Think of a time recently when your child was upset, maybe really upset. What he was upset about wasn’t a major life loss, or a safety issue. Rather, he was just very displeased about something, for example, he wanted the green one instead of the yellow one. Or he was really excited about going to the museum but you just found out that it’s closed. Or you promised to bring him something from your trip but you sadly forgot. Really, the situations that can cause upset are limitless—the key component is that your child is upset, and you’ve tried and been unsuccessful at talking things through. You may or may not care deeply about your child’s complaint, but you definitely care about them, and you have tried to help them calm down, but your reason, logic, reassurance, perspective or compromise offerings haven’t been successful. So what’s left?
60-40-0. Use this equation as a guide for how you are going to interact for the next few minutes. (*) Take a deep breath (always a good idea in most any parenting situation) and begin to nonverbally send a message that 60% of your energy is compassion. Allow your body to slump a little. Put a compassionate expression on your face. Mine includes knitting my eyebrows together and poking my lips out a little with a slight downturn—but you do what’s normal for you. It’s generally better not to speak, but if you must, make little noncommittal mmm-mmms and the like. I often find that I tip my head to one side and nod as well. Spend a moment channeling compassion towards your child for the emotions that they are feeling.
After the first few seconds of channeling compassion, make sure that your non-verbal communication demonstrates that 40% of your energy is… bored. Yes, bored. You’re mostly compassionate, but really, you are also pretty bored with this tantrum, these behaviors, this fit… the Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka meme above isn’t quite perfect, but hopefully you get the drift. Your level of interest in the fit starts to decrease steadily. To be clear, don’t express snark, provocation, or teasing, as those will totally backfire. Just… don’t be super interested.
And the last bit of your energy—precisely 0%, is “not getting sucked in.” Your child is having this tantrum. It’s his. The feelings that provoked the tantrum? Also his. You have tried to help him, but he wasn’t ready or able to accept the help. So… your job is to be compassionately present, while not letting his feelings nor his management of those feelings trigger you to react with your own emotions. (**)
* If the tantrums are not measured in minutes, please consider individualized advice from a professional—an article isn’t enough support.
** It’s okay to move in and out of “presence,” too, for example after a couple of minutes you might say “I can tell you are really feeling upset about this. I’m sorry it’s so hard. I’m going to step out of here for a minute but will come back to check on you shortly.”
Although Gavin de Becker’s book Protecting the Gift is a most uncomfortable read, I recommend it to parents whenever discussions of child safety come up. One of the many practical pieces of advice is how to tell when your child is ready to be left alone–ready to play a major role in assuring their own safety. Can you answer yes to all of the questions below?
The Test of Twelve
- Does your child know how to honor his feelings? If someone makes him uncomfortable, that’s an important signal.
- Are you as the parent strong enough to hear about any experience your child has had, no matter how unpleasant?
- Does your child know it’s okay to rebuff and defy adults?
- Does your child know it’s okay to be assertive?
- Does your child know how to ask for assistance or help?
- Does your child know how to choose who to ask? For example, he should look for a woman to help him.
- Does your child know how to describe his peril?
- Does your child know it’s okay to strike, even to injure, someone if he believes he is in danger, and that you’ll support any action he takes as a result of feeling uncomfortable or afraid?
- Does your child know it’s okay to make noise, to scream, to yell, to run?
- Does your child know that if someone ever tries to force him to go somewhere, what he screams should include, ”This is not my father”? Onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are likely to assume the adult is a parent.
- Does your child know that if someone says, ”Don’t yell,” the thing to do is yell? The corollary is if someone says, ”Don’t tell,” the thing to do is tell.
- Does your child know to fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view with someone he doesn’t know, and particularly to resist going anywhere with someone who tries to persuade him?
Like ice cream comes in different flavors, I, too, come in different versions of myself.
When I have slept well and enough, eaten healthfully, gotten exercise and happy time with loved ones, and don’t have big worries hanging over my head, I am generally a good version of myself. I’m more patient and peaceful, I laugh more, care less about small stuff, and am more generous with myself and those around me.
However, when those conditions aren’t met, I am more likely to be the grouchy version, or the inflexible version, or the anxious version of myself. Those traits (grouchiness, inflexibility, anxiety) are always in me, but when I am at my best, they just don’t show up in quantities that are a problem. But when I’m not at my best, my unique human imperfections are more evident, more frequent, and more annoying to those around me (so I’m told. ;^) )
Each of us has a unique set of human imperfections, but the size and severity of those traits are always affected by our overall wellness. For this reason, when parents focus on their child’s problem behaviors, it is sometimes more helpful to steer them towards ways to help that child be the best possible version of themselves.
If you have noticed that your child is exhibiting more unwanted traits lately, start addressing the problem by focusing on general well-being first. How is sleep? Healthy foods, exercise, drinking water? Would they benefit from some extra connection time with you? How is school? What might be stressing your child out? Are they sad or worried about something?
