Hello readers! It’s been a long time since the last post in Following Bunny Trails. As I wrote in a few previous posts, I have decided to go back to college. And as I’ve been barreling full speed ahead, I often think of my Bunny Trails and its readers. But going to school full time, year-around, has left me little free time. So I would like to offer up a bit of my writing from my Intro to Psychology class. This piece was asked for us to analyze a situation that was stressful and to write about what you might have changed, and what you would not have changed. With citations and sources, of course. This was written over a year ago, and I just found it today. It is perfect for Following Bunny Trails.
Observing Emotional Behavior
I knew it was a bad idea from the beginning. I had a lunch date with my friend, they were becoming few and far between. She and I had first met when our sons were 2-years-old and attending a local education center for therapy. Her son was ahead of schedule with his speech, but was there to refine his motor skills, and while my son had all the motor skills of a gymnast, he could hardly say a word. We were fast friends. She has a degree in early childhood education, so I glean as much advice as I can from her. She is familiar with children with ADHD, and is patient and loving with my son. When the opportunity for a lunch date arose, I leapt at the chance. Her son had school, but since the boys attended in different schools, mine had a teacher in-service. I had to bring my children along on our lunch date. Lunch went as well as it could, with my daughter in her high chair, and my son blocked on the inside of our booth. He only crawled under the table a dozen times, his best restaurant behavior yet. When Josie suggested going to Kohl’s afterward, I immediately stiffened up. My son hasn’t had a successful shopping trip in a long time. He was behaving relatively well at the restaurant, and I did have a 30% discount coupon burning a hole in my pocket, so we gathered my children and headed to the store.
I gave my son the usual, “please behave in this store, use your inside voice, no running or you’ll have to ride in the cart,” pre-shopping lecture. He either misunderstood or was tired, and he immediately climbed into a cart with two seats. I didn’t argue, and I pushed both kids through the store. I picked out some Marvel Super Hero underwear that he desperately needed, and he begged for a shirt with a trophy on it, so he could be a “winner.” About 15 minutes into the shopping, he began to start squirming in his seat. He climbed out to get a better look at a shirt, and I cajoled him back into the cart; we were coming to the end of his ability to be in the store. There’s something about the lights, the sounds, all the merchandise with the colors and stimulus, it just sets him off every time. I headed to the checkout because I knew my time was up. My son started grabbing merchandise as we strolled by it, once causing us to nearly collide with a very unappreciative lady and her well behaved daughter. I started warning my son of the impending removal of privileges, starting with the activities I dislike the most, his video games. It was pointless, he was gone: my son had left the proverbial building, and the only thing left was impulses gone awry. Threats weren’t working, his behavior was deteriorating by the moment. I decided, out loud, that I could and would not reward this type of behavior by purchasing nice new super hero undies or a new shirt. He did not heed my warnings, and I ditched the underwear on a shelf. He saw me bailing out his precious items from our cart, and went ballistic. By the time we reached the checkout lane, he was screaming, crying, and then he leapt from the cart and ran out of the store and into the mall. I was completely humiliated, angry, sweaty and red faced, as I ditched the few remaining purchases and handed my daughter to Josie so I could, pursue my son, who had disappeared around the corner. I had to carry the screaming, thrashing 6-year-old, who made a scene all the way out the doors.
I have never been very good at disguising my emotions, as suggested by Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (Phelan, 2010). He states that “The two biggest mistakes that parents and teachers make in dealing with children are: Too Much Talking and Too Much Emotion.” According to Phelan, discipline should be a “matter of fact” process, the child is suffering a consequence because they made the wrong choice, not because you are angry at them. He also repeatedly mentions that children feed off our emotions, and if they can figure out how to “get your goat” they will (Phelan, 2010). By the time Josie met me outside the building, I was nearly in tears, with a howling wreck of a child on my lap. She calmly took my son, and handed my daughter to me. She put him on her lap and hugged him tight until he calmed enough to hear her speak. She spoke softly and reminded him how much his mommy loved him, and then she somehow managed to change the subject and got him to talk to her about stickers. She promised him a sticker, they were in the trunk of her car, which was parked right next to mine. I buckled him up, without a word, and turned around in my seat and sat clutching the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white. I counted to ten, then to twenty, while she gave my son a sticker, which I had to fight the impulse to wrench it out of his hands and tear the sticker into bits. He didn’t deserve that sticker after his behavior, ie. what he had just put me through. My daughter must have been stunned by the whole incident, but she finally “came to” as I pulled out of the parking lot. She started crying, and no offer of her sippie cup, stuffed animal, or snack would calm her. I turned the radio on and drove home with a wailing daughter, and pouting son.
