Wild Things and the Dance of Temperament in Step/family Life
Understanding Max: When your step/child is a Wild Thing
Posted Oct 27, 2009
My eight-year-old son recently told me that he did not want to go to Where the Wild Things Are. A friend of his went, he told me, "and had to leave. It was just too scary." Indeed, my son grabbed my hand--a rare event these days--during the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are.
When you're a Wild Thing, wild things can scare the bejujubees out of you.
Parents and stepparents likely feel the same way. Sendak's story and Jonze's version convey not just playfulness but also the fearsome beauty of a child's most important impulses: to separate, to sass, to go away, to come back again. Particularly for stepfamilies, where wild things tend to run wildest during times of transition and stress, it has profound lessons to impart about different types of kids and their ability to self-regulate in the face of huge changes as well.
Dr. Rebecca Mannis, developmental psychologist, learning specialist, and director of the Ivy Prep Learning Center in Manhattan, tells me "children regress and progress as part of normal development. A change in family structure like a divorce or a repartnering might be a moment when a kid decides to let the wild rumpus begin." To wit, in Sendak's version Max threatens his mom that he will eat her up--and in Jonze's version, Mom's boyfriend insists she take a stand.
That's how Max ends up banished to his room (or running away), sailing in and out of days and years, until he finds the Wild Things, who seem to understand him, and crown him the wildest thing of all. No doubt Max's stepfather figure would agree, having walked into this dance of temperament and irritability due to stressors and family dynamics!
It's not unusual for a stepparent to gun for more structure and consequences for a child of any age--but calibrating those requests and expectations to who the kid actually is, say Dr. Mannis and a comprehensive body of research, will help everyone in the picture, and prevent excessive step/parental tsuris. We'll do well to ask ourselves, Who is Max?
Child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas were among the first researchers to use parent questionnaires and to follow infants over their childhoods to outline patterns in temperament. Just as with traits like eye color, they found, temperament--the style with which a person behaves--is hard-wired and consistent over time. The ingredients of temperament include:
• activity level
• rhythmicity (regularity)
• threshold of response to stimulation in the environment
• intensity of reaction to others
• quality of mood
• level of distractibility or attention span
Chess and Thomas found that some patterns of temperament and behavior tended to cluster in patterns that they referred to as "The Easy Child," "The Difficult Child," and "The Slow to Warm Up Child."
In Jonze's depiction, Max reacts passionately to his sister's betrayal of him, crying, smashing the valentine he'd made for her, and trashing her waterbed. His mother's reaction, providing him with opportunities to reconnect through storytelling and balancing recognizing his intolerable reaction with acknowledgement of his feelings, is a great example of a mom taking a child's temperament into account. The next scene, however, is one in which Max's mother is focused on her budding adult relationship rather than solely on anticipating the intensity of Max's reactions to transitions. Now this hungry child who cannot regulate to his mother's new love interest or to the increased demands for adaptability, shifts into an impulsive, intense reaction when he climbs on the kitchen island exerting his frustration through a higher activity (and decibel) level.
Max's mom found herself in the bind that many parents experience at the end of the day and when family rhythms take on new hues. Max, the frustrated, overtired child, was unable to self-soothe in the face of mounting stressors, so the proverbial straw of a new triangle (Max, mother, and her beau) made this evening's smorgasbord of challenges too great for this child, so sensitive and intelligent, to self-regulate.
Max's intensity, and his ability to react to genuine concern and love, are palpable. His fascination with containment is everywhere evident, whether in his bed-tent, under his mother's desk, in the snow igloo or the fantastical forts. These cues can provide his mom and her boyfriend with a map of sorts regarding what can comfort Max when environmental, interpersonal, or other real-kid demands overtax him.
Max's sailing in and out of time, over weeks and months, allow both him and his mother to regroup, self-soothe, problem solve and reconnect. Thanks to Max's flights of fantasy, Mom gets the space and time to provide the soup, "still hot" in its proverbial and practical presentations, so that Max could receive them in a spirit of appreciation and readiness to move forward.
Dr. Mannis's practical tips for dealing with your Wild Thing:
- Anticipate transitions
- Write out schedules
- Support the child's feelings and family rules about respect for one another
- Use clear, consistent language
-Engineer opportunities for your highly reactive child to blow off steam or express himself, before he finds one you're not happy with
Dr. Mannis's Learning Center: www.ivy-prep.com
stepfamily tips: www.wednesdaymartin.com and Stepmonster by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.