If we can reduce the stressors (whether physical, situational, relational, or psychological) we’ll also likely trigger the happy side effect of reducing the unwanted behaviors. So the next time you aren’t pleased with certain behaviors, remind yourself to also focus on increasing your child’s overall wellness. Bringing out the best version of your child (or yourself) is a wonderful way to get back to the smoother, happier path.
The Arc of the Tantrum video has been hugely popular, so I’ve made another one. This one is on a topic I speak about in various ways all the time: Behavior is Communication. Click below for 2 minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of coaching on understanding your child’s misbehavior. (and see directly below for a rudimentary transcript.)
Behavior is Communication, notes from the video:
- Imagine that your child’s misbehavior is a misguided attempt at fulfilling an unmet need.
- A few examples of typical unmet needs: power, attention, overwhelm, intense engagement. (Intense engagement: that extra level of attention children need from us, and they can get it from us in positive or negative ways, ie: “OH! I’m SO proud of you!” versus “WHAT are you DOING!?”) They want the positive intensity, and of course it’s healthier, but they will settle for the negative because kids desperately need doses of that intensity from their parents.
- We can learn to translate our kids’ misbehavior—translate what you see them doing, and see if you can identify what the unmet need is that drives that behavior—what’s underneath it, behind it, driving that misbehavior. This frees you up to respond to the need behind the misbehavior, instead of simply reacting to that behavior.
- When parents can identify the unmet need, we can (a) help them get their needs met better, and (b) minimize the unwanted behavior without having to resort to control or punishment techniques, which makes the parent-child relationship a little easier, smoother, and better.
- So that’s that: behavior as communication: learn to translate your child’s behaviors, identify potential unmet needs, and respond to those needs instead of the (symptomatic) behavior.
My house is quiet. I have a pot of stew on the stove that will feed my husband and me suppers most of the week. All the laundry is clean and put away and I’ve had an hour to play on the computer with no particular purpose. When I finish writing this essay I will read myself to sleep. I’ve talked to both grown daughters and had a happy IM conversation with a grand daughter this evening. As much as is possible in an uncertain world, I feel happy about where they are in their lives and unworried about their well-being. There is no crisis. No urgency.
I remember when the pace of my life was very different, so fast I could barely stop for breath between the needs for homework help, listening, limits, dance tights without a rip in the toe, decisions about everything every minute, and dishes that piled up dirty as soon as they were washed. And there was my professional life, growing in fits and starts. the idea of “life work balance” made me laugh. One afternoon during that crazy time, my girls and I walked up the hill to the library and I found a book which gave me a story that let me catch my breath. It even predicted the calmer life I’m living now. I don’t remember the title of this book, but it was the story of the seasons on a mid western farm.
In the spring everything is fresh and hopeful and busy as the last of the snow melts and the family prepares the ground and plants the crops. They work hard in spring, but they play too. There is time to pick flowers for the table, sing over the dishes, admire a rainbow. Then summer comes and the urgency of work overwhelms the family. Everyone works from dawn to dusk, and has to. There is just so much to do to keep the crops growing, and there are no guarantees. A storm can destroy a crop in an afternoon. Or it might not rain at all. Uncertainty and urgency fill every heart and every moment. Finally, the heat begins to ease off. The first crop comes in, then the next. The family is able to enjoy its harvest, to rest on Sunday afternoon, to take time for board game at the table or a roll in the leaves. At last all the crops are in and the snow begins to fall. The days are short and the evenings long and quiet, and the family sits by the fire and mends tools worn down over the summer, tells stories from that busy season, and remembers.
That day at the library it hit me between the eyes that my young mother life phase was like summer on the farm. And like summer, it was just a season, to be negotiated as gracefully as possible, lived as wisely as possible. It was just a season, a hard, rich, fast paced season, which would pass. And it has. I’m in the middle of my autumn now, crops pretty much in, winter coming but not yet. I watch my daughters buy school supplies, fix lunches, worry about jobs, and I remember when that was me. Or I see a young mother in the grocery store with a toddler in full tantrum and an cart full of melting food and I want to tell her, “Summer is just a season. Summer passes. The harvest comes in.”
Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individuals & couples. Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still. I asked her to write today’s post after she told me this story in person (after a conversation in which it was obvious that I was feeling very “summery” (as I now think of it.) Victoria has been featured on this blog once before, on helping children grieve. If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 512-458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh AT aol DOT com.
Even though their bodies may look mature, a teenager’s brain is not. They don’t always have the skills or ability to use words to describe what is going on internally. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t done growing yet. That’s the part of the brain where we can see long-range consequences, for example—something that teenagers are famously bad at. But despite the fact that they aren’t fully “cooked” yet, teenagers still need plenty of opportunities to practice their developing independence. But the challenge is that your teenager probably isn’t going to tell you that they want and need that independence in ways that will inspire you to give it to them. Instead, teenagers are more likely to argue, defy, or jump without asking (or thinking.)
