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I Was That Child Having a 'Tantrum' for 'No Apparent Reason'

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What does it mean when a young child screams and cries for no apparent reason? Why do young children seem to demand routine and cry if it’s changed ? I grew up having crying spells and being frustrated that no one seemed to understand why. A couple years ago I read the story,  “The Spoon Theory” that seemed to explain almost exactly what I was going through. However it was mainly focused on adults who understand having multiple responsibilities. But what about a child? Especially one who has limited energy and is faced with the reality that it will be reduced through the years?  This is my explanation through a child’s eyes of what they might face. I look at it through the eyes of a child with gradually reduced oxygen/energy intake facing a reduced lifespan. In this story I  compare oxygen/energy levels to dollars. This can also be read with a child age 7 or up who is facing these issues to help them “budget their energy.”

But I Can’t Afford To!

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a room with a dozen or so other children. An abundance of toys are scattered around the room. It’s bright and cheery. However, each child is focused on what is in front of them and not really interested in anyone else. For you, life is good. You eat, sleep and play in one area. You notice some of the other children are more active – rolling around – making noise etc., but you see no need to do so.

Then one day there is great excitement. There is an announcement that everyone is going to another room where there are many toys and things to play on. All the other children get up and move quickly to the door. You trail behind because you see no point in running. You will get there eventually, so why the speed? You notice each child is being given a slip of paper.

“You give one for each toy/plaything you want to play with,” the adult says. No one notices that each child is given a different amount of paper. For the rest of the afternoon, children choose different toys. Most focus on one or two toys and climb on a few others. Since almost everyone else had entered before you did you don’t realize that some had gotten many more slips than you did. At the end of the day everyone returned the slips they had been given. The days pass. Most of the children end up only choosing one or two toys or things to play on a day, so everyone always has slips to return.

Then one day the group is told you are all moving to a much bigger room with even more toys. Everyone is excited. You were perfectly happy where you were but follow the rest. Your “powers of observation” have increased and now you notice that not everyone was given the same amount of slips and that there are even more toys and activities to choose from. Each requires a slip – no matter how often you use it. But that doesn’t matter because now the group is told that if you use up all the slips you can always return for more. So you happily choose the activities and toys that interest you most. After using up all the slips, you line up with the others for more. Each child in front of you is given more slips. When it’s your turn you hold out your hand expectantly. But the adult looks at you, frowns and says, “Sorry, no more.” You then repeat what had been said earlier: “But you said when we use up –” only to be interrupted with, “That’s for the others, not for you – there is no more left for you.” It’s not even lunchtime and you go off into a corner to watch. Everyone else is too busy playing to even realize you haven’t joined them.

The next day you listen even more carefully to the instructions. They’re the same. When everyone else has gone to play you look at your slips. Maybe you misunderstood. So you are very careful about what you play with and how many slips you use. By lunchtime you have convinced yourself you were wrong. After all, why would they deliberately not give you the same as everyone else? And they did say, “When everyone has used up their slips they can get more,” and weren’t you a part of the everyone? At lunch you notice that while everyone else got a heaping plate with an invitation to come back for seconds, you were told, “Here you go – that’s it. Enjoy.” You watch as others go back for seconds and thirds. Why the difference? A small knot forms in the pit of your stomach. After lunch you use your last slip, and with the most pleasant smile on your face while trying to be very respectful, you ask for more. The adult responds in an agitated tone, “I told you yesterday no. That’s it – stop asking. What you get at the start of the day is all you get.” So you shuffle off to the corner.

The next day you are right by the door to see exactly what is going on. You observe that others are given more slips. Slowly the reality breaks in that you are different. After receiving your slips and hearing the instructions you start to question more. Does this include you? Which toy or activity is worth the price? But you learn to appreciate the activities and the toys you have chosen.

After several weeks the announcement comes again: “We are moving to a new room with even more fun things.” By now you have learned not to trust what is said. Yes, the new room has more fun things. Alongside the room is a store  where children could buy additional items to use. You get excited because many of them are things you would love to buy. Each child is given additional slips of a different color to be used only for the store. But when it comes your turn the response is, “Sorry – not for you.” You beg and plead but the expression on their face is only of annoyance. “Oh why can’t you just deal with it? I said no.” No explanation, no reason given. So you watch as the others run back and forth buying items and using them for activities in the main room. By now many of them have noticed the difference and are starting to express the same ideas. “No you can’t play with us – you don’t have…”

Another announcement comes of moving to a larger room. You are not excited about this. On arrival you find out that while everyone else has twice as much money to work with, your money has been cut in half. Not only that but now there are surprise activities sprung on you at a moment’s notice. Also many of the other children were encouraged to bring along the items they had made or bought from the store in the previous room. You have nothing and again are told, “No you can’t buy anything there.” Unfortunately now you are required to have those very items to use for many of the activities. You become an expert at listening to adults’ side conversations, waiting for hints of anything that might give a clue as to what you might have to spend your precious dollars on. You also become adept at figuring out how to “make do” and be creative with what you have.

Then there was another move. Again the same experience – the money given is again half of what it had been before. Even more activities require payment. By the second day you have used up your entire amount of money within an hour. Then a surprise activity is announced, and the adults demanded you join in. You desperately explain that you have no funds – you can’t afford it. They laugh. “Of course you do; everyone does!” You start to join them and they hold our their hand – you respond with, “I have nothing.” Their response is one of anger and irritation. “We planned this for you! You should at least appreciate it! Why can’t you just enjoy life and not need to know everything?”

With tears in your eyes you go off to a corner, hearing the jeers and mocking laughter of adults and children. Is this the way life is going to be? Why couldn’t adults realize you only had so much energy? That each activity, each time you moved a muscle, required energy, and once it was used, that was it. That it often took an entire day to refuel. That your one big fear was that the next room would be the last. That one day when you used up the energy dollars for the day, it would not be able to go on.

A quick biology lesson here. The body requires food for energy – but it also requires energy to digest the food as well as distribute it to the rest of the body. A growing child whose body exists on half of the energy absorbed, in my case due to heart issues, has less energy to absorb oxygen or other nutrients. They always have to determine, on an hourly basis, “Which is more important? My energy or the activity in front of me.” They often demand to know and keep the routine not because they are nosy or misbehaving but because they need to always calculate how much energy it would take to do the activity. They may not have any energy left if a parent or adult surprises them with a new activity.

Imagine the simple question, “Do you want to do XYZ?”

The thinking processes of a child might be:

“Are they asking if I want to or is this a requirement? How much time will it take? What time of day will it occur?  What activity will I be doing before or after? What energy will I be using for it? How much time will I have to relax before, during or after? Will I be using my mind and body or will it be separate? Is this something I know how to do and can go on automatic pilot for, therefore conserving energy? Or is it something I have to learn and will take time to figure out how to do? Can I stop in the middle of doing it and say, “I’m done” or is it something I have to keep doing until finished? Will I be laughed at and mocked if I say I can’t? Is it worth using up the energy for the day?”

So please, do not judge a child who cries or “misbehaves” when their routine is changed or they’re surprised with something new. You may not realize what they have going on. 

Originally published: April 24, 2016
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