"She used to sing musical theater loud in the grocery store," said Scott, when we and the other people in our foster parent training were talking about what sort of strategies we might use to address public tantrums.
"I did?" I asked.
"Don't you remember that?" he seemed shocked.
"Oh yeah, I did, didn't I?"
How could I have possibly forgotten about the singing? That was the best idea I ever had! I didn't make it up -- it was an amalgam of advice from mommy bloggers and late night phone calls to old friends. But it was, indeed, a great strategy. How had I forgotten it completely? My memories of those first few years with my now-7-year-old son, Tariku, adopted from Ethiopia after a history of significant trauma, are peppered with strange blank spots -- probably the result of the combined trauma of what we as a family went through.
But when he mentioned it, it all came flooding back. So, in case it might be useful to anyone, I thought I'd share it...
Between 18 months and about 4 years, Tariku had alarming tantrums that would pitch him backward into some vortex of primal fear. Ten times a day, he would wail and thrash and bite and hit, inevitably at the most inconvenient times: At Target, the movies, the mall, Disneyland (admittedly, I often feel the same way there). At first, it was really embarrassing. Then I stopped caring what other people thought. After that it was just exhausting, and often left me hopeless and despairing at the end of the day.
We even had the police called on us. I'll never forget the day a police officer showed up at my front door because someone had reported our license plate as a potential kidnapping from the pony rides at Griffith Park.
Extreme problems sometimes demand extreme measures...
Sometimes, if I could catch the tantrum while the wave was just starting to roll to shore, I found I could short-circuit it. At the first flicker of trouble, I would break into a chorus of "That's Entertainment." And nothing, I mean nothing, will stop a child in his tracks and have him begging for you to stop quite like a time step in the produce section.
Except the big trick was, I would make up my own words and they would go something like this (everybody now, to the tune of "Oklahoma"):
I love you! I will always love you! There is nothing you can do to make me not love you! I don't care if you bite me every day for the rest of your life, I will still love you! I don't care if you hate me, I still love you! Oh boy, you're being a big pain right now, but guess what? I love you! I love you I love you I love you!
You get the idea. This tool is useful even if you don't have an extreme situation, and really just want to head off some whining at the pass.
Now, once in a while, when I get an, "I hate you!" I'll respond, "I love you!" in musical theater voice.
And if I really want to annoy him when he's ordering me around, I'll resort to talking in a cockney accent and calling him the "Little Lord."
"Would the Little Lord like some ketchup with his corn dog?"
Wow, does he ever hate that! He'll start saying "please" so fast it'll make your head spin!
Which is all to say...
Sometimes, we have to throw a wrench into the habitual, negative patterns our brains can fall into. For us, often, playfulness is not just the best option, it's the only option -- unless I want to lock horns with my child and get caught in an unwinnable power struggle. Sometimes we all need to step outside our comfort zones, of our ideas of what is right and wrong and how we should all be behaving.
Sometimes you just have to sing "I love you" to the tune of "Some Enchanted Evening" until there's nothing left to do but laugh your ass off.