future is changed (I will be more hesitant to go canoeing or biking or swimming in the river, and I will continue to feel hurt for a while.) She will be disappointed that we didn't get to go biking for a while, as well.

I also realized that, for me, punishment really does come with a feeling of vengeance. Revenge is what I wanted when I thought about punishing her. I wanted to make her feel bad because she had made me feel bad. I don't see how that would be any different from her saying mean things to me to make me feel bad because I wouldn't go biking. I suppose punishing parents often do it coolly, instead of in anger, but I never seem to need to punish when I am cool. I can always think of a creative way to work through a situation. My desire to punish only seems to arise when I am boiling mad. I usually follow that feeling with an order to stand back and get my breath, cool down a bit, and be inventive. It's never failed me yet, when I can make myself do it.

So, the moral of this story is: Today, I found that my non-punitive strategies work, even in the most hellish circumstances. And feel free to come and read this post again on your bad days. Maybe the comradeship will prevent you from hitting, yelling, punishing, or selling them to the gypsies.

P.S. The photo above is of Livy and me at her dance recital, proving that there really is a darling little girl, oozing with sugar and spice and everything nice, underneath the hell beast of the above story. :)

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