Living with two toddlers has taught us how important the ability to choose for yourself is. How it is not nice to have someone else dictate to you how your life is going to play out. Even at the young age of 2 children are capable of making decisions about their lives. They may not be informed decisions, or even the ones in their own best interests, but they are capable of making them.
In fact, in our family at least, it is usually the removal of the ability to make these decisions that lead to the inevitable tantrum, or on occasion minor meltdown. It’s our job as parents to make sure our children are safe, that they have as balanced a diet as possible, that they go to bed and get enough rest, they drink enough water, etc etc. The list is endless and sometimes we get so wrapped up in making sure our children get what they need that we forget that they are people with their own minds and opinions.
Adopted children especially have had their lives turned upside down by people making decisions for them. If everyone has done their job correctly it will inevitably be in the best interests of the children, but do they really get a choice in the matter? They may be consulted in certain decisions, if they are deemed old enough, but do their opinions actually affect the outcome of the choices that are made for them? I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for a child who is taken into care. Yes, they may be in a situation that is detrimental to their well-being, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t loved, it doesn’t mean they don’t like it there. They are removed from an environment which is bad for them, but it is all they’ve ever known and sometimes, even if they aren’t even slightly safe in reality, it is their comfort zone where they feel safe.
Children are the inevitable victims of other people’s choices having an effect on their lives. Feeling powerless over their own life is what often contributes to the low self-esteem which is seen so regularly in children in care. It may have started in their home, but it is continued on into care with many, often faceless, professionals taking over the role of decision maker. This kind of powerlessness is what most toddlers rebel against, it is in part what generates the ‘terrible twos’ and so-called ‘threenagers’.
They start to become aware of themselves properly and they want to control their own lives, but they don’t have the experience to know what is best for themselves, and even if they did can’t always communicate what they want or why they want it properly. That is where the tantrum comes in. They can’t tell you what they want properly, so they overreact when they don’t get it, showing you something is wrong, even if you don’t really know what it is.
Our youngest is non-compliant, stubborn, and thinks he knows what’s best for himself. He also likes to be very helpful. We know this from observing his behaviour and paying attention to what triggers his tantrums. Often he seems to be trying to do the right thing, attempting to mimic something we have previously done for him so that he can do it himself. When we try to stop him he can’t understand why as he’s just trying to help, so gets upset.
When he’s attempting to do something which we want to stop for his own safety, we’ve found that rather than just telling him to stop or forcing him to do it safely, giving him a choice to make helps him feel in control and limits his upset. For instance, he is starting to want to walk down the stairs on his own, but he’s not quite steady enough not to faceplant and fall down them (I guarantee this would happen at least 50% of the time if we let him). He refuses to hold my hand, and the mere suggestion of it causes ‘the face’ (pre-tantrum). What I really want to do in order to speed up transition from upstairs to downstairs is pick him up and take him down myself, but I know that will instantly cause a problem, and although it is quicker to get down the stairs will then require longer to settle him again after his inevitable tantrum.
So, what can we do to get him down the stairs safely and with minimum upset? For him this is about being independent, he wants to do something by himself which he can’t do without possibly injuring himself. I give him a choice. Neither option is what he wants, but failure to make the choice means he will get carried down, which is REALLY not what he wants. He can either ‘bump’ down (that’s what we call going down the steps one at a time on his bottom) or walk down holding my hand and the handrail. I will repeat the choice two or three times, as I know it can take a little while for the question to be processed properly. I might even need to make a move towards him to look like I’m about to pick him up to get a decision, but ultimately he will decide. Rarely do I have to carry him down. Usually it’ll be walking down holding my hand, so we take the opportunity to count the stairs.
The result is we get to the bottom of the stairs, with no real conflict. The time lost in getting him to make a decision is less than the amount of time I’d have lost to a tantrum had I carried him or ordered him to hold my hand. He felt a little bit in control, so he was happy and at every stage he was safe.
The choice I gave him was really just an illusion to stop him walking down the stairs on his own. We use a similar tactic for stopping him running off when we’re walking in public, ‘Do you want to hold my hand or do you want me to carry you?’.
We don’t usually give in to our toddler just to prevent a tantrum. We suffer through them if we can’t find another solution, ignoring any frowns and tutting directed at us if we’re in public. We don’t want to raise a child that thinks he will get his own way all of the time just because he has a hissy fit, and that means letting the odd tantrum play out with no attention. What we have learned though is by carefully watching what our son is doing, and listening to him, we can avert them much of the time by offering him the illusion of choice. Controlling his behaviour by making him think he is self-determining. It all sounds very manipulative, but it works most of the time (not always!).
Choices are important to us all, even if the outcome of them results in the same ending regardless of the option taken, the fact that we made that decision to do something the way we did is important. It gives us self-worth and the feeling of being in control of our own lives.
Now, think again about those children who are taken into care through no fault of their own. They have little to no control over their lives, they are at the mercy of the ‘system’ that has been put in place to protect them. They don’t even have the illusion of choice like we give our toddler. A good foster carer will know how to build up their self-esteem and make them feel like that are able to self-determine again, but even that is limited. Until, and even for a while after, they find some form of permanence there will be someone making decisions for them, usually without asking for any input at all. There is no simple solution to this, it’s a complicated situation. The thing that everyone in social care needs to remember though is that it’s being done for the good of the children. Every decision taken should be done for them, then hopefully, when they’re old enough, they may be able to come to terms with their time as a powerless observer in their own lives.