Our eldest had a meltdown the other day because we wanted him to put away his LEGO’s, that were on the kitchen table, so we could have supper. First, he protested, then he bartered, then he out right refused. He ended up running up to his room, crying, yelling and stomping his feet. My husband looked at me and asked “now, what do I do? Do I go see him or …..?” I said (annoyingly, I’m sure), “well this is one of those situations that behaviourists and attachment theorists would disagree about. Behaviourist would say to ignore the behaviour because if you acknowledge it, you are sending the message that the behaviour is acceptable. On one hand this is true, but why is he acting this way? He’s upset because he’s having fun and we’re stopping him from playing. Those feelings are perfectly valid. His reaction to run off on his own, is a common and somewhat healthy coping strategy. He likely does want to reconnect with us, so what I would do is go upstairs and say ‘I can see your really mad. I know it’s not fun to stop playing for supper’ and then go from there, but then the LEGO’s still have to go away for supper.”
Now in this case my son was so upset that I chose to model graciousness and I cleaned up the LEGO’s myself. Why did I choose this option, this time? Because having another battle about cleaning up was not going to achieve anything. If he was not so upset, I would have tried to encourage him to tidy them up himself. He cleans his toys up all the time, so I choose when to encourage this. It is a personal choice based on your family values and your child’s temperament and current emotional state. I could tell that the issue was not that he simply did not want to clean up but that he did not want to stop playing for supper.
Jean Piaget said “play is the work of childhood.”
Albert Einstein said “play is the highest form of research.”
We can get so focused on trying to get our children to “behave” that we forget they are communicating with us. It might not be the way we want them to express themselves but children are still learning effective communication skills. Is the goal to force them to pick up their LEGO’s and stop crying? Or is the goal to help validate their feelings and support their emotional growth, while encouraging them to learn healthy and effective coping strategies?
Behaviour is Communication
I try not to see behaviour as defiant but as communication; he’s communicating how he feels. Our job is not to punish him for his reaction to his feelings, but to help him find more effective ways to negotiate his emotions and communicate his needs. When we punish, we use fear to achieve compliance and obedience. Not a parenting strategy I’m personally comfortable with. We also send the message that “your big feelings are unacceptable around me. I will not support you when you need me the most.” This teaches children to stuff down their feelings in order to please the caregiver and isolate themselves in times of distress, instead of seeking help. This is at the core of many physical and mental health issues, and it is why children behave certain ways with some people and not with others. With people who validate children’s feelings and try not to change them, children feel safe to express their thoughts and emotions. That’s when the “strict” parent says, “well he only acts like that around you because you give in to him.” “Are you trying to say ‘he feels safe to express his emotions freely around me because I validate how he feels and try and support him as he learns about how emotions effect his body, mind and behaviour?’ Then yes, that’s what I’m doing. It works great!”
Here are 5 steps to help you respond to your child’s meltdowns:
Step 1: Empathize
“Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for living well, and for professional success. And its key to preventing bullying and many other forms of cruelty.” Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Help your child to acknowledge their feelings; “you seem really angry right now” this helps your child to learn how to express their feelings with verbal language. I don’t care for the expression “use your words” because we would never say this to an adult. If an adult was having difficulty expressing themselves verbally, we would ask them to “tell me what’s going on.” With my child, I say “can you tell me how your feeling right now?”
Even beyond that, I’ve started to ask this, during calm times, as a point of inquiry, instead of the common questions I used to ask, such as, “what does that make you think about?” or “how did you do that?” Which did not elicit a lot of conversation from my child. When I lead with emotions, he opens up so much more easily and the language comes more freely. An example of this is: driving in the car, my son says “look mommy, horses!” Now I would have said before “what were they doing?” A lot of people will say “what colours are the horses?” or “how many horses were there?” Instead I now say “how do the horses make you feel?” He often will say “happy” and then explain why the horses make him happy. Practicing strategies when you are calm help to create pathways of behaviour in the brain, so when your child is upset, their brain will be more comfortable to use the new strategy as it has become familiar with it during times of joy and calmness as well.
