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Controlled Choices – it is a choice if it’s restricted?


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Have you ever heard the phrase, controlled choices?


I hadn’t until this week.


Rosalind has well and truly hit the tantrum twos. We don’t go a day without meltdowns – and any less than 3 between waking and going to bed is hailed as a success. I didn’t realise, like most fathers, parents in fact, exactly how hard the tantrum stage would be.


I thought that because we had a chilled out baby, we would have a chilled out toddler. I thought because she was pretty laid back about playing with what she was given (largely because she’s been slow to develop speech so has had to “put up” with me giving her whatever she could point at), she’d be pretty chill about becoming a toddler – and not fight us too much for independence.


And even if I was going to be wrong on all of that, I thought I had the patience, the skills, the years of “adulting” sufficient to deal with it.


Reader, I was wrong.


Toddlers are not chilled out. In any sense of the word. They are the human equivalent of a firework display – except the happy emotions are the short bursts – they’re dazzling, they excite the crowd and you’re glad you came. The meltdowns? They are the equivalent of the finale – a massive barrage of explosions that feel like they last forever and even come with their own theme tune. Ours would definitely be “Road to Hell”….


We have been dealing with the “terrible twos” for about the last 18 weeks. I think. Although I lost count after week 10, and by week 12 I felt like a prisoner whose countdown to release keeps getting “reset”, so if I’m honest, I have no idea how far through we are or how far we’ve got to go.


I have learned something though. I thought, naively, that toddler meltdowns were unfathomable, that they happened without a purpose, that there could be no rhyme or reason for the explosions. This is true for some of our meltdowns – but probably only 20%. The other 80% are, quite simply, due to two things:


1. A lack of communication

2. A lack of control


And actually, those two kind of go together.


Most of Rosalind’s meltdowns are because she wants something and she can’t quite communicate it accurately enough to make me, or Charlotte, understand what it is in the two nanoseconds we are granted before heading straight into “Tantrum Town”. She can’t control what she gets given, because she can’t tell us what she wants – and round in circles we go.


So I’ve spent the last few months googling – like all good parents – to try and find a way out of the terrible twos. Spoiler alert – there is no way out. But there is a method of negotiating. Apparently used by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies briefed in hostile situations, “Controlled Choices” is a way of facilitating co-operation between two parties.


It works by offering the “hostile” – in this case, our toddler, two different “choices” to choose between. We all know that hostiles make crazy demands – and supposedly, controlled choices is a way of validating those demands by recognising them, acknowledging that you are unable to meet those particular demands, and offering two sufficiently close alternatives, so that the hostile feels more “in control”, more trusting of their relationship with you, the negotiator, and ultimately, they feel more “willing” to co-operate.


I have tried Controlled Choices a few times in the last week – and to my complete and utter surprise, it worked. Well, it worked in 3 out of the 5 meltdowns I tried it on – so 60% isn’t bad, is it? Charlotte was relieved – relieved that she no longer has to try and work from the Dining Room table with headphones on just to hear silence instead of a meltdown.


But for all there has been some benefit from the experiment, I do wonder whether it’s really playing fair – and whether doing it to a toddler, who isn’t a “hostile”– after all, their impulse control hasn’t left the building; they simply don’t HAVE it - isn’t just a little bit amoral.


After all, our job as parents is to educate, not manipulate, our children – and that means teaching Rosalind when it’s okay to be outraged about something, and when it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, I dislike the meltdowns as much as the next parent (and I’m also wanting the ground to open up and eat me if they happen in the supermarket/a restaurant/anywhere other than the privacy of our house) – but as much as I hate them – they do serve a purpose.


They help Rosalind to express her dissatisfaction at something – they provide a way of her standing up for what she wants – in a way that “Controlled Choices” simply doesn’t. After all, the whole purpose of the Controlled Choices strategy is that she isn’t faced with something she doesn’t want – she’s given two fairly acceptable choices to pick from – completely circumventing the need for an objection – and therefore – for a meltdown.


But if she is never confronted with things that she doesn’t want as a toddler, how will Rosalind learn to manage those situations as an adult? I’ve never seen it before, but I’m fairly sure that a 30 year old throwing themselves onto the floor in the supermarket because they don’t have the “right” yoghurt in stock would not be the best sight.


Meltdowns are awful – but they are also a learning opportunity, and not just for Rosalind.


They present the opportunity for Charlotte and I to try and teach those most important of life skills – compromise. When Rosalind is being proactive in standing up for her choices we have to try and remember that she’s showing free will, independence, strength and conviction – all attitudes and values that need to be fostered.


But sometimes our convictions are not right – sometimes they don’t create the best plan. And so, in situations where the things that Rosalind wants aren’t safe or appropriate ones – it’s our job to try and teach the importance of meeting in the middle and compromise.


Compromise is the foundation of a lot of our “social” ability – it’s at the core of our capacity to empathise, to align ourselves to purposes bigger than ourselves, to think outside of “our needs” and our “wants”, to recognise the importance of the many, not just the few.


I know that Rosalind doesn’t have impulse control yet, and I know that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go through the tantrums – but I can also see that she has the beginning of being a socially responsible little girl. I know that she cares about others and about other things – because I see it in the way that she plays with her toys and comforts her teddy bears, or in the fact that she will give her mummy a cuddle if Charlotte looks upset.


So as much as I wish the meltdowns were over, I can see the importance of them as a way of learning that we can’t always have what we want – and why exactly that matters.



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