Getting over it

September 9, 2013

My child was playing football with his friend in the street. They’d only been out there a few minutes, but it was time to go to his swimming lesson. When I announced this my child objected strongly, saying he hadn’t had a chance to score a goal. I said something to the effect that this was unfortunate, but we had to go now. At this he started screaming and crying. “I want to score a goal!”

It crossed my mind to let him score a goal quickly, but I decided against this. It might not happen quickly, it might not really be the goal he’s upset about anyway. And besides, he needs to learn to deal with disappointments, things not always going his way. Though seemingly important to him, in that moment, it was a relatively minor thing, so seemed like a good chance to practice feeling those emotions, allowing them to run their course, then moving on.

And that’s exactly what he did.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling very patient that morning. I was irritated by the fuss he was making. I knew I needed to validate his feelings, say something sympathetic, but just didn’t feel able to. The wrong words kept coming into my head. So I decided to just keep quiet, don’t speak.

I glanced at him in the rear view mirror as we drove to the pool. He’d stopped crying, but he looked so hurt and sad. I’ll have to say something, maybe have a hug with him when we get there, I thought.

But then half way there he suddenly piped up. Just started chatting to me in his usual chirpy way, as if nothing had happened.

My silence had been enough. Although no words of validation or sympathy had been spoken, neither had any of disapproval or anger. He had been allowed the space to experience his feelings without judgement, scorn, disapproval, or any attempts to persuade him to feel differently. He had been allowed to cry and express his feelings. This was all he needed.

After all the times I’ve experienced this type of scenario, I’m still surprised at just how quickly he moves on. There was really no need for me to worry about whether or not I needed to let him have what he wanted, no need to get upset or annoyed or worked up about it. It wasn’t a catastrophe, just a brief moment of frustration for my child, one of many life will throw at him.

thoughtful boySome might interpret his ability to get over it so quickly as an indicator that he wasn’t really upset in the first place. But this seems a very negative attitude, a very low opinion of children’s natures. Why would he pretend to be upset when he wasn’t? Because he wanted to manipulate me into letting him have what he wanted? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Children’s feelings are real to them. It doesn’t matter how silly they might seem to us as adults. And we need to let them be. Crying is not bad behaviour.

He didn’t get what he wanted anyway, so I don’t think my failure to scold or reprimand him for his behaviour was indulgent. Just respectful. Respectful of his feelings, of his age, and of his journey on the path to emotional regulation.


Triggers

July 1, 2012

Crying over spilt milk? A broken stick? The fact that you cut the toast straight across instead of diagonally? Something that seems to you utterly ridiculous and unimportant?

Possibly. Probably not. Probably really crying about something else, more important, bigger, deeper. The spilt milk was just a trigger.

My child sometimes appears to get upset about something small, seemingly petty, then get really upset, disproportionately upset. Then I know there’s probably something bigger that’s bothering him. It might have been bothering him for some time. Maybe he couldn’t articulate it, maybe he thought he was OK about it. It’s probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time. The broken stick, or the ball not rolling in the right direction was just the final straw, the trigger. Then, once allowing those pent-up emotions to come out it’s a bit like a volcano that’s been waiting to erupt.

Adults do it too. Can you remember ever having a complete meltdown just because you dropped something?  That final thing that just tipped you over the edge? But you probably realised it wasn’t just the dropping something that you were crying about.

My child doesn’t always seem to realise this. So if I say, “I don’t think you’re really crying just about the stick” he becomes more upset and angry. “I am! I really wanted to play with that stick!” But sometimes, if I know what’s bothering him, it can help. It’s just a matter of feeling my way. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that Granny & Grandad are leaving today”. If I’m right this can allow my child to admit and recognise these feelings, and then of course cry even more. But if I don’t know what’s bothering him, that’s OK too. Maybe he’s just tired and hungry after all. There’s not always really a need to say anything at all. He just needs me to be there for him,  and allow him to have a good cry so he can heal and move on.

My biggest temptation is usually to try to fix things, to say things that will make him feel better. “Never mind, we’ll see Granny and Grandad again soon”. But this isn’t what he needs, it isn’t helpful. He just needs me to validate his feelings and let him know they’re OK.  Another pitfall is to try to distract, cheer up, or worse, belittle or dismiss his feelings, not recognising that there’s more to it than just a broken stick.  Distractions may work in the short-term (although the older he gets the less likely this is), but it’s really just a delay tactic, and doesn’t allow him the time to fully deal with his feelings. It’s like putting a lid on a bubbling saucepan. If there’s something bubbling away under the surface it has to overflow eventually. Better to get it all out at once, in one big storm, than have a day of puzzling, difficult, disconnected behaviour.

Finally, I never send him away to cry, or threaten or bribe him to stop crying. The crying is annoying, but too often it gets treated as bad behaviour. When we threaten children into silence we are telling them that we don’t accept their feelings, and teach them to suppress them. When we ignore them we are telling them we don’t care.  This is not what they want to hear, and probably not really what we want to say.

Yes, I want him to stop crying, but the quickest way is always to allow things to run their course. When he’s finished he’s refreshed, and we’re connected, and both ready to move on. Happily.


How do you deal with tantrums?

January 6, 2012

Every parent dislikes the dreaded tantrum, but the question of how to respond to a tantrum seems to be somewhat divided.