Whether they ask nicely or not, a parent who learns how to “translate” teenage behavior will be able to understand and respond in ways that are more effective and more loving. So here are three examples of typical teenage behavior, translated!
What your teenager is doing:
Eye rolling, shoulder shrugging, or giving one word answers: fine; dunno; whatever.
What it means:
“I need to feel less like a child. This kind of attitude/body language makes me feel more in charge and less under YOUR control. Plus, it puts space between us, which sometimes helps me to feel more grownup. But please don’t move away from me all the time because I still really need you. Sometimes this behavior is directly related to something that you are doing and sometimes it is not.
What they need:
Your teenager needs age-appropriate opportunities to feel in charge of his/her self, time, activities, choices, surroundings, and more. She or he needs to still have plenty of opportunities to be close to you, but also to have increasing control over how/when that happens. Your teenager needs to know that you really, really see that am changing and growing—and especially that they are capable and trustworthy.
What your teenager is doing:
Staying up too late on Facebook/Skype/texting.
What it means/what they need:
Teenagers are developing skills now that they will need their entire lives. Balancing multiple priorities is one of those important skills. Sleep is important, but social relationships are too. Your children will have to balance self-care and responsibility with fun and friends their whole lives. If you are trying to control them, or force them to adopt healthy habits, you may very well be standing in the way of the lessons they need to learn. Focus instead on helping them to tune in to their body’s signals for sleep and the consequences that come from ignoring those signals! Additionally, teenagers need you to give them the space now, when the stakes are somewhat limited, to experiment, fail, succeed, suffer consequences, and reap rewards. That’s how they will learn the lessons that will shape their future behavior into healthy habits. (and yes, they do still need some support and possibly reminders about healthy limits, and they definitely need consistent expectations whether or not they went to sleep on time.)
What your teenager is doing:
Wearing headphones All The Time. When we are out as a family together, my teenager walks at a distance from us, sits at a separate table, or just asks if for permission to do “x” all alone.
What it means/what they need:
This is actually very similar to #1. The difference is that this child is withdrawing in a less confrontative way, but the general meaning and need is the same. Teens need opportunities to be independent and to metaphorically stretch their own limits and identities. It’s very hard for them to do this, to feel bigger, when they are surrounded by their immediate family. (To illustrate—have you ever noticed yourself falling in to old roles when you go back home? It’s hard to not be who you used to be when surrounded by family.)
There are many, many different messages that our children’s behaviors can be sending, but the need for age-appropriate power and control are almost always an influence for teenagers.
*Photo cropped & reprinted under creative commons license from this source.
A mom recently shared with me a handy mnemonic that reminds you what to do when your child is having a strong emotional reaction. The process comes from the same philosophies that I follow and teach, but improves upon them by being simple and easy to remember!
We know the most important thing to do when our child is upset is to keep or regain our own peacefulness, but once you’ve done that, how best to respond to your child? The easy-to-remember hint: Feel, felt, found.
“Feel” reminds us to begin by reflecting: say out loud what you see, with empathy and warm, non-verbal body language that tells your child that you see and understand what they are feeling. It might sound like:
• “I can tell that you are feeling upset.”
• “Oh, gosh, I can really see that you are feeling angry about this.”
• “Whew, that really scared you, didn’t it!”
“Felt” represents your opportunity to relate to your child in this emotional and sensitive moment, and to let them know you relate to them and what they are experiencing. The sensation of being ‘felt’ and heard and understood is one of the best feelings there is, so be sure to really be present and connected in this. It might sound like:
• “I have felt the same way.”
• “I feel upset when I can’t have my way sometimes, too!”
• “Once, I had to do that too, and I remember it felt really scary.”
“Found” finally brings the moment that parents so often yearn for–the opportunity to share your experience and wisdom with your child–your chance to teach, to guide, to educate! It might sound like:
• “Can I share what I’ve found that helps me deal with this?” (I love for parents to ask for permission to give advice.)
• “I’ve found that xyz really makes me feel better.”
• “I’ve found that xyz makes the problems seem smaller/happen less frequently.”
An important part of healthy relationships is the sense that the other person respects your subjective experience–responding with ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ in those difficult moments is an effective way to assure that you are doing that for your child. Thanks, smart Mama who shared—this handy, simple, way to remember this is a help for us all!
There are several articles, and one video, on this blog created specifically to help parents whose children are (or may soon be) dealing with grief and loss. They are collected below for easy reading.
- Children and Funerals
- Helping Children Grieve
- Book recs on grief/loss for kids
- Talking with children about tragedies in the news
- Video: Talking with young children about death
Please feel free to contact me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around grief and loss, or however you think I can help.