Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Toxic Free Zone: Rewriting the Script, Part Five

In a previous post, I mentioned a friend whose husband used to use her as his emotional punching bag by picking fights with her after a stressful day at work.  Do you ever get the feeling that your child needs to let off a little steam by having a temper tantrum and is inventing an excuse to duke it out with you? 

There have been so many times I have seen children come into the clinic spoiling for a fight, which I'm not interested in having.  I have come up with some ways to avert this, as follows.  Consider the following two exchanges, both of which have actually taken place, with a three year old boy I treated a few years ago.

Old script:

Child:  I want my sister to play with me!

Me:  But she's in school today, so she can't.

Child:  I want my sister!

Me:  But she's not here!  She's at school!


Me:  Honey, she's not here.  Do you want an obstacle course?

Child:  WAHHHHH!!!  I WANT LAURA!!!!!

Me: {Frantically casting about the clinic looking for some way to divert him}  Should I put up the purple swing?  We can play wiggle waggle!


Me:  {Flummoxed and mortified} Let's go find your nanny.  You can sit on her lap until you feel better.

About 20 minutes of a 45 minute session wasted.

New Script:

Child:  I want my sister to play with me!

Me:  I want Laura to play with us, too!

Child:  I want my sister!!!

Me:  I do, too! I love it when Laura plays with us.   That was a lot of fun when she was here during her school vacation last week!  Too bad she had to go back to school!

Child:  Yeah!

Me:  We'll have to tell your mom to make sure Laura comes to play with us the very next time she can.  I like it when you both are here to play with me!  Do  you want an obstacle course or wiggle waggle on the purple swing?

Child:  Wiggle waggle!

{When this exchange took place, I could see the befuddlement and disappointment register when the little boy realized that I had managed to derail his tantrum.  But he was a good sport about it and went on to play and have a nice session.  I just hope he didn't take it out on his nanny or his mother later in the day.}

Or consider this scenario, as described by a friend with a two and a half year old.  She asked for a rewrite.

Old Script:

Mom:  We're going to the corner to get a taxi.

Child:  I don't want to take a taxi!!  I want to go on the bus!

Mom:  But we can't.  We don't have time.


Mom:  But the bus takes too long.  We're late.  We have to take a taxi.


Endless loop of argument ensues.  Mother wonders for the zillionth time what she did in a previous life to deserve this.

New Script:

Mom:  We're going to the corner to get a taxi.

Child: I don't want to take a taxi!   I want to go on the bus!

Mom:  I like the bus, too!  The bus is more fun, isn't it?

Child:  Yeah!

Mom:  What do you like better about the bus?

Child:  I don't know.

Mom:  I like looking out the window from way high up.  Do you?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  What else do you like?

Child:  I don't know.

Mom:  Hm... Let's see...  I like pushing the button for our stop, do you like that?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  And we can take the bus tomorrow, if you like. And today Daddy is waiting for us, and we have to hurry.  I'm looking forward to seeing Daddy, aren't you?  And then we are going to have dinner.  We're having pizza!  Do you like pizza?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  Me, too.  I love pizza. Which do you like better on top of your pizza, armadillos or dinosaurs?

Child:  What?  Mommy, you're silly!

Mom:  Let's sing the bus song while we wait.  Can you help me wave so he'll see us and stop?

They sing "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round."

Strategies Employed:  Mom acknowledged the child's feelings, and aligned herself with him by telling him she felt the same way.  She stated the plan without asking for his input {in other words, she did NOT say, "We're going to take a cab, OK?} She used AND instead of BUT.  She gave him something enjoyable to think about, and then diverted his attention to an activity and treat to which he could look forward.

I was talking to a psychoanalyst colleague about my ideas for these pieces, and she brought up a very good point:  what if you secretly would rather have the fight than avert it?  She treats so many families who are stuck in an endless cycle of toxic interchanges.  If you find yourself irresistibly drawn to fighting and having hostile interactions with your children, it's possible that you are trying to work something out with your own parents and are using your relationship with your children to heal your own childhood wounds.  If you suspect this is the case, I strongly recommend speaking to a professional so you can break the cycle and offer your children a better model.  Cleaning up your own interactions with them ensures that you're not setting them up to interact with the other people in their lives in a dysfunctional way.

 I also heartily recommend that any parent read these books by Daniel Siegel.

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