Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Day 3: Tantrums

Wenxin, Julia, Katherine, and I stepped off the wooden walkway onto the white sands of Cocoa Beach's Jetty Park. The August sky was clear, and the blue-green flag flying at the lifeguard station signaled almost perfect swimming conditions. Dragging a cooler, boogie boards, pails, shovels, chairs,  bags, and towels, we made our way across the sand.

8 1/2-year-old Wenxin had been home from China almost a year at that point, but for some reason, this was our first beach day that summer. Out of state trips and lots of rainy days had kept us away from the coast. So when Mike and Nathan left for a weekend camp-out, I decided to brave the beach with the younger three kids. This would only be the second time Wenxin had seen the ocean.

Anyone feeling nervous at this point? 

We parked our cooler at the perfect spot -- far enough from the water that we wouldn't get washed away when the tide began to come in. We unfolded my chair and spread out a straw mat for the kids. Julia and Wenxin grabbed the pails and shovels and ran closer to the water and began to build.

Katherine wanted to try her hand at boogie boarding, so she and I ran into the surf.

After watching Katherine ride a few waves, Wenxin came out and wanted to try. That's when everything began to go downhill. You see, he really, really wanted to try boogie boarding. It really, really looked fun. But he was really, really scared.

He had learned to swim earlier that summer, but this was his first time to try to swim at the beach. He didn't want the salt water in his eyes and mouth and nose. He was afraid of being swept away by the waves. He wanted to . . . and he didn't want to.

He refused to lie down on the board. I strapped the cord to his wrist, and it was all wrong. . . too tight. . . too loose. . . not comfortable. . . wrong hand. No matter what I did, it wasn't right. He was not going to be able to boogie board like Katherine, and somehow it was quickly becoming all my fault.

He cried and screamed and thrashed around in the water. 

I tried to help him name his emotions. "I know you really want to boogie board, but you feel scared," and "I know you aren't used to how the salty water tastes and feels." I don't remember exactly the words I used, but I tried to help him process his feelings.

He stood in the surf and stomped his feet.

I tried to stay calm. "Why don't we try again later?" I suggested.

Screaming louder,  he demanded to try now.

"We can't try again right now, because you've lost your self-control. You are frustrated, but you can have self-control. You can stop throwing a fit. Tell me when you have your self-control back."

"OK," in a loud voice that was just a little more controlled, "I have my self-control.  May we try again?"

So we tried again, and within minutes, he just lost it.

Finally, I walked out of the water with Wenxin running and screaming behind me. He even slapped and kicked at me. I tried to stay calm. "You may not hit and kick me. We are taking a break. We will try another time."

Across the beach we went, heading toward our stuff. If I'd known this was going to happen, I would've set up closer to the water. 

Instead, off we went - slapping, kicking, falling down, crying, whining, stopping for little talks, walking again, holding hands, jerking away. We were putting on a show for everyone. I kept wondering when some beach-goer from the audience was going to yell, "If I'd acted like that when I was little, my mom would've worn me out."

Back at our stuff, I offered Wenxin a chocolate chip cookie from the cooler, but he took one look at his sandy hands and began to cry that he didn't want sand in his food.  . . he was sick. . . we needed to go home. . . now!

When I didn't start packing up right away, he wailed loudly, "You must hate me!" 

A bunch of seagulls were watching the drama from across the sand, and on a whim, I threw a piece of cookie their way. About 12 of them descended on the cookie at once, the lucky winner grabbing it in his beak and flying away. Wenxin laughed.

I stuck a cookie in Wenxin's mouth, and he just sucked on it, leaving half of it dangling from his lips. The hungry gulls were all watching us now. 

"If I were you, I'd get the rest of that cookie in my mouth -- fast!" I warned. "I'm afraid one of those gulls is going to fly over and take it from you."

As Wenxin laughed and gobbled up the cookie, the evil spell was broken.  We watched the birds and ate snacks, dropping a few pieces on purpose from time to time, until Julia and Katherine came in for a break. Afterwards, all three built sand castles for the rest of the afternoon.

Late in the day, I looked up from my book, just in time to see Katherine pulling Wenxin across the waves on the boogie board. A few moments later, Julia ran up the beach and yelled, "Mom! Wenxin wants you to come and watch him do it." He was riding the waves like a pro.