Now that the incident is past, and I am no longer flooded with emotion, I can look back and identify some mistakes that I had made while under duress. First of all, children’s tantrums are generally short lived, they go on with their lives and resume play, while the parents’ are left to stew about it. I regret that I allowed my frustration to show and for my anger to last after the conflict was over. Our textbook, Psychology, an Exploration by Saundra K. Ciccarelli and J. Noland White, explains that a human’s autonomic nervous system involuntarily reacts physiologically to stress. The sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for the fight or flight response) reacts by secreting the hormone cortisol, which in turn raises heart rate, stimulates the sweat glands, slows down digestion, and sends energy to muscles to deal with the situation (Ciccarelli & White, 2010). This is why I was sweaty and red-faced, even though I remained relatively composed during the episode in the store, the cortisol may have also been a contributing factor as to why it took a while for me to “get over” the incident. My second regret was that I had thought that threatening to lose his precious purchases would motivate him into good behavior, and once it didn’t work, I felt it necessary to follow through with my “threat.” My emotional state in the store clouded my judgment, and I now realize that by using the loss of his purchases as punishment, I was only adding to his frustration, and making a child who is already feeling out of control, feel even more so. When under pressure, it is easy to forget what we know, that children this age are not able to think logically, and revert to our emotional response of, “why isn’t his reward enough motivation to make him behave?” I later apologized to Josie for inadvertently making the situation worse. She explained that a young child has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotion and social behavior, and when they are having a temper tantrum, the thought process is moved from this “rational” region of the brain, to the more “primal” part of the limbic system, the amygdala. I found an article on Parenting.com that supports Josie’s explanation of my son’s thought process during a tantrum. The author of the e-article, P. Onderko, states that the prefrontal cortex is just beginning to mature at age 4. She further explains that children think “magically, not logically,” and that events that are ordinary for us, may be confusing or scary for a child. Water draining from a bathtub, for example, may trigger a fear that they could be sucked into the drain along with the water.
In conclusion, though I readily admit that I made mistakes in this situation, there were a few things that I would probably not have changed, given a chance to do it all over again. Though my body became sweaty and red-faced, I did not scream or physically threaten my son. I remained as calm as possible, even though it was obvious that I was emotionally distressed. I knew that I did not have time to stop and use “counting” as a stress coping mechanism. All of my previous experiences with my son told me that I needed to remove him from the store as soon as possible. I learned from previous failures not to attempt to take him into the bathroom and calm him, because the echo of the bathroom stimulates him even more. I did use counting and music to calm myself, and the music eventually soothed my daughter on the ride home from the store. I have sought out ways to improve our next shopping trip, and I am considering trying the suggestion by T. Phelan. He states you can enforce a good behavior by giving a child a set amount of money to spend at the store, make sure to give it to them in dollars and quarters, and then tell them that they will lose $.25 or $.50 for each outburst, or undesirable behavior (Phelan, 2010). He recommends this for an age where money actually has a value; my son is getting there, he knows that money buys toys and treats. This might work better for a long car ride to a vacation destination, but I am unsure if this will work on a shopping trip. ADHD complicates our specific situation because once he becomes stimulated, any rational thought processes that a 6-year-old has, is completely drowned out by his state of restlessness and anxiety from the stimulation, so for now, we are only chancing very brief trips to the local market.
Ciccarelli, S. K., & White, J. N. (2010). Psychology: An exploration. (2nd ed., p. 319). Pearson Education Inc.
Onderko, P. (2011, November). Why toddlers throw temper tantrums. Retrieved from http://www.parenting.com/article/toddler-temper-tantrums
Phelan, T. W. (2010). 1-2-3 magic: effective discipline for children 2-12. (4th ed.). Parentmagic, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.123magic.com/Newsletter/Newsletter-April-2013