It’s definitely, probably, partly…me
I recently reviewed my folder of research papers on tantrums. You don’t have one of those? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? You’re not a parent, you say? IRRELEVANT.
There’s one gem that didn’t make a huge impression on me when I first read it, but after seeing it again, I find I keep thinking about it: Whalley, B., & Hyland, M. E. (2013). Placebo by proxy: The effect of parents’ beliefs on therapy for children’s temper tantrums. J Behav Med 36, 341–346.
In this charming (and pretty well-conducted) study, parents were given a “tantrum reducing” placebo to give to their kids. Most of the kids didn’t know what the purpose of the placebo was*, which is why it’s a placebo by proxy. You think the thing you’re taking is working = placebo. Someone else thinks the thing you’re taking is working = placebo by proxy. Comparing pre- to post-treatment, frequency and severity of tantrums was reduced. My favorite part of the paper was the comments from parents. Here’s one: “Please feel free to use my comments i have told so many people about this and they can’t wait for it to come out on the market. Please let me know where i can purchase some more 4 my son (name). (name) has one tablet a day now, you can tell the difference in his behavior if we have forgotton to give him one. I think this stuff is amazing.”
There are a lot of different dimensions to this picture, but I bet the following will sound familiar to anyone who interacts with other humans, not just toddlers:
The more ragged and impatient I am, the less energy I have to avoid tantrum-inducing situations, the rougher our day. The more tantrums, the more ragged and impatient I become…etc. And on days when I am cheerful, we are all cheerful.
In fact, they also collected data on parents’ mood, and found a small relationship between mood and tantrum severity and frequency. Of course, they can’t say whether better mood caused fewer tantrums or the reverse. But, you know, fuuuuck. It’s like, yeah, that describes my day.
I am not a proponent of the whole YOU SHOULD STRIVE TO BE HAPPY ALL THE FUCKING TIME approach to life. I want to feel what I feel. But leaving the house this morning, I found myself getting sucked into one of those increasingly hostile encounters with my husband. You know, trying to have a conversation about some household item when running out the door and two babies are extremely loud and I find myself thinking that everything in the world is the fault of someone other than me… In short, my version of a tantrum.
The reason this paper keeps coming to mind is that it’s such a solid reminder of something I already know. Tantrums are a normal part of child development. Spats with spouses are a normal part of having a spouse. I don’t MAKE either of them happen, and I don’t need to feel bad and beat myself up about it. But I sure as hell contribute. The default my child/spouse is being unreasonable position can be influenced by something as subtle as a placebo.
Maybe reading this paper can be my placebo.
*Some parents explained, 83% didn’t. They did an analysis to see if that mattered and it did not.