Narrative Therapy For Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums are about power. Young children don’t have much intrinsic power in the parent-child relationship. They’re at an extreme disadvantage in terms of accumulated life experience, intelligence, physical strength, and just about any other power giving variable you can think of.
Primary caregivers are in charge and they should be. They know things their kids don’t know yet and it’s their job to educate them and to create clear structure to keep them safe and sound so they can grow. But it’s easy for parents to allow a streak of authoritarianism to enter into their caregiving. It’s not just that they’re in charge, it’s that they expect to be obeyed always and everywhere without question. Instances of rebellion range from irritating to panic inducing. “Why won’t you listen to me and do as you’re told?!”
At the same time the developing child is individuating, gaining a sense of Self, shedding some of that primary narcissism, realizing there’s friction between individual wants and needs and the external environment with its myriad norms and tabus. There’s bound to be friction, bound to be push back. But displays of rebellion, of personhood, are usually crushed in subtle or brutal fashion, depending on the temperaments and life philosophies of the primary caregivers doing that crushing.
When we conceptualize the temper tantrum in terms of structures of power we see that the onset of the temper tantrum brings with it a sudden and unmistakeable transfer of power in the parent-child relationship. All of a sudden, almost magically, it’s the child holding all the cards, the child running the show, the child dictating the terms of the encounter. The primary caregiver feels embarrassed, irritated, angry, but above all else powerless to control the situation. And in this state the parent becomes malleable.
Of course the above paragraph makes children sound like manipulative little monsters and they’re not. They’re just sensitive, growing people trying to make sense of a complex world, a world where they’re told ‘no’ all the time for reasons they can’t fathom.
So here’s the central concept to understand. From the perspective of the child the temper tantrum isn’t about the competitive taking away of power or the gaining of some desired object through this competitive taking away of power. Those are simply happy correlative effects. At the deeper psychological level the temper tantrum provides much needed psychic relief though the temporary loss of Self. When children are in the middle of a fit they’re not really aware of themselves. It’s the very building up of Self that’s causing problems in the first place since it’s only with the dawning awareness of Self, the dawning awareness of being an individual apart from other people and the world, that the myriad stimuli from the external environment start to stand in stark contrast, and often direct opposition, to this Self.
The desire to lose Self is by no means limited to children. It’s a psychological reality, a deeply held need, that all human beings share to one degree or another, though this need usually sits outside of conscious awareness. But in fact far from being unwanted or looked down upon, the loss of Self to some other entity is often celebrated, considered a virtue. Lose yourself in dance, in the music, in a book, in your work, in God. Anything to lower the painful existential anxiety caused by being aware of yourself as a separate entity, responsible for the consequences of your decisions as a being free to choose amongst various options of thinking, feeling, and conduct.
The only difference between kids with their temper tantrums and adults with their myriad other Self losing strategies is that the first group isn’t yet sophisticated enough to come up with plausible rationalizations, isn’t sophisticated enough to mask irrational emotional and psychological needs within life paradigms that appear noble and virtuous. Underneath it’s all the same, it’s about finding temporary psychic relief through forgetting Self and therefore no longer experiencing any friction between Self and world.
So far we’ve been mostly in the existential psychological realm during this discussion of power. For a practical way to effectively deal with temper tantrums, narrative therapy is the way to go because it’s extremely sensitive around structures of power and because its storytelling aspect makes it fun and approachable for kids of all ages. But before we get into how to use narrative therapy techniques we want to make one more point, which is that as a parent if you expect your kids to unthinkingly obey, to follow all your commands and directions without any push back, then what type of person are you hoping is going to come out of the grinder? What sort of values are you instilling? Do you hope that somehow they’ll know to stand up to other irrational authority figures in their lives but just never to you? For them you’re the alpha and the omega, you’re God, you’re the president, you’re the blueprint for the psychological relationship they’ll have with every authority figure for the rest of their lives.
With narrative therapy, probably the most important idea is that the person is not the problem the problem is the problem. Narrative therapy is always and everywhere seeking to externalize the problem, to see this problem as its own entity with its own history and characteristics, not as something that defines the person but something that can be defined on its own. When we externalize the problem the person can not only understand it much better but is also put in position to activate in order to overcome that problem or at least manage it more effectively. When a problem is perceived as an inherent trait there’s little that can be done except live with it and feel bad about yourself. When a problem is perceived as an entity apart from and outside of you there’s much that can be done and there’s very little guilt or shame involved in doing it.
The problem is the temper tantrum. We recommend that you have the conversation about that thing called the temper tantrum when the family environment is tranquil, and we recommend that you take on a lighthearted spirit, as if you were playing a game or telling an exciting story. You can start by calling the temper tantrum whatever you want, but let your child give it a new name as soon as possible. Then start using that name instead from there on out. You can say something like, “What do you want to call the fit? What do you think a good name for the fit would be?”
We’ve already said that young children are basically powerless and feel powerless much of the time. Actually many adults, specifically from marginalized groups, feel the same way. The beauty of narrative therapy is that you’re handing power to someone who feels powerless, and you’re doing it in a healthy way. Narrative therapists aren’t interested in representing power, in being the authority figure, in diagnosing the problem and then coming up with the solution. They’re interested in being curious investigative reporters, in asking the right questions to assist their clients in defining the problem so that they can come up with the solution to it on their own.
