Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Terrible Two's and Tantrums - Nature Vs. Nurture

Oh, the joys of this stage! For us, the “terrible two's” actually really got going at about 18 months, although our precious baby girl's first tantrum was when she was 4 months old (seriously???).

For me, the most difficult part about the “terrible two's” is how to handle those tantrums. I've read all the advice, and I know I should ignore it or put her in time out or just wait it out. I know it's best to try to head them off by making sure she's feeling like we're spending enough time together, she's getting enough rest, making sure she's had enough to eat, etc. but I still struggle with it. Unfortunately, it feels like nothing works, but it does make it a little easier to know I'm not the only one with a kid I adore but who I secretly want to briefly disown at these times. Certainly not a thought I expected to have when I envisioned motherhood!

In that respect, having a child has been more than I expected - more exasperating, more fun, more frustrating, more joyful, more heart-wrenching, more fulfilling. It has also given me more empathy and knocked me off of my When-I-Have-A-Kid-She'll-Never pedestal. I think the biggest surprise has been that it has opened up my mind in so many ways. As we grow and age, we learn things and file them away in categories in our brains to make life simpler, but narrower. Watching a child start learning from the beginning, all those things we once knew and decided weren't important, or we had made a decision about, and forgot the other options, are back on the table. One of issues (I thought) I had pretty well ironed out for myself was the old nature vs. nurture debate.

When I was in high school and college, I took Intro to Psychology, I read my Freud. I actually have a friend who's an identical twin who was adopted by a family separately from her sister, and they've had studies done on them. Through all this I determined that while there are certainly good arguments for both sides, the environment plays a slightly larger role in the personality department, including temperament. I've done a complete 180 since we had our daughter. When she had that first tantrum, though I was sleep-deprived and had spent a bit of time crying with her when she was colicky, I had not raised my voice or been angry in front of her yet. This was clearly not something she had learned from us. Well, then maybe it wasn't really a tantrum, I mean, what baby has a tantrum at that age? At first I was taken aback by the thought, too - surely she was just colicky. But no, after a minute or two, it was very clear - our little redhead was definitely having a tantrum.

Knowing my own (also redheaded) temperament, and that of the rest of my family, her surprise tantrum started to explain things a bit. My dad and I are both hotheaded. I remember as a kid having screaming matches with him ending in doors slamming as we went our separate ways to cool off. But when we had calmed down and rejoined the living room, we would apologize when needed and move on. My mom and my sister are more stewers who, when upset, are quiet and short with their answers, but take much longer to really stop being angry. I think because growing up I was more of a Daddy's girl and my sister was closer to my mom, I thought a lot of that was learned. And I'm sure a fair amount of it was - if I had been adopted by two mellow parents, I probably would have managed to control my temper earlier in life. But seeing our baby girl enraged at such a young age, I realized that more of it is innate than I had thought. Maybe the idea that redheads have tempers isn't so much because they are redheaded, but because they are genetically predisposed to have short tempers in equal proportion to the odds of their hair color being red?

Regardless of the genetics behind it, the tantrums are a trial for us, as for any parents. But witnessing her tantrums, and struggling to stay calm and not overreact to them, brings those faded memories of my own angry times to the surface. And that combined with my newly revised opinion about nature's role in her temperament has helped me to have a more understanding perspective. It's also testing my own anger management and providing a learning opportunity for me - as most parenting issues do! At this point, when she's having a tantrum, I just try to give her space and time to get it out of her system. And I'm working on teaching her words for her feelings and how to handle them appropriately. It's very difficult, and I don't feel like we're making any progress. But I also realize that I need to give it time for her to start understanding these concepts. I know it was many years before I was (better) able to control my temper. That's a depressing thought in some ways (dreading the inevitable teen years!), but encouraging in the sense that I know that through the counterpoint of nurturing, it's not an permanent character flaw; we will be able to help her corral it and use it as a strength. And for me, I just try to hold on to the small signs of progress, like how I've been telling her for 6 months not to throw things in mid-tantrum, and now sometimes she won't. Other than that, I just pray for patience and remind myself that this, too, shall pass...


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