It was time to get out of the bath, but two- year old Tamara wanted to play a bit more. Daddy (John) said “OK, one minute more” and gave her back the toy she had been playing with. After a little play, Tamara handed the toy back and put her arms up. John lifted her out of the bath.
As soon as Tamara’s feet touched the floor she changed her mind and demanded “More bath”. The water had already been drained. Shivering sisters were waiting to be dressed. John used Active Listening to help Tamara manage her disappointment. “You wanted to play a bit more, huh? Now you’re feeling cross”. But Tamara had already revved up for a full – blown tantrum. She slipped around the wet floor and lunged at Daddy trying to bite, scratch or hit him.
At that point Tracey came running in. She picked up the writhing, distraught toddler who knocked Tracey’s glasses off, hit her and struggled to the floor. Over the next 20 minutes (it felt like hours) Tracey tried to provide Tamara with a safe haven in which to move through the rage that had overtaken her. She would not let herself be cuddled, so whenever there was a pause in her jumping up and down and screaming Tracey gently stroked her. Just a brief but connecting, accepting, reassuring touch. Tracey periodically verbalised Tamara’s emotions: “Such a big crossness Tamara!” “You really want more bath. More bath NOW Daddy!” Eventually Tracey put Tamara in her cot because she was so uncontained. But Tracey did not leave Tamara’s side. She stayed just out of arms reach but within eye contact and voice contact. She continued to communicate love, empathy and the belief that together she and her child could handle this. “What can Mummy do to help?” “Are you ready for cuddles”? Tracey paid close attention to Tamara’s breathing, her volume and her physical agitation.
Eventually, when she felt like crying for her exhausted, overwhelmed, tear-stained baby whose voice was hoarse, Tracey detected a slight change in her hysterical gasps. Her rapid, shallow breathing had slowed down into gulps. The screams were turning to sobs. Tracey moved closer and when her eyes met her daughter’s, Tracey reached out her hands. Tamara held her arms up and said “Mummy cuddles”.
Taking her floppy, drained child to the armchair she whispered softly, “Mummy cuddles will help you feel better?” Exhausted, Tamara nodded. Tracey murmured reassurances and comfort. “You’re all right, Mummy is here. You’re getting better” Tamara sat upright and declared “Bye bye crying”. “Well done Tamara! You handled it” her mother responded.
- Tamara learned that no matter how strong or unpleasant her emotions are her parents will stay connected; they are strong enough to support her.
- She learned that one day when she is 15, she can come to her parents with the nasty stuff (secrets, dilemmas etc.) and they won’t turn her away. They are strong and accepting of all emotions.
- She knows that difficult feelings can be shared, processed, fully experienced. She does not need to avoid them, repress them, or act them out in ways that hurt herself or others.(Experiential avoidance- repressing the expression of emotion- is a key aspect of Anxiety disorders and problems with emotion regulation.)
- When Tamara said, “Bye-bye crying!” she showed that she knows that when something bad happens she can hold onto the belief that “this too shall pass”. She knows this state is temporary and she won’t get stuck in it. (Getting stuck in the feeling of that a difficult time is permanent is a core feature of Depression.)
- And Tamara learned that no matter how bad a problem there is always something that can help you feel a bit better and help you come out the other end. In this case it was Mummy’s cuddles.
- NOTE: Tamara’s parents did not “reward” the tantrum by giving in and putting her back in the bath (which would also mean running some water). When dealing with tantrums take care to stay firm on your decision and be gentle with your support. Empathising with your distressed child does not mean “giving in” . Limits are important- but more on that another time 🙂Please share your own reflections and experiences below! How do you think this example might be translated for supporting older children?