I just noticed that Fr. Hans Jacobse' site, Orthodox Christian Morality Today, after some archaeological work, brushed off an ancient essay on Orthodox pastoral theology: "Ministry in General, Craziness and Art."
When I saw this, I remembered that I had meant to post this next essay soon thereafter as an example of "child psychology" in the Orthodox idiom (if anything can be idiomatic in Orthodoxy). I forgot. Sorry.
And what better example of Orthodox child psych than the Orthodox take on tantrums?
Lessons from the Tantrummers
The staff learned something new, during my days working as a psychotherapist on a child psychiatric unit a decade ago. On the unit, we had a quick therapy for kids who were throwing a tantrum, or about ready to do so. I should add, here, that we had kids who were supremely advanced in the art of conniption-fits and emotional explosion: I called them “professional tantrummers,” and I thank them, because they taught me some important things.
The therapy we had for the “tantrummers” made sense. When they started to go ballistic, we sent them to work with a punching bag, where they could beat the poor thing till the cows came home.
You can hardly blame the thinking. Famous well-paid psychologists and pediatricians had told us some pretty common-sense stuff. If a child is angry or upset, the best thing to do is to let him “get it out of his system.”
The idea was explained to me with a metaphor of a Coke bottle. Open bottle. Stick thumb firmly over the opening. Shake bottle. Shake bottle harder. That is anger inside the kid. Feel the force under your thumb? If you don’t allow the stuff to escape, he will explode.
So what we did with punching bag therapy was to simply take the thumb off the proverbial Coke bottle. Let the kid “let it all out,” and he’ll be okay.
There’s something rummy about a lot of psychobabble advice: much of it just doesn’t work. We discovered an odd thing about punching bag therapy. The more a kid punched a bag, the better he got at punching things (including little sisters) in general. The more a child “let it all out,” the more stuff he had to let out.
We were despondent. We finally noticed a gloomy thing. Punching bag therapy not only failed to achieve the desired goal of anger reduction – the “therapy” itself actually increased the level of anger, and the likelihood and intensity of future tantrums. A kid might knock himself out from flailing at Jr. Everlast, but he still glowered when he lurched back to his hospital room. And his commentary at the next group session was still at 212 degrees.
I then looked around, and noticed that the same fantasy of punching bag therapy was everywhere to be seen, despite the fact that this particular point (along with many others) of Sigmund Freud had been blasted out of the water by clinical data for decades. The “discharge of tension by physical expression” simply does not lower levels of anxiety, to put the idea succinctly in clinic-speak.
Nevertheless, people still permit extremities of violence and sexuality in the media, with the explanation that it lets them “get it out of their system.” The once disciplined and cultured nation of England encourages hooliganism at soccer matches, because extreme vulgarity and fan violence are thought to permit adults and youth to “let their hair down”: some of the politicians across the pond actually believe that permitting such behavior actually lowers the crime rate (which it doesn’t).
Many people believe that they have to express their feelings and vent their anger. They explain that if they are not allowed to do so, like that Coke bottle with the thumb released, then something awful might happen. What that something is, I don’t know – but I do know that something awful happens to other people, and to the soul itself, when anger is vented and is allowed full sail, and this passion of “irascibility” takes complete control of the soul.
Most children (and adults) who complain that they feel all bottled up are anxious not because they haven’t vented enough. They are anxious, and probably despondent, because they have vented too much already, and they are feeling the effects of shame, and an anger that continues to build.
I am not for repression or simply burying our feelings, but I am certainly all for control. “Be angry but sin not,” St. Paul advises in Ephesians 4.26. In the same Epistle, he tells parents – especially fathers – to not “provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6.4). Indeed, some of the ascetical, or monastic, Fathers go so far as to say that no ventilation or expression of anger is ever right, especially if directed at another human being.
Clearly, the responsibility and power to promote peace in the Orthodox home, even with rambunctious children, lie with the parents. The culture of any group flows from the top. So here are a few practical suggestions, or lessons learned, from the Tantrummers:
1. Try not to be upset or agitated. Most Tantrummers depend on the anxiety/anger of the adult to feed into the show. Don’t join in. “Allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride,” wrote Abba Dorotheos, “because we are not recognizing our own condition and are running away from labor.” A calm collected parent is an utter disappointment to a screamer.
2. Trust in God when faced by a Tantrum, whether it’s your child’s or your own. I like to cite these verses from memory: “Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4.4) … or “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13) … or “We are more than conquerors through Him Who loves us … Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.37,39). There is more. Read your Bible.
3. Respond to misbehavior and growing Tantrums when they are still small. It is rare that the Tasmanian Devil appears all at once: he generally starts out whining, tattling, or hiding from chores. The best way not to lecture, yell, or throw an adult Tantrum is to start sooner and discipline more often with smaller consequences. As Abba Dorotheos once said, “Pluck up [a small offense] before it spreads and covers the field.”
4. Do more work in Tantrum prevention than Tantrum response, and you’ll deal with less Tantrums. We are talking here of cutting off provocations and causes which provoke the passion of anger. St. John of Damascus advised that he who repels the provocation “cuts off at once everything that comes after.” You won’t like hearing this, but I will tell you this – and this is based on firm psychological and sociological research: if you really want to reduce the level of anger and the likelihood of Tantrums in a fell swoop, then yank the cable, dish the Dish, doom the cartoon, wash out the soaps in the afternoon and at night, turn off the news. Feed the mind, starve the passions. Go highbrow.
5. If you are hit with a full-blown Tantrum, follow your parental instinct that God has put in your heart. It will tell you to keep people safe. It will tell you to calm the yeller/stomper/pouter. It will coach you to say things like “I love you, but this is the way it is.” It will help you resist the temptation to fold by saying “If you stop, you can have your Count Chocula.” It will help you to isolate the Tantrummer with you, and away from social embarrassment. Stay calm. Trust in God. You are doing one of the most important jobs on this earth.
6. Have faith that this too will pass. All tantrums must come to an end. The very worst tantrum I saw in the hospital was when I sat with a true bonafide Superstar Tantrummer, and she could only perform at full blast for an hour (it was fabulous – you should have been there). And then exhaustion took over, as it always will.
Let them rest. Stay with them, for the Enemy is always apt to afflict sinners, even children, with frightful loneliness. Then bring them back into the family. Hold firm to the consequences. But always, always bring them back home.
Just remember: your house belongs to the Father Who brings back, over and over, the Prodigal Son.
Those are some Lessons Learned from the very best of my Tantrumming friends.
I can speak with authority, because, after all, I used to be one of them.