Adapting the parenting playbook for each child

By Daniel Epstein, MD, vice president of the Pediatric Physicians Organization at Boston Children’s. Epstein practices at West Cambridge Pediatrics, in Cambridge Mass. and is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

crying-babyKids are different.  From one another, I mean. When my daughter was 4 or 5 or 6 or even 7 years old, she could lose it, big time. Unable to contain her emotions, she’d do what children do and have a tantrum.  She’d kick and scream and bang and cry and shake. Eventually, I’d get behind her and, positioning her in front, facing forward, get her arms in a kind of straightjacket, and like Odysseus grabbing Proteus, hold on until she calmed down.

The Hero, Odysseus, trying to find his way home, learns that Proteus has important information for the journey. Apparently, not big on sharing knowledge, Proteus would not answer questions without a struggle.  Odysseus was instructed to grab Proteus and hold on for dear life.  Proteus was a shape changer, and when held, would turn into beasts or water or smoke, you name it. The trick was not to let him go until he resumed his usual form, at which point he would answer your questions.

For children, this idea is straight out of the children’s book, The Runaway Bunny – wherever you go, there is stability following you. I have you, and in my calmness, I demonstrate that I can handle your emotions. With my gentle strength, I show that I can contain the physical expression of your inner turmoil. I will not let you hurt yourself or break things. You are safe from the rampages of yourself.

And just like for Odysseus, where, eventually, Proteus returns to his normal appearance, after 10 or 25 minutes, my daughter (the beast, infant, princess, lioness, ragdoll, monster) eventually would be herself and in a calm voice say, “I’m OK now dad.  You can let me go.”

Epstein_DanielChildren, like myths, come in all shapes and sizes and personalities. What worked with my daughter, didn’t work so well with her younger brother. Satisfied with my results parenting child No. 1, I assumed the playbook would be the same for child No. 2 – plug this guy into the “Child with Tantrum” role and get the results achieved before.  Just one thing…it didn’t work.

The longer I held him, the longer he’d scream and cry. It became a contest of wills. It’s not that his will was stronger, but, in the end, his reason for fighting was nobler.  I was holding him to establish a kind of physical dominance:  “You can’t calm down, so I’m going to help you calm down.” But the boy was feeling it differently, he wanted to calm himself down, without anyone’s help. When things weren’t working he began to shout, “If you don’t let go of me, I can never calm down!”

Interestingly, it was a kind of contract that he was making with me: “Give me some space, have some faith that I won’t hurt myself or anything irreparable, and I’ll calm down in my own time.”  Sometimes all it took was minutes. Sometimes it was hours.  And sometimes it was days.

And there were rules, rules that he set, as part of the contract: “Leave me alone, don’t look at me and don’t talk to me. Act as if I’m invisible and don’t let me know that you’re thinking about me.” Eventually, he would sneak into our presence, flitting from doorjamb to behind the couch, then belly-crawling to the easy chair. From there, a dash under the dinner table, appearing, at the right moment, calmly in his seat as if nothing had ever happened.

Kids are different. From one another, I mean. And we parents, like the wily (and sometimes wise) Odysseus, need to adapt our playbook when needed.  Trusting that in the end, our children, like heroes, bunnies and (sometimes wise) parents, just want to come home.