Hearing that he cannot have a certain item that has caught his eye, a frustrated toddler starts screaming 'I want it now! Now, now, NOW!!!' as his voice echoes across the toy store. His emotions are big, strong, seemingly irrational - and are spinning out of control. The child is very unhappy and the parent’s coping skills and patience are quickly exhausted.
'I hate you!' - screams a teenager. 'Why can’t I go to the party? All my friends are going! You’re ruining my life!' She stomps into another room and slams the door. Again, emotions are high and tempers are flying. This child is very unhappy and her parents are at a loss.
What is happening here? Yes, both of these children are having a ‘tantrum’. But is that it? Or is there more to the story?
These behaviors are expressions of what Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper, creators of the Smart Love® model and approach to child development, define as the “all-power self.”*
As Dr. Pieper notes, “The all-powerful self is your child’s temporary source of secondary happiness based on the illusion that the child can do and have everything.”* Or, in other words, they “want what they want when they want it.”*
It can be the source of major upset, frustration, and disappointment, but it is a natural and normal reality in a child’s emotional and social development. Understanding the all-powerful self explains behavior we see throughout childhood, but most significantly during toddlerhood and adolescence.
Because of the sometimes overwhelming manifestations of the all-powerful self, it is all too common to label children’s developmental stages negatively. They are called the ’terrible twos‘, ‘threenagers‘, the ’fournado‘, ’testing teens’ and more. And having to handle these extreme outbursts can be quite challenging if you don’t understand the developmental changes that are happening behind the scenes and how to best respond.
When parents remain calm, positive, and supportive of their child through these formidable outbursts, it can not only make parenting far less daunting, but it actually supports the child’s maturing past the all-powerful self.
The key for understanding and successfully managing a child’s all-powerful self is remembering that the all-powerful self wants what it wants when it wants it. A child has “an unswerving determination and absolute conviction that they can do and have anything.”* It may be at times irrational. It may be rude. It may be jarring. However, expressions of the all-powerful self are fundamentally normal. We all go through it, every child, every toddler, every teenager, at one point or another. Despite its challenging aspects, it is a part of our natural development. And responding to it supportively instead of meeting it with power struggles, strengthens children's desires to make happy and healthy choices.
At Smart Love, instead of seeing two-year olds as terrible, we see them as assertive. Instead of seeing three-year olds as dramatic, we see them as expressive. And we don’t view teenagers as risky, we see them as adventurous. The all-powerful self “is not a negative force. Because the all-powerful self is impervious to self-doubt, it plays the valuable developmental role of helping your child to persist in new activities in the face of failure that are inevitable when one is learning.”* These are positive characteristics that should be mindfully supported throughout their journey to adulthood.
When dealing with the all-powerful self, it’s important to not confront it with ‘facts’ – when a toddler or teenager is having a tantrum, as it is hard for them to be reasonable and consider the reality of the situation. Instead, wait until their emotions have calmed down to discuss what happened, and in the meantime try to put yourself into their shoes and offer your sympathy. It may sound something like:
For a toddler, 'I can tell you were really upset about this. I’m sorry you can’t have the toy.'
For a teenager, it might sound like, 'I know how badly you want to go to this party. I know this stinks.'
Allow them to continue to express themselves and offer your support to their emotions.
'I know, it feels really unfair.'
Offer a fun activity that may lift their spirits.
For a toddler, it might sound like, 'Would you like a hug?' or 'Would you like to read a book with me?'
For a teenager, it might sound like, 'Would you like to go see that new movie with me?'
We find that after an emotional meltdown, both toddlers and teenagers are better able to accept the situation.
For a toddler you may say, 'I know how badly you wanted to use mommy’s scissors, but that’s not safe. I never want you to be hurt. I’m happy to help you cut out that picture.'
For a teenager, you may say, 'I know how badly you wanted to go to the party, but your safety is too important to me and I cannot let you go.'
When parents are able to phrase their reasons in the context of health and safety, children are much more willing to accept the outcomes because they feel cared for and not controlled.
Meeting a child’s frustration or anger with disdain, harshness, or insensitivity, causes resentment, anger, and distance. And this makes children feel isolated and not understood. But when we meet frustration or anger with sympathy and understanding, parents actually expedite their child’s maturation past the all-powerful self.
Parents should help their children not only learn how to navigate the world around them, but also help them to see that when happiness is dependent upon getting what you want when you want it – their happiness is unstable and hinges upon factors largely outside of their control.
Parents show their children a better, more stable, and more lasting way to feel happy, which is when we choose “constructive goals and pursue them to the best of our abilities, regardless of whether these goals are achieved.”* This is a crucial transformation in development called “the competent self.”
(Stay tuned for continued discussions on the competent self.)
* Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.