As much as I like an entertaining story, it was hard for me to write about days like this. Because we had them a lot.  I feared coming across like a whiner or that people would think I created the problems myself by not being strict enough.  More than once someone told me, "He's just manipulating you."

I don't doubt he was trying to manipulate me.  In a lot of ways I was his lifeline, and maybe he felt safer thinking he could control me.

Thinking back over our day at the beach, one thing is clear.  For a long time, the main way Wenxin dealt with overwhelming emotions was by melting down and throwing a fit.  He needed to learn appropriate ways to handle fear and anger and frustration. 

One of the principles I try to practice in parenting all my kids is to never punish them for doing something wrong if I haven't first taught them to do it right.  That's kind of a no-brainer to me.

So that first year we practiced. We practiced using words. A lot. Of course, when he first came home he didn't have any words because he couldn't speak English.  No wonder he had meltdowns. Realizing the enormous obstacles facing our kids should give us a profound respect for them.

Another thing we learned was that playful interaction worked  better than punishment. This was true for a couple of reasons. First of all, his tantrums were a result of fear and frustration, not disobedience. That's key. Punishment did nothing to ease his fears. On the other hand, playful interaction -- like what happened on the beach with the birds and the cookies -- helped him relax and regain self control.

Also, playful interaction helped us end things more connected to each other, enjoying one another's company.  In those early days, connection is one of your biggest goals. 

I'd love to hear your reaction to this story. What else do you notice? What questions does it raise? Leave a comment and join the discussion.
And come back tomorrow to hear more about parenting with connection from my favorite expert.

P.S. - The above story isn't intended to be a perfect illustration of how to parent in an older child adoption. That part in the waves about,"Get your self control," was basically useless. There were also many days when things weren't resolved so quickly. But this story does paint a fairly realistic picture of what that first year was like and some of the things we learned along the way.

This post is part of the series: 31 Days of Preparing to Parent. . . when you're adopting an older child. Are you part of an online adoption group or forum? Would you share this post and invite other adoptive parents to join us this month? Thanks!

Shared at Imperfect Prose and Ni Hao Y'all.


  1. You told this story so well. My daughter had a few of those tantrums in the early days of her life, at the worst times, out in public where it made it even more difficult to get self control. And after I had my son, I realized that they both respond completely different to discipline. Like you, playful interaction worked so much better for him than it did her. As my kids get older, I realize that the main way to get their attention and hear the lesson in the discipline is to saturate it in a loving response instead of anger. Sounds simple but unfortunately, I had to learn it the hard way. Nice to meet you through IP.

  2. wow that incredible Enjoyed the story You have control over you emotions and such insight into Wenix struggles (articulating) Thanks for posting.

  3. Yes to playful interaction! Our therapist told us that a playing child cannot be dysregulated. That has proven to be true many times in our family.

  4. Sounds exactly like our lives for many months! And the same lessons learned. Our boy was JUST SO SCARED. And when I learned not to take it personally (all the screaming, throwing things, kicking, hitting and biting) and see his tantrums for what they were-- a cry for help, things changed. It felt backwards but we stopped punishing and worked on connecting and bonding. Two years in now and tantrums are rare and he is definitely feeling safe and loved!

    1. Yes! People will make you feel like if you don't punish the tantrums they'll go on forever! But in our case, that wasn't true. As we worked on connecting and helping our child feel safe, the tantrums eventually ceased.

  5. I absolutely loved this post. My husband and I are currently in the process of adopting a 3 year old from a central American country. She is developmentally delayed and faces many obstacles. I love the way you talk about the challenge and also include how you dealt with it. I also enjoyed that you didn't pack in and leave. Thanks for sharing your story!

    1. The fact that I had two other kids who were enjoying themselves at the beach helped me resist the urge to pack up and leave.

      Once we got a game plan for how to deal with tantrums, the hardest thing for me was to stick with the plan if we were around other people. I often felt judged, but we could see that playful interaction and working at connecting were helping our son, so we tried to stick to the plan and just let people think whatever they wanted to think.

  6. Beautiful post... and the images makes me want to head to the beach


  7. oh Dana, i LOVE how you handled this situation. how you reminded him that he could still have control, that he still had a choice... excellent parenting friend. love you. e.


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