If you take on this same attitude when you’re talking to your children things will start improving all on their own, quite apart from how successful you are with the concrete problem in front of you, because that inherent sense of powerlessness due to the inevitable authority relationship between you and your child will lose some of its sting.
As far as the temper tantrum goes, remember to think of it as its own entity, as its own organic organism with its own traits and characteristics, its own likes and dislikes, its own history, its own thought patterns, its own feelings, its own goals and desires, its own strengths and weaknesses, its own shape and size and color, its own typical behaviors, its own friends and enemies, its own motivations. But all of these spaces of the temper tantrum are for your child to fill in, not you. It’s your job to ask the right questions, not provide the right answers. You might have your own ideas about the makeup of the temper tantrum but when you fill in these aspects and expect your child to agree it’s just another example of a structure of power where your beliefs and worldview represent absolute reality and someone with little or no power to dissent must adhere to this version of reality or face the consequences.
The movement we’re looking for here is for the child to get to know the temper tantrum very well, on a personal, intimate level, and then decide whether the current relationship with the temper tantrum is wanted and desirable or if something needs to change. What is the temper tantrum stopping the child from doing? What is it stopping the child from being? Is it helping or hurting other family members? Is the temper tantrum a loving guy or a big meanie? Is it a trusty old dog or a cranky old beast?
Giving children the chance to draw what they’re thinking and feeling is a great route to go, regardless of the theoretical psychological system being employed. Narrative therapy is really tailor made for it in that an exhaustive personality sketch of the problem allows for the transfer of these ephemeral ideas into concrete physical traits and series of typical behaviors in the drawings. These drawings can go any number of ways, and again the idea here is to be lighthearted and fun and to allow your child to take the lead. It’s your job to remain interested and ask prompting questions in order to clarify for yourself and your child the underlying worldview and perspectives portrayed, not to control what everything in the drawings is and means.
What will probably happen over the course of these conversations and activities is that your child will decide that resorting to temper tantrums isn’t working, that the costs of the current situation outweigh the benefits. One of the best ways you can help your child activate in order to change the parameters of the problem is to look back over the life history for concrete examples where resistance was shown in the face of the impending temper tantrum, where a different choice was made, where what in narrative therapy we call a unique outcome occurred.
At the deeper philosophical level narrative therapy understands that in a community of people a dominant narrative always forms for each individual, a narrative based not just on actual observed behaviors but on myriad societal, cultural, historical, familial, psychological, emotional, and other factors outside of the sphere of control or influence or responsibility of the person being labeled. The dominant narrative is how others see and behave towards that individual and how that individual in turn comes to see Self. Dominant narratives always set the parameters of the individual very narrowly and ignore or minimize any and all instances that contradict this dominant label. Soren Kierkegaard once wrote “When you label me you negate me.” The dominant narrative, even when it’s a positive, desired one like ‘courageous’ or ‘athlete’, by definition leaves out the many aspects of Self that lie outside of this grouped cluster of traits and behaviors.
It’s not all malicious, in fact most of it probably isn’t, it’s just the way we’re hardwired. We seek to find patterns out of the chaos, to make sense of the madness. We survive in a complex human world by quickly recognizing a personality type so that we know how to interact and so that we can more or less accurately predict behavior. We don’t have time to analyze every little variable, to mull and stew over what to say or how to be around people, to think up 101 different possible motivations for a behavior. We need the click whirr effect, the cognitive bias called pattern recognition that helps us define the texture of people and the world.
But when we get over that click whirr thinking we see that there are many real examples where someone thought or felt or behaved in a way that casts serious doubt upon the accuracy of the dominant narrative. That thought or feeling or behavior wasn’t recognized or appreciated, not by the community and not by the individual. It didn’t fit the narrative so it was cast aside, as if it never happened. Narrative therapists are treasure hunters. They explore the vast tracts of lived experience with their clients in order to uncover those hidden gems, those unique outcomes where something wonderful happened that contradicted the unwanted dominant narrative.
To get back to the temper tantrum, you’ve got to find and celebrate those moments where your child chose a more constructive solution than resorting to going into a fit, those times where your child said, “No, you stay over there temper tantrum.” It’s guaranteed that there are countless such moments, they just aren’t out there in the air in a tangible way like completely losing control and throwing a fit is, so they fade away from awareness like smoke from a campfire.
When you discover and then honor those instances with your child you’re positively reinforcing that alternate behavior and more importantly for this conversation you’re helping to create a new story, an alternate narrative that can be put into place, a narrative where temper tantrums play a different role in your family than they do right now. Remember to give your child space to come up with independent conclusions surrounding the temper tantrum’s characteristics and how it should be related to from here on out.
Narrative therapy for temper tantrums is about being aware of the unequal power relationship and then actively handing the power over to your child to first name the problem, then flesh out the problem, then find concrete examples that directly contradict the dominant narrative being spun about the problem, and finally decide upon a new way of being and a new way of relating towards the problem and towards the world in general. Kids of all ages are more than capable of having these conversations. They love story telling, they love being creative, they love playing, they love making stuff up. Narrative conversations do all of that as a matter of course and what comes out of these conversations are new, healthier ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.