Many, including some child psychologists and writers, advise that ignoring tantrums is the best way to stop them, on the grounds that children use tantrums to try to get their own way, and will stop having them if they realise they’re not working.  In her book, “What Every Parent Needs to Know“, Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, adds an extra element.  She writes that as well as this type of tantrum, which she calls a ‘little Nero tantrum’, there is what she calls a ‘distress tantrum’ in which the child is overwhelmed by their feelings, and needs your help.  She advises ignoring a ‘little Nero tantrum’ but comforting a ‘distress tantrum’.  She gives various tips for distinguishing between the two types, but warns, however, that a ‘little Nero tantrum’ can turn into a ‘distress tantrum’.   Hmmm.

Here is my problem with all of this.  First, if there’s a chance that the ‘little Nero’ or power struggle type tantrum can become a distress tantrum, then I’m inclined to hang around just in case.  The idea of leaving a child alone to deal with their feelings, though advocated by many, is not one that I buy into.  Young children have trouble dealing with strong feelings.  This is precisely why they have tantrums.  So how is leaving them alone going to help them resolve them?  Besides, I would never ignore my child when he is crying, for whatever reason, little Nero or not. When we ignore a child who is upset, angry, frustrated, we lose that vital ability to reconnect with them. Ignoring also shows disrespect for him and for his feelings, and does not model compassionate behaviour.   Ignoring just doesn’t seem right to me at all.

Secondly, if we go for the idea of a tantrum being used by a child to get their own way, this attributes to the child manipulative behaviour, which must lead to the conclusion that they are in fact not upset but just acting.  It would also attribute to them an ability to think in such a devious manner, which I think is somewhat questionable, especially whilst in the throes of a tantrum. It brings to mind the equally dubious message pedalled by some parenting gurus that babies have the capacity to manipulate, and this is a reason to fail to respond to their cries.

Now, granted, a child has the capacity to whine and cry and carry on about something that they want that we’ve said they can’t have.  A tantrum, however, indicates a loss of control on the part of the child, due to their being overwhelmed by their strong feelings.  OK, the power struggle may have been the trigger, but this just tells you that frustration and anger are  most likely the predominant feelings they’re experiencing. For me, a preceding power struggle is not a reason to ignore and fail to empathise with a child’s feelings.  It is very easy to empathise and validate whilst still not giving in to demands.  Even without the tantrum, I’d say this is the way to go.

Many fear that giving attention to tantrums gives attention to and encourages bad behaviour.  But the way I look at it is that if we ignore a child’s feelings we teach them to suppress them in order to gain back our attention.  I do not want to teach my child to suppress his feelings, and I certainly don’t want him to think I don’t care about his feelings.

I think the most important change in attitude that needs to be made is that of tantrums being bad behaviour that must be stopped.  Tantrums are an expression of extreme emotion.  The problem arises from our own dislike of the noise and fuss, and often from our consciousness of onlookers.  Once we have ceased to see tantrums as bad behaviour we can respond to our child with empathy and understanding, so even when they can’t get what they want, at least they feel listened to and understood – surely a better recipe for connectedness, and if you want the tantrums to stop, connectedness is the key.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. writes in his book, Playful Parenting, “Tantrums are children’s way of expressing and releasing frustration….If they can’t express their frustration, or if they are punished for having a tantrum, it continues to interfere with their happiness, their ability to cooperate, or their achievements……Children in the midst of a tantrum are flooded with feelings, and they feel out of control. They need a loving human being near them.”

When a child has a tantrum, whatever the cause, they are experiencing a frightening loss of control, and overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, hurt and powerlessness.  They need us to show that we are there for them,  that we are strong enough to handle it even it they aren’t, and so are providing that safe base they so desperately need at their times of crisis.


Don’t succumb to the pressure

November 21, 2011

When I became a parent one of the many ‘Congratulations’ cards I received was from an aunt with a sense of humour.  In it she wrote, ‘My advice – don’t take any advice’. I laughed at the time, but now I look back at this as the most sensible piece of advice I was ever given.

I’d say the single most important thing I’ve learnt as a mother is to trust my own instincts. To not allow myself to be talked into anything, pressured into anything, or made to behave in a way that is against my better judgement as to what’s best for my child.

But when we choose to parent our children in a way that is not the most commonly accepted way in today’s society, this can be hard, we can sometimes feel like we’re swimming against the tide, and this can lead to feelings of isolation and self doubt.

Overcoming these feelings, and learning to tune out negative thoughts – your own, and those you perceive others may have about you – is an important skill. 

Many parents admit that they feel embarrassed, or that everyone is watching them, when their child has a meltdown in public. It follows that how we handle our child in these situations is likely to be at least in part influenced by these feelings. – What is everyone thinking?  What does everyone think I should do?  Everyone thinks my child is badly behaved, or that I’m a bad parent.

These thoughts are not helpful to you in finding the most appropriate response for your child, particularly if, like me, you parent without the use of punishments, threats or bribes.  ‘What that child needs is a good smack’ – is a comment guaranteed to set your own adrenalin levels soaring, making you less able to be the calm, understanding parent your child needs you to be.  But this is at the extreme end.  Even without hearing comments like this, we still feel the pressure to be seen to be punishing our child for their perceived ‘bad behaviour’.   We must be seen to be doing something, and that something must be a widely recognised response.  Yet strangers, and even friends and family members, don’t have the level of understanding you do regarding the reasons for your child’s behaviour and their underlying needs, nor the knowledge you have as to what works best for them.

It takes practice and time, but once you have learnt to identify this type of perceived pressure as unhelpful and unimportant, you are able to pay more attention to your own thoughts and to your child, and better able to use your judgement regarding your child’s needs.

I think many parents allow themselves to be governed by this pressure in deciding how to parent, and sadly dismiss their own instincts as being the wrong ones.

I would be interested to hear how others feel on this subject.  Do you ever feel judged or pressured, and do you think this affects the way you parent?