We all want to raise children you are happy and thriving, but that looks different for different children. For instance, one of my children, without fail, will immediately shut down if I try to reprimand him in a stern or upset voice. If he is in a particularly bad mood, had a lousy day, or he and I have been bickering a lot, one angry word out of my mouth, and he is prone to an epic meltdown.
Yes, he is my sensitive child—always has been. He’s not a bad child, and he usually is well-behaved, but he is wired in such a way that anger or disapproval from his parents or other caretakers gets under his skin and hurts him in deep ways.
I have learned over the years that the best way to communicate with him—and even the best way to correct any misbehavior—is to talk to him as gently and warmly as possible, to get down on his level, put an arm around him, look him in the eye, and make sure he knows that we are in this together, and I genuinely care about him.
Usually, when I work on that, everything else flows from there—he listens to me, behaves, and is softer and kinder to those around him. I have learned that most of the anger and outbursts I have witnessed with him are the result of him feeling unsafe or threatened, and that the cure is to make sure he feels safe and loved.
I know that he is not the only kid like this—and it’s not only because he is just more “sensitive” than others. After parenting two kids for more than a decade now, I have come to suspect that most children who are melting down frequently, or having angry outbursts, are simply reacting to a stressful environment. They appear angry or rage-filled when they are actually feeling anxious or threatened.
Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist from California, recently penned an essay on her website about this exact phenomenon. According to Delahooke, most misbehavior exhibited in children is as a result of their “neuroception” (the subconscious detection of threat and safety) being under attack, and that the best way to raise kids who thrive is to make sure you create a safe and loving environment for them.
“When an individual experiences the neuroception of threat, he retreats into a defensive position, which results in one of three responses: fighting, fleeing, or shutting down,” Delahooke writes. “When an individual experiences the neuroception of safety, on the other hand, she relaxes and can reach out to others, communicate, comply and engage.”
Delahooke explains that it’s all about the relationship between the child and their parent or caregiver. We all need to focus, first and foremost, on making sure that our children feel safe and secure with the adults around them. “Joyful, relaxed relationships create a brain-body platform for optimal development,” she writes.
Fostering this kind of environment for our kids is actually pretty straight-forward, Delahooke tells Scary Mommy. What you want to focus on are the little (and big) things that bring your child a sense of happiness and well-being, and then making sure to take time out of your busy life in order to incorporate those things into your daily lives.
“Joyful interactions with your child promote feelings of safety and security in the brain and body of both parent and child,” Delahooke explains to Scary Mommy. “The best way to do this is to follow your child’s lead to see what she finds joyful, and it can be as simple as taking a walk or sitting with your child and noticing what captures her attention. Then go for the smiles, giggles and other expressions that signal mutual joy. It’s so simple yet so profound.”
It truly is the simplest thing—and yet, I know that for many of us, it isn’t always easy to incorporate one more thing into our busy lives. If we have more than one child, the idea of spending one-on-one time with one of our children—just focusing on them—seems like an impossibility.
I have personally found that simply setting an intention to be more present and gentle with my children—and thinking more consciously about how to make the environment of our home more peaceful and secure—can really make a difference. Really, we can all find a few extra minutes for cuddles on the couch, one more book, or a short walk in the rain puddles outside. Even just a few spare minutes of focused and joyful attention toward our kids can make a huge difference.
If we make an effort, we can all find moments for more secure contact, too–just within our everyday interactions with our children. Things like looking your children in the eyes when you speak to them, or taking the time to actually sit down on your child’s level when you have to have a “hard talk” with them can make them feel more grounded. Pay attention not just to the words you are saying, but how you say them. Put a gentle, safe hand on your child’s shoulder as you talk to them. All these things make a difference.
And if you find that your own stressors are so out of control that it is hard for you not to yell or rage at your children, then please get help (therapy, medication, or a combination of things—whatever works for you). It’s totally normal for parents to have times when they raise their voices at their kids (no parent is perfect), but if it becomes a chronic problem, or one that seems to contribute to stress for your children, then it’s time to address that within yourself so that you can create a more harmonious home for your child.
Most of all, we all need to recognize how very important it is that we nurture our children’s inner lives and their emotional worlds. We need to stop looking at the surface of our children’s behavior, but what is motivating it. We need to stop seeing our children as “bad” or “spoiled,” but as vulnerable children in need of a little extra TLC.
The beautiful thing is that we have the power to offer this to our kids. And it starts with a safe environment at home, and a secure and loving relationship with us.