This is how a child gets into the mental health system. At age 3 he pitches a fit in the grocery store because he wants a candy displayed at the checkout aisle. Mother does not want him to have it so she says no. Her cart is loaded. He screams and kicks and everyone is watching her. Pressure is on for her to handle her toddler. Mother essentially has 3 options.
The first is the autocratic approach which is to yell, slap his thigh or bottom or hand, threaten him with what awaits if he does not stop…all of which escalates the situation. The second option, the indulgent approach, is to buy the candy to appease him, accompanied by a show of anger, irritation or disgust.
Let’s look at what the first two options really teach the child. He learns that his behavior gets a reaction – either anger or placation. He learns that if you are big you can make other people do what you want by hitting and screaming at them or by buying them off. And both of these reactions to his behavior make him feel powerful himself and train him to use tantrums to get power over another. Thus, while the first tantrum to get the candy was really about the candy, the mother’s reaction, whether autocratic or indulgent, is what gave him the experience of what a tantrum will do for him. Keep in mind that children are looking for ways to belong and they will learn to do it positively or negatively through attention-getting, power, or revenge, depending on the way their parents react to normal kid behavior. All kids throw tantrums. That does not mean that they have bi-polar disease.
So what should mother do? In the face of all the attention being brought to her it is difficult. But her embarrassment is not the most important thing here. Training her child how to behave is what is the important thing….and her biggest, most important job. So, she picks the child up out of the cart, without any anger or irritation, and either says nothing, or says with minimal words something like “I see you have decided for us to leave.” Then she must leave. She carries him to the car over his protestations and puts him in his carseat, saying nothing. She gets behind the wheel and drives home, listening to music. He most likely will be having a new fit over being removed from the grocery store. The purpose of this fit is to have mother change her mind or feel guilty. She should do neither as she is doing the more difficult job of training. Her actions are louder and more important than her words. She remains friendly and might say “we’ll try the store again next week.”
She has reacted in such a way to show the child limits, that she means what she says, that she talks less than she acts, and that she knows how to control herself in spite of provocation. He will learn this too through her modeling.
If she only ever uses one or both of the first two options, she will be contributing to his use of power in social relationships which will get him noticed at school and a referral to mental health clinics where they typically do not know how to guide her in changing her reactions, but do know how to drug. Someone there might know how also to teach reward and punishment which is ineffective and disrespectful in human relationships – and I will start there next time.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.