When Our Kids Are Having Big Feelings, We Should Be Their Safe Place
When I was in college at Penn State, I worked part-time at the campus daycare center. It was a pretty flexible work-study gig, and I assumed that because most of the kids enrolled there belonged to graduate students and faculty and staff members, the kids would be pretty easy to manage. These were professors’ kids, after all. Surely they would be well-behaved angels who never threw tantrums and would always do as they were told. I was 19. I had no children of my own. I was clueless.
I learned a lot about kids in that job, though, and one thing that has formed the way I talk to my own kids is something a full-time daycare provider said to another staffer: “Please stop telling the kids they need to do a task; the task is not their need. You need them to do that task to make your day easier.”
I have learned, usually the hard way, that what I need and want are very different from what my kids need and want. And because of this, I am often exhausted by my fruitless efforts to discipline my kids in ways that get what are my desired results.
When our kids get frustrated, scared, tired, excited, or angry—basically whenever they experience big emotions they just don’t have the capacity to find words for—they often let go of the tension in their bodies through action. And by action, I mean screaming, crying, throwing, literal spinning through space. Tantrums. Meltdowns. Dumpster fires. Our kids turn into eye-catching and ear-splitting messes that can embarrass us and make us feel like inadequate parents. We rush to punishment and threats, consequences and ultimatums. Depending on the situation, but mostly when my kids are all kinds of in their feelings, none of my discipline tactics work.
Tracy Gillett, author, mother and creator of the blog Raised Good, uses “natural parenting” or attachment parenting to raise her son. While I can’t buy into one particular parenting style 100%, because I just don’t think there is one “right” way to do anything, I do appreciate many of the concepts natural parenting advocates to form strong relationships with children. I am particularly interested in the idea that with more conscious reactions to what a kid needs and not what we want will get us the desired results that benefit our kids long term, and will hopefully help us parents get through the day.
But I needed this reminder from Gillett: “Toddlers build up stress hormones as they cope with the challenges of daily life. But the part of the brain, which allows them to express strong emotions verbally, the prefrontal cortex, still isn’t fully developed. This means that toddlers can experience an intense emotion, but they don’t have the ability to verbalise, nor deal with it.”
Gillett explains it’s important to remember that our kids’ brains are not adult brains. Their brains will not be fully formed until they are in their twenties. They can’t reason, plan, and assess situations the way we do. They need to explore, try things for themselves, and test limits. They are learning, and learning can be really exhausting for everyone involved.
When my son was still in a high chair, he would play with his food. He would make an absolute mess of his tray, the floor, and himself. It drove me bonkers because it meant more work for me. He is a twin and younger sibling to my oldest. With three kids under the age of four, I already had a lot of work to do. At one of my son’s check-ups, I asked his pediatrician how to get him to stop playing with his food. The doctor told me I don’t. If he is eating it, why not let him explore and learn? He then told me about a famous scientist who spilled a gallon of milk on the floor and instead of his mom getting upset, she sat on the floor with him and watched the way the milk moved. I was very clear with my son’s doctor that THAT was not going to happen, but I heard what he was saying.
There was nothing wrong with my son playing with his food. Whether I threatened to take it from him or not, he was going to do it and I would still have a mess to clean up. So why not try to let go a bit, meet him where he was, and not make meal time so anxious? It was hard, but I stopped getting myself so worked up over meal time, and sure enough, at some point he stopped playing with this food.
Now that my kids are older, though still little, their behavior is more manipulative and sometimes mean. They fight with each other. They lash out at me. They don’t listen. The risks they take as 8- and 6-year-olds are not life threatening, but more dangerous than when they were toddlers. And getting them to do the day-to-day routine feels impossible sometimes and nothing seems to work. When they hit that point of no return, that point where they will laugh at me or run away while NOT listening, I escalate my threats. No dessert. No screen time! I am going to take that toy away from you. You will not get to play with Richard this weekend!
Guess what? It doesn’t work. When my kids are in full meltdown mode, consequences don’t matter, threats are not believed, and the only thing they hear is the anger in my voice.
I get frustrated and feel like I have lost control. In some ways I have. I am reminding myself and you that it’s okay. I don’t want or really need to control anyone’s emotions, especially my children’s. I need them to be safe. I want them to trust me. And I need them to grow with a sense of being unconditionally loved. All of this is easy to do when my kids are easy to manage. It’s really hard to be patient, empathetic, and calm when my kid’s behavior is causing me to be late, feel disrespected, or triggered to confuse their emotions with my own regarding a situation that has nothing to do with why my child is struggling.
What our kids really need from us in those big-feeling moments is a safe place to land. They need to know their emotions are valid. They need to know they are being heard. Sometimes they need quiet. Sometimes they need a hug. What they don’t need are feelings of anxiety, shame, and fear for not being able to pull themselves together when they really can’t. I promise you I am not telling you my kids are going to get away with being disrespectful jerks, but I am going to try harder to not let my frustration or embarrassment of their tantrums get in the way of me providing unconditional love. The best I can do is to provide empathy. Reasoning can happen when everyone is in calmer state of mind.
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