Saturday, August 4, 2012

Days of Whine and Roses

I've been reading a book this summer called "The Whole Brain Child," another collaborative effort by psychiatrist and pediatrician, Daniel Seigel. The hope of the authors is to give parents and educators some practical tools with which to help children integrate their emotional and rational brain hemispheres. The result of hemispheric integration is an increased capacity to deal with emotions and respond rather than impulsively react to them as they arise.

In one of the early chapters the authors differentiate children's tantrums using the terms upstairs and downstairs. An upstairs tantrum is one where a child's higher thinking is still available to them. Behaviorally they are probably trying to get or escape something, and a minor tantrum may have worked for them in the past or may merely be the easiest way for them to express themselves in that moment. A downstairs tantrum, however, is one where the amygdala - the part of the brain responsible for processing feelings - takes over. Cortisol is released and flood the higher thinking parts of the brain, causing the child to literally lose its mind.

The important difference between the types of tantrums is how we as parents respond once we've identified which one we're dealing with. The upstairs tantrums require us firm but loving boundaries to be set. The child's needs must not be met that way. The downstairs tantrums require a gentle, calming approach to bring the child back to equilibrium. Only then will they be able to have any kind of meaningful exchange. There is no point in trying to reason with a downstairs tantrum. As you probably know, these tantrums can look very similar on the outside, but I have faith that most parents can tell the difference when it comes to their own child.

The past couple of days it feels as though Amari has taken out a lease and is living comfortably in the mind-numbing, crazy-making world of upstairs tantrums. On top of that, her latest go-to move while expressing her dissatisfaction with the world is coupling the tears and whining with a physical complaint. Not just any complaint -  she bases the phantom pain in reality by conjuring up her latest owie. Recent nominees have included: Owie in My Throat, Owie in My Ear, Owie on My Head, with this week's Ridiculously Long-Lasting Owie Award going to Owie on My Knee, a mild abrasion she picked up a week ago on our last road trip.

Warning: Upstairs Tantrum Coming Soon

Here's an example of the dialogue and why it drives me a little batty:
"Hey Amari, do you want to go to the park and play with friends?
"Like Hunter?"
"Yeah. And Oscar."
"Me too, let's get dressed."
"IIIIII dooooooon't want toooooo," followed by a dramatic flopping down on something.
"Amari. Come on. We get dressed every day. Can't we do this without whining?"
"Owie, owie on my knee."

Maybe I need to better integrate my hemispheres.

Yesterday was like that all day. By late morning, I was beginning to get anxious about Carrie going back to school. "How the hell am I going to deal with this all by myself?" I thought. Usually it's Carrie who gets caught up in the moment, but this time it was me grumping and complaining and saying, "I don't know what the hell to do with that."

Firm boundaries, I remind myself, knowing these are upstairs tantrums because Amari can shut them off as quickly as they begin, sometimes appearing to have the unique capability of sucking tears right back into her cheeks. It's amazing. So I try not to reinforce, try not to give in, while trying to get both of our needs met. It's tricky stuff to say the least. Yesterday, I did a lot of, "I'll be right over there on the couch when you're ready to calm down and talk to me." Instantly she would be on the couch with me, but mostly just asking for a hug.

Occasionally, and I'm pretty sure she knows this is a soft spot for me, she will repeat an expression we taught her by saying, "Owie in my heart." Gets me every time.

I guess the days like yesterday serve as a reminder not to take the days like today for granted. Ten plus hours of sleep, a warm, delicious breakfast of oatmeal with dinosaur eggs, and the conversation ended more like this:

"Me, too. Let's get dressed."
"Okay, I want to put my shirt on first."

Maybe today will end up smelling like a rose after all...

Or will it?

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