We thought we understood tantrums. You know, they’re the emotional meltdowns typically thrown by small humans, best managed by calm adults using logic-laden words. Turns out there are different kinds of tantrums, different ways to handle them, even hidden forms of adult tantrums. We learned this from Karyn Van Der Zwet, a New Zealand writer who is mother to three young boys. She has a new book out that has us rethinking behavior issues, our own and those of our kids. It’s called, All About Tantrums: Why We Have Them, How To Prevent Them, What To Do When They Happen.
Last summer we reviewed Karyn’s first book, Why People Drive You Crazy: A Fresh Look At Temperament (available in paperback as well as a 99 cent Kindle version). We wrote, “this is the sort of book that helps us make childhood better for our children.” In it she provides all sorts of ways to help us understand and get along with the people in our lives.
We wanted to hear more about both books. Jetting off to visit her in New Zealand was preferred, but pesky money issues got in the way, so we asked her our questions via the tubes.
GeekMom: What caused you to dive into research about personality types for your first book and now into tantrums?
Karyn Van Der Swet: I had no intention of writing either book. I had a very angry and sad 18 month old son, who had been a really happy six month old and, despite plenty of people telling me things were fine, I knew that something was very wrong with what we were doing as parents. I started reading parenting books that also told me what I was doing was okay and ended up being really angry with them. One day,in exasperation, I asked the question, “What makes the human brain happy?” Eventually, after seven years of reading hundreds of books and thousands of articles and processing all the information, I discovered that I had several books somewhat written. Why People Drive Us Crazy is a short, fun book about understanding one another and was a practice run for me as a writer. All About Tantrums seemed to just happen as a natural progression.
GM: Can you give us an overview of All About Tantrums?
KV: The first section is a summary of current research into how the human brain and body work together to maintain homeostasis and manage stress. It’s where I have condensed some fairly cerebral information into the simplest form possible. It provides the base information for the rest of the book.
The second section is a reference for people to read as needs be, and is focused on prevention. For example, a parent with a toddler experiencing frustration tantrums can just go to that chapter and the information is provided along with a strategy that will prevent that type of tantrum and the reasons why the strategy works.
The third section is also a reference section. This section looks at the tantrums we actually want people to go through – that is, how we can help others come to terms with things in life that are not planned. It covers everything from dealing with pain when we’ve been hurt, to strategies for helping our children to stay focused when they don’t want to do their piano practice, and what to do when others want to do something that is going to be hurtful or disruptive, or upset their homeostasis (thus preventing further tantrums).
The final section gives some suggestions on where to begin if all this information is overwhelming.
Simply, it useful for anyone dealing with other people or for those who wish to understand their own tantrum triggers.
GM: What information have you found, in particular, that surprises you or disrupts what you’d comfortably believed?
KV: I dramatically changed my parenting style about four times over the seven years that I was reading and learning. Often, when I came across new information, I was unsettled and had to change my paradigms and behaviors. Out of several examples I think the one that stands out the most is how we deal with our children’s rage. I believed that expressing that, in any way, was ideal. However, it turns out we can reinforce the trigger to fight/flight pathway in our children’s brains and end up with children who are prone to over-reacting in increasingly violent ways (verbally or physically).
GM: You wrote a post about how typical responses to tantrums can make them worse, using your three-year-old’s desire to have ice cream for breakfast as an example. The post went viral. Any idea why we rational adults are so overwhelmed by tantrums ?
KV: My interpretation on this is, having children is like going to therapy but we aren’t helped through the process and the triggers can happen almost constantly.
A person who has embedded reactions and benign triggers can seem to develop a completely different personality when faced with hormonal stress, sleep-deprivation, and the pressures of daily living, let alone adding in more children, or coming to terms with a new body, or the ‘sunshine and rainbows’ parents who say everything in their lives is perfect.
When we understand what is going on for our children at a biological level, and ourselves in terms of automated reactions (as I cover in the blog post above), we are less likely to be overwhelmed by our children’s tantrums and can not only manage better but feel more confident in our parenting.
GM: You extend the word “tantrum” to all sorts of adult behaviors, for example your insightful post on avoiding exercise. What are some other ways we adults may be having tantrums without realizing that’s what we’re doing?
KV: For an adult it might be wanting to eat certain foods or stay up until a certain time at night, but our bodies rebelling. It could be not wanting to keep to a budget or live within our means, and the bank being less than happy with us. It could be that we don’t want to accept someone we thought was pleasant, is in fact a bully, despite our feeling uncomfortable around them and having undeniable proof before us. It could be that we are presented with new information about parenting that we don’t want to implement because we don’t want it to be true or it seems like hard work.
A tantrum can be any situation where our brains and bodies want to take the easiest, familiar, and most comfortable route—despite evidence that what we are doing is going to cause us greater pain in the future. My mantra is: While we are free to make our own decisions, we don’t get to choose the consequences of those decisions.
GM: What are your tantrum triggers?
KV: Sensations of being overwhelmed and a belief I can’t manage the triggering situation tend to send me into a tantrum reaction. I don’t tantrum often now that I have learned how to prevent a lot of the pressure building up in the first place, but I have when I was feeling overwhelmed in the past.
GM: What’s the next book about?
KV: The next book looks like it will be a companion to All About Tantrums and will explain as many strategies and techniques as I can find. It will include where we went wrong and difficulties that can emerge. It’ll be a how-to kind of book with a dash of voyeurism for anyone who wants to see where I got it wrong or had issues with implementing the strategies.