Are your children hanging from the chandeliers? Are they pushing buttons (both literal and figurative) they shouldn't? Are you considering selling them on eBay? When your kids reach new heights of monstrosity, as visions of future penitentiary visits dance in your head, remember what first-year medical students learn about diagnosis: when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.
One joyful truism I've discovered about parenting: some of the most god-awful behavior often stems from purely physiological causes. The "horses" here (the Horsemen of the Apocalypse) are basic physiological needs like hunger, fatigue, and thirst. And in our fortunate era, these are usually easy problems to solve.
We associate "basic physiological needs" with infants, who need feeding and changing and naps and all of that. Over time, we certainly develop more complex problems, but that doesn't mean we lose our basic needs as we get older. We just become more discreet about them, and we can usually meet these needs without howling.
When I was about five years old, some acquaintances, for some long-forgotten reason, were giving my family and me a tour of their boat. I'm thirsty, I remember saying, and my mother quickly shushed me. Why are you shushing me? I asked, and she whispered, Because they might offer to get you something to drink.
Now at the time, I failed to appreciate her logic. But in hindsight, I realize it was an important lesson: announcing every physiological need just isn't good manners, and after a certain age, it's not cute anymore. Aside from demonstrating a lack of restraint, you may cause others to feel obligated to tend to your problem. Adults don't typically walk into work meetings, flop down and whine "I'm hungry!" or "I'm tired!", no matter how true these statements might be. Not only do you keep it to yourself, but you try not to act too excited when they wheel in the coffee and doughnuts and bagels.
So what's the problem with all of this restraint? Mainly, it's that we've gotten so used to suppressing all these needs that we may actually become poorer at recognizing them. So on a given afternoon, you may feel that your life is unraveling, but all you really need is some damn food. Or a nap.
Different people – kids and adults alike – may have differing sensitivities to any of these physiological elements.
Food: By my mid-twenties, I had learned that if I go too long without food and my blood sugar plummets, even casual passersby may not escape my wrath. My nine-year-old has demonstrated complete personality transplant after a good meal.
Rest: If my husband doesn't meet a minimum threshold of sleep, he "disassembles" (as my mother-in-law would say), developing a cross-eyed, crazed look and functioning at a startingly low cognitive level. With our kids, we've tried not to be too compulsive about naps and bedtimes, but if we find ourselves stunned by their bad behavior, more often than not we'll look at the clock and admit Well, it is 10:30 at night, what'd we expect?
Exercise: My former day care provider used to talk about physical activity "getting the vinegar out" of kids. I don't know exactly what the reference is, but somehow the phrase fits. When my daughter starts literally climbing the walls, draping herself over railings, twisting herself into a pretzel, and creating general chaos, running her around outside seems to fix everything.
Drink: When my oldest son turns scarlet and surly in the summertime heat, it's time to pump liquids into him.
Speaking of heat, I'm finding that environmental temperature generally affects mood significantly. My two younger kids, who (combined) have the body fat of a pat of butter, get cold very easily, developing a grotesque purple-lip-liner look. Even all bundled up this winter, when we walk out of our wind tunnel of a doorway each morning, my youngest routinely starts crying.
Cute little acronyms like FRED and SELF don't cover every physiological condition known to affect behavior, but they're certainly a launching pad for self-diagnosis. Our whole family has used FRED (preferred slightly over SELF) to successfully problem-solve when we feel grumpy, anxious, or generally out-of-sorts. By eliminating the "horses" first, we haven't yet had to search for a zebra.