I knew my son starting school would have its challenges…full days; new activities and experiences; change of teacher. And knowing my sensitive little soul, I’ve been waiting for the outpouring of emotion. Week one came and went. Still waters remained. Despite not telling me much about his day, I got a sense that things were going well.
Week two. Here we go. Hold on to your hats. Tantrums triggered by what seems (at least to me) to be the tiniest of things. Or actually, not triggered by anything – just aggression and anger, mostly directed at his younger brother.
OK, I’ve got this…
I know telling him off for hitting his little brother, in the midst of the meltdown will only fuel the fire. He knows it’s wrong, he doesn’t need telling, not now. I move in, I hold him to prevent the hitting. He knows I’m helping him not to hit. He collapses in my arms. I’m calm. He knows I’ve got him. These big feelings are scary for him. This is not him being naughty or nasty or defiant, this is him letting out tiredness and feelings of sheer overwhelm from his busy school day.
OK, I’ve NOT got this…
I actually threw the aeroplane (me, not him). I shouted. I talked waaaaay too much, explaining that he can’t and shouldn’t do this and