Step 2: Identify
Help your child to identify the sensations in their body “how does it feel to be angry? Where do you feel it? Is it in your chest, your tummy? What does that feel like?” If they can’t express these thoughts yet, talk about how you feel when you are mad “when I’m mad, it feels like there is a fire in my chest.” At first my son would get frustrated and say “I don’t know how it feels, I just feel angry.” This type of reaction could cause a parent to feel disheartened with the strategy and say “it’s not working, he won’t tell me how he feels.” But that is not really the goal. The goal is to support your child as they learn to navigate the emotional sensations and thoughts that they experience everyday and learn how those feelings can effect their behaviour. This is called the mind-body-behaviour connection and it is the premise of many types of therapies. When we do not validate children’s feelings and try to brush them off as being petty, entitled, too sensitive or miniscule, unworthy of upset, we actually begin to encourage a disconnect between these areas. The communication between these areas is the key to self-regulation so although our child may stop “acting out,” they are actually reducing their long term ability to manage emotions and regulate behaviour. It’s not really self-regulation, it’s fear.
Step 3: Offer Comfort
Then you can try asking if your child would like a hug. This not only provides a very natural co-regulation strategy, but it lets the child know you are not mad at them. If you are currently transitioning to a more responsive, gentler approach, this part may be crucial to change the previous patterns of your interactions. Your child will likely still expect you to respond with anger, disappointment, frustration, but when you demonstrate acceptance and understanding, you may see a look of shock, relief and comfort on your child’s face. People sometimes worry that if we offer comfort when children are upset, we are saying ‘I accept your behaviour.’ What we are really saying is ‘I accept your emotions and I am here to support you.’
Step 4: Discuss
Now you can try asking your child if they want to talk about what happened that got them so upset. If they are calm, you can help them see if there were some choices they made that weren’t very helpful to solving their issue. “I know you were really angry about putting your LEGO’s away but slamming your door is not a great strategy. The door could break and it is very loud and kind of scary.” At this point people often insert a punishment or some sort of shame or guilt inducing statement. Stop yourself, watch your child’s face when you do not condemn them and you accept their mistake. Once again you will see a massive sense of relief, comfort and genuine remorse. If you had punished them or condemned them, they may have become defensive and angry again. Punishment has been proven to, at times, elicit temporary compliance, but overtime, self-regulation and mental health suffers.
Step 5: Strategize
Then discuss strategies for processing painful feelings, “so next time you are frustrated, what do you think you could do instead?” If they are still upset then you can say “It is okay to be angry. I get angry too sometimes. Would you like my help to calm down?” If they say yes, then you can ask “what do you think would help you to calm down right now?” If they are unable to strategize on their own, you can offer suggestions- yoga, mindfulness, reading a book together, cuddling, a walk, sensory exploration, outdoor play. We made a book called “what I can do when I’m upset” it has all kinds of great strategies with pictures of my son actually doing the calming techniques. He loves it and often says, when he is upset, “I know, I can go get my book.” You can have all these calming things in a relaxation corner/tent. This often helps parents make the transition from time-out to time-in. If your child says they do not want your help to calm down, then let them know “ok, I see you need your space right now. Your calming corner is over there if you want to use it. I’m going to go back to the kitchen. Come get me if you need me (or I’ll be up to check on you in a bit).” It is very important not to force a calming strategy. It should never be a requirement to return to the family.
The LEGO Resolution
In our situation with the LEGO’s my son came down after my husband went up. I heard him upstairs saying to my husband “guess what? I got an idea! How about I can clean up my LEGO’s and then we have supper and then I can play with my LEGO’s again?! And we can build it together!” When he came down and saw that I had cleaned them up for him, he said “Mom, you cleaned up all my LEGO’s? Thank you so much! I’m sorry I was screaming.” I said “that’s okay. I know you were upset. I scream too sometimes when I’m upset. Maybe next time we can try talking about it first?” He said “hey, that’s a great idea!”
This transformation has taken 6 months. In the last month or so, I have noticed a remarkable difference in my son’s self-regulation skills and his ability to articulate his feelings and his needs. I think a lot of it has been a result of typical development but I do think part of the reason my son has become so articulate about his feelings and his needs, as well as so willing to resolve an issue, is because I have built back our trust through using this method to respond to his emotional outbursts. Try it and see what happens with your family!
Advantages of this Approach
NO MORE FIGHTING
You are no longer fighting with your children. Your life is not filled with battles, it is filled with emotional conversations, negotiations and bonding experiences. You are modelling and encouraging emotional competence and resiliency, instead of fear, obedience, manipulation, isolation and resentment.
NO MORE REWARDS
You do not have to purchase anymore items as bribary. Actually buying your child something just because you want to, and not with the intention of encouraging socially acceptable behaviour, is surprisingly rewarding. Also, saying “not today” or “only one” is also rewarding and not as scary because you know none of this is a bartering game. An older child who is constantly rewarded for socially acceptable behaviour will come to say “hey, I listened the whole time we were at the zoo. Don’t I get to a toy now?” and then we foolishly call them “entitled.” By expecting certain behaviours from children just because we promise them a reward or threaten to not give them a reward just sets everyone up for failure. Children will get upset, they will whine, and run ahead of you and ask for 1000 things and that is just because some places are over stimulating. You will notice that your child is less likely to act like this while going for a walk in the forest or running through a grassy field. I say this as a reformed rewarder. The day I stopped all rewards, is the day my house began to change for the better. My eldest’s emotional outbursts went from 8-10 a day to a couple a month. It took about two weeks to really see a change but when I did it was dramatic. I also found it so much easier to stay calm as a parent without the rewards. Trying to manipulate my child’s into behaving a certain way through bribary always made me feel uncomfortable. I now use empathy, incentives and choices instead.
NO MORE PUNISHMENTS
Inflicting discomfort, pain, sadness or restricting movement is not a fun thing for a parent to do. If you are someone who enjoys punishing your child, you should probably explore that with a therapist. For most people, these things are stressful and traumatic. It is painful to see our child struggling and punishment just increases everyone’s level of anxiety and upset. Struggling to keep a child on a chair, a step, in a room or in a corner is not healthy for anyone. It is emotionally exhausting for the child and the parent and brings both parties into a high stress, low reason state of mind. Punishing our own children will often bring up feelings of trauma from our own childhood (even if you do not consider yourself to have a traumatic childhood). We tend to use similar strategies to our parents, once we cross the threshold into anger. This then intensifies the emotions on both sides because in our attempt to control the situation, we unintentionally trigger ourselves. If you are not trying to change anything, but you are just holding space for your child while they experience their emotions, the intensity that causes the triggers cease to exist.
NO MORE PARENT TIME OUTS
In the beginning of our change, I still needed mommy time outs and was not sure how to cope with this because I wanted to start being there for my son during his emotional outbursts but then I also needed a few minutes to calm myself down, or I often had a hard time not expressing how upset I was. I saw my own anger as a huge factor in our negative interactions and I knew I needed to change that. The funny thing is, once I really grasped the concept of trust over obedience, empathy over behaviour modification, understanding over teaching, my parent anger ceased to exist all on its own. I get annoyed with things but my ability to keep my child’s behaviour in perspective has allowed me to not be triggered by it. My reaction was a huge part of why emotions intensified and things escalated. It is a benefit I did not foresee with this change, but it is one of the most influential. You will need to forgive yourself too, if you have been like me and lost your patience before. This article can be quite transformative in alleviating guilt and moving forward with a positive outlook.
If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086
model graciousness: Model Graciousness- https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/
punish: Punitive Damages- https://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/punishment.htm
physical and mental health issues: Keeping Your Emotions Bottled Up Could Kill You- https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/timi-gustafson/bottling-up-negative-emotions_b_5056433.html
children feel safe to express how they feel: Does Responsive Parenting Make Children “Spoiled”?- https://responsiveparentingblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/29/does-responsive-parenting-make-children-spoiled/
Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education: How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children- https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-mcc/files/empathy.pdf
we would never say this to an adult: We Need to Talk About Childism- http://happinessishereblog.com/2016/08/we-need-to-talk-about-childism/
create pathways of behaviour: Plasticity in the Brain- http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cl/d_07_cl_tra/d_07_cl_tra.html
mind-body-behaviour connection: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection: Therapeutic Practices and Techniques- https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/exploring-the-mind-body-connection-therapeutic.pdf?sfvrsn=13
co-regulation: Co-Regulation From Birth Through Young Adulthood: A Practice Brief – http://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf
time-out to time-in: More Effective Than Time-Out: Time-In- https://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/How_To_Transform_Your_Time-Outs_To_Time-Ins
We tend to use similar strategies to our parents: The Past Is Present: The Impact of Your Childhood Experiences on How You Parent Today- https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/339-the-past-is-present-the-impact-of-your-childhood-experiences-on-how-you-parent-today
parent anger : What Helped Me Become a Calmer Mom and Be Gentle with My Child Even if I’m Angry -https://playfulnotes.com/what-helped-me-become-a-calm-mom/
article: You Are Not a Peaceful Parenting Failure- https://raisingwildflowerkids.com/2018/06/02/you-are-not-a-peaceful-parenting-failure/