I am thrilled to have Nicole Schwarz, parenting coach and writer of Imperfect Families.com, as a guest poster on my blog today. I often share Nicole’s articles on my social media channels, as so much of what she writes truly resonates with me. In today’s post, she explores reasons behind challenging behaviour, and appropriate ways to respond during your child’s heated moments.
The swift kick to your shin caught you off guard.
You were just trying to help.
Apparently, your five-year-old didn’t get the memo.
“Settle down!” you try to persuade him.
But it’s no use. He’s melting down in front of you, continuing to kick anything in his path.
Glancing at the clock, you’re going to be late for preschool again today. Why are mornings so hard?
Physical aggression, yelling, and whining are triggering events for parents.
Your internal alarm sounds: “This behavior needs to stop! Immediately!”
In a panic, we start giving threats, bribes, or consequences when our kids don’t “calm down” or comply with a request.
It’s an overwhelming experience for everyone.
However, if you’re willing to pause, take a deep breath, and look past the behavior, you will find big thoughts, feelings, and needs hiding behind those kicking feet.
It’s normal to want to avoid these situations altogether. Unfortunately, when we shut down the behavior, we miss the bigger picture.
Instead of looking for ways to stop aggressive behaviors and end tantrums, your job is to enter into the discomfort with your child.
You can start to think about the factors that led up to this event. Who was in the room? What was said? Was my child feeling overstimulated? Were they feeling tired? Hungry?
You can explore the situation from your child’s perspective. What might they have been thinking? Then, putting yourself in their shoes, how would you feel if this happened to you?
Armed with this information, you begin to tune in to what your child needs and how you can best support them.
Even if you don’t agree, or don’t completely understand, your child needs you to step in and provide structure and stability when they are feeling out of control.
Do they need to feel heard? Respond with empathy. “It’s not fair that we have to leave now; you didn’t get much time to play.”
Do they need to reconnect with you? Pull them close. “Today has been really hard. We forgot to have our super-special snuggle time! Come here, let’s do it now.”
Do they need a boundary? Set a limit with kindness. “I can see that your feet have a lot of kicking today. I’m going to move so you don’t kick me.”
Do they need an alternative? Teach coping skills and calming strategies, or problem solve together. “Remember we practiced taking three big breaths?”
But sometimes, you still feel stuck.
Checking Your Expectations
Maybe you feel that a child “should” be able to manage these big emotions by now. Or, they “should” be able to express what they are feeling with words, not actions.
After all, they did it last week. Or yesterday. Or five minutes ago.
It’s hard to wait for our children to mature, to wait for self-regulation to kick in. Unfortunately, there is no rushing this process.
As your children grow, you will see glimpses of what’s to come. They will happily share a toy, problem-solve with a friend, or leave a play date without making a peep. And while these are magical moments, it’s not a sign that your child is able to do these things 100% of the time.
The younger the child, the more help and support they will need from you. As your child grows, they will be able to do more independently, but your role will still be vital. Especially when they are flooded with big emotions.
Evaluating your expectations and seeing past the physical behaviors, you can move your child back to a place of safety and calm.
Putting It into Practice
Squatting down on the floor, you extend your arms to your child.
“School mornings are hard. It’s sad to say ‘good-bye’ to mommy,” you say empathetically.
He scoots a little closer to you, still cautious.
“I can see your legs kicking, and I bet you’re feeling a little sad too.”
He’s quiet now.
“How many hugs do you need today?” you ask, referring to a good-bye ritual you’ve done in the past.
“Five!” he replies, climbing into your lap to snuggle.
You smile. Even though you still had to go through the meltdown, your child is learning.
With your help, he’s making connections between thoughts and feelings, and realizing that there are other options besides kicking when he feels upset.
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This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.