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Fire and Fuel Behavior and Cause


Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn,

My son just turned two on Sunday. He's been spirited since he stopped having reflux pain when he was about 10 weeks old. He fits all nine traits of the spirited child that you write about in your book, Mary. He's ALWAYS been prone to tantrums, but we've worked on trying to navigate them by giving him lots of warning about changes coming (i.e. "in a few minutes we're going to change your diaper, or get in the car, or get in the highchair"). Recently, though, he's gone from bad to worse with the tantrums and these are usually caused when he doesn't get what he wants. Here's an example from yesterday: He wants a specific type of cracker in the car which I simply don't have, so I offer him another... this makes him go OFF THE WALL with screaming, so much so that he starts shaking and can't breathe. I have spoken with my therapist, who's very helpful with raising a spirited child and she tells me that I should say, "This must be very frustrating for you" and then just let him continue to "express himself". But when that crazy type of screaming goes on for another 10 minutes, it's really difficult for me to a) not snap and b) not try to just placate him by literally turning the car around to go to a grocery store and buy him the crackers that he wants.

What would your suggestions for us when the crazy tantrums happen with a 2-year old who's seemingly too young to reason and communicate with easily? 

Thanks in advance! ~ Susan

Dear Susan,

When we start thinking about children’s behavior the actions that we see are what we call the “fire.”  Behind every “fire” or behavior there is a fuel source or a reason.  In order to extinguish the “fire” behavior we have to be certain we are addressing the right fuel source, specifically what the child is feeling or needing.  Obviously there could many potential fuel sources and the possibilities may seem overwhelming which is why we use a framework that includes four key areas to consider.  They are temperament, development, stress and medical issues. 

If a behavior is fueled by temperament you will say, “It has always been this way and others see it in different situations and environments too.”    If it’s development it’s a new behavior tied to a developmental stage or growth spurt.  So the first question related to development is to ask, “Is this child within six weeks of his birthday or half birthday when growth spurts commonly occur?”  Or, secondly, is the behavior typical for this age - like a two-year-old saying “no” even when he wants something.  Behaviors tied to stress often occur out the of blue, but when you think back to when they started you can identify a particular event or situation or change in routine that occurred, such as an illness, a grandparents’ visit, new baby, switch to a new classroom etc.  Behaviors fueled by stress also often fall into what we call “shut down” and the child who could dress himself, suddenly can’t.  Or the child who would go upstairs by himself refuses.  Changes in sleeping, eating and toileting also occur when the fuel sources is stress.  So you will see more middle of the night wake-ups, meltdowns, changes in eating, toileting accidents and difficulty listening.  Often in our work we’ll address behaviors first from temperament, development or stress and see what’s still occurring after we do so. 

If the child is not successful despite these efforts to address the needs, then we’ll move to the fourth framework which is medical.  In this case the behaviors are not responding to strategies that usually work and the intensity of them is more than typical.

Going back to your question, you are preparing him.  From the developmental point of view you are setting a limit. We can expect a two year old to protest, but to also get over it reasonably quickly.  If no significant stressors have occurred in his life, then in this situation due to the intensity of his reaction, we would encourage you to explore potential medical factors.  Medical factors could be minor like an ear infection, to more significant issues such as allergies or developmental issues.   We hope this framework can be helpful as you step into the detective role identifying the true fuel source so you can support your child. 

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