Friday, May 2, 2008

Watching the meltdown

I've been meaning to write a post on this book, which is full of insight about the ways we can live our lives more peacefully by attending to the present moment and learning to recognize the ridiculous games our minds play as we stew about the past or worry about the future or indulge in other ego-obsessions.

But there's no good way to summarize the way reading Eckhart Tolle has impacted me already since I've read the book, which has an admittedly grandiose, self-help-book-style title but nevertheless is full of a simple, profound -- and accessible and applicable -- sort of wisdom. Instead I'll give one example about a passage in the book that happens to deal with how we can be present with children who are in the midst of their own ego-obsessed, power-hungry tantrums or emotional fits. Will is still prone to these (especially when he is tired), although they come much more rarely and a bit more gently than they did in the past.

In the past I had chosen one of two paths for dealing with one of Will’s emotional thunderstorms and sometimes a mixture of both over the course of a given tantrum:I would either a) calmly explain my position several times while Will shouted back at me until I realized the futility of our "exchange" and said I would wait to talk to him until he was feeling ready to talk. Then I would basically ignore him as I cleaned the kitchen or went about my business while he continued his emotional meltdown or b) try comforting Will, keep talking with him, even try restraining him in a tight hug if he got into a hitting or throwing mode.

None of this proved very effective and Will's anger often continued to escalate.

And then Tolle offered me a slightly more effective approach. He talks a lot about the "pain-body" that we -- as children and adults -- carry around with us, individually and collectively. It's a pair of words that's sort of off-putting to my ears, but the basic concept is that we all travel around with an accumulation of suppressed, negative emotion -- and that our pain-bodies feed on and seek out negativity. The pain-bodies in young kids, who are of course egocentric by nature, often trigger tantrums, especially in sensitive children.

Here are some excerpts from Tolle about how to cope as a parent: "When the child is having a pain-body attack, there isn't much you can do except to stay present so that you are not drawn into an emotional reaction. The child's pain body would only feed on it. Pain-bodies can be extremely dramatic: Don't buy into the drama... If the pain-body was triggered by thwarted wanting, don't give in now to it's demands. Otherwise, the child will learn: "The more unhappy I become, the more likely I am to get what I want." This is a recipe for dysfunction in later life. The pain-body will be frustrated by your nonreaction and may briefly act up even more before it subsides...A little while after it has subsided, or perhaps the next day, you can talk to the child about what happened. But don't tell the child about the pain-body. Ask questions instead. For example: What was it that came over you yesterday when you wouldn't stop screaming? Do you remember? What did it feel like? Was it a good feeling? That thing that came over you, does it have a name? .... Do you think it may come back? ... All these questions are designed to awaken the witnessing facutly in the child, which is called presence...The next time the child gets taken over by the pain-body, you can say, "It's come back, hasn't it?" Use whatever words the child used when you talked about it. Direct the child's attention to what it feels like. Let your attitude be one of interest or curiosity rather than one of criticism or condemnation."

And it's this last sentence that has helped me make a nuanced but important change in how I cope with a tantrum. I no longer choose between ignoring and comforting/reasoning. I simply make myself a scientist of Will's meltdown. I observe him and actually feel a deep interest in him and his suffering as I do it. And I notice Will getting uncomfortable under this kind of quiet attention, almost as if by really watching him, I am helping him to watch himself.

He may continue to yell for a minute about whatever it is that's making him mad, but when it seems appropriate I will say quietly, "Are you ready for me to talk yet?" Usually he says no the first time and continues to rant for another minute or less as I observe him quietly again. Then when he seems to be ready I'll ask the question again. "Are you ready for me to talk yet?" And usually he says yes. Then I offer a calm, succinct reason for why I couldn't let him do or have the thing he wanted -- and maybe suggest another thing that he or we might do to move him out of focusing on the current power struggle. And usually he wants a hug and feels ready to move out of his negative space much more quickly than he ever did before. And Will is able to reflect on his tantrums well after the fact and talk about his hopes that these stormy moods will one day lose their hold on him entirely.

I was telling my dad about the shift Will and I have made and he reminded me of an old Zen saying he'd shared with me long ago:

"The best way to control your cow is to give it a wide, spacious pasture." "The second best way to control your cow is to try to control it." "The worst way to control your cow is to ignore it."

My dad was quick to point out that "purposeful parental ignoring" of a tantrum really falls under the second best category of trying to control through ignoring. But I have come to realize that "watching" Will is much more effective than purposefully ignoring him -- even though it might seem like a subtle difference.


shannon said...

uh-oh- don't "see please here" as the previous comment asks- it starts loading a virus on the computer (or that's what my virus protection software says, anyway).

Annie, thanks for the experimental data on tantrums and Eckhart's suggestion. That book has helped me enjoy my moments better and be very calm with my kids, even during a tantrum. (and not just with kids but with disgruntled employees, grumpy store clerks, bad drivers, etc.). A New Earth is a great read, to me-- much more philospophy and less self-help.

Annie Addington said...

Sorry about that Shannon. I deleted that pesky comment.