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Temperament and Parenting
A Newsletter About Caring for the High Maintenance Child by Kate Andersen, M.Ed.
Negative Mood & Inflexibility:
Children with a Short Fuse
Volume 23, Number 1, August, 2020
Letter to Kate
We have a 5 1/2 year old daughter that has been chronically inflexible and easily frustrated that seems to be getting worse instead of better. This is usually home-based, shown against the parents only. The child will easily go into a "vapor lock", usually w/no apparent triggering event. We have tried various skills in trying to back out of this "vapor lock" but it usually ends into "brain melt-down" where all her comprehension and reasoning is replaced by explosive behavior (i.e. screaming, kicking, hitting).
Time-outs, as you may have guessed, are not effective and only exacerbate the situation. We have tried the compromise method but it's usually not about the child getting her way but rather not answering her question in the correct way or not being concrete (i.e. telling her it "might rain" enrages her - she wants to know if the answer is "yes" or "no"). We know that this is frustrating to her and is not done because of a control issue (she is otherwise a loving child) but can't find any technique to calm her down at the "vapor lock" stage or even to avoid it. We answer all of her questions by holding our breath, not knowing if the answer will trigger her.
Thanks for any advice,
Parents at wits end
Dear Wits End,
Your use of the terms "chronically inflexible" and "vapor lock" suggest you have been reading "The Explosive Child" by Dr. Ross W. Greene. (See the review later in this newsletter.) I am sure that there is much in his book that would be helpful. However, I would suggest that you explore the question of triggers a little deeper. You suggest that you are not answering your daughter's questions in a definite way and that she wants to know "for sure". A normal child of her age can find it difficult to realize that parents are not 'all-knowing' and cannot predict the weather, for example. If she also has some type of learning disability, she may have even greater problems understanding other's perspectives (and knowledge). I trust she will have a thorough evaluation of her cognitive abilities, certainly by the time she is in school if not sooner (around the age of seven is a good time).
In the meanwhile, there may not be much you can do about her lack of tolerance of ambiguity. You may have to endure some "meltdowns". However, there are probably many occasions when you can anticipate these. It is a good idea to be careful to frame a plan in ways that warn her of any uncertainties. Is it possible that this is also a strong-willed young lady who wants things she likes so badly that you live in fear of disappointing her? Or do you find yourself raising possibilities just to appease her ("we might go to the park later if you have a rest now" and then find yourself changing the plans "but I didn't realize Grandma would phone"! If this is the case, avoid making appeasing promises!) As well, sometimes introducing more routines and fewer options can reduce the stress of changes and uncertainties. She may be one of those youngsters who thrives on a rigid routine with no choices offered.
It is also worth trying sitting down with her and identifying this "need for certainty" issue in simple terms that she can understand. "Sometimes you ask us something and we don't know and that makes you mad. You want to know FOR SURE. But even Mommies and Daddies don't know everything FOR SURE." Then invite her to help you develop a "certainty" scale: "Sometimes we will give you a "yes" answer, sometimes a "no", sometimes a "little maybe" and sometimes a "big maybe". You could suggest something to satisfy the magical thinking, characteristic of her age: "I wish there was a fairy princess who knew the answer to that". (The idea is to inject a little humor or fantasy into the topic which may help her thoughts loosen up a bit!) You could even write a story about "the little girl who had to know FOR SURE and blew up like a big balloon and BURST with frustration when she had to hear a 'maybe'". Then perhaps when you have to deliver "maybe" answers you can say them with a tickle and a giggle, reminding her of the story (unless that would infuriate her even more). These techniques are early forms of the type of problem-solving that Dr. Greene describes. Find a method to fit YOUR child.!
I am relieved to hear the empathy you feel for this youngster you describe as 'loving'. Chances are great she is NOT being manipulative but genuinely finds uncertainty stressful. Punishment is definitely not the answer. However, it is fine to draw an end to empathy and to ignore any meltdowns that cannot be avoided. A lot of kindness and understanding likely cannot help her "in the heat of the moment" whereas a objective, calm reaction could, by sending the message that "no matter how out-of-control you behave, and feel, grownups are in control and the world is a safe place".
Best wishes and good luck!
to some common questions about behavioral style.
Origins, impact on parenting, risk for behavioral issues, relationship to ADHD, and other topics.
Goodness of Fit
How temperament is assessed.
Poor fit can lead to stress and possibly emotional or behavioral problems
When professional help is needed
There are qualified individuals from several disciplines who counsel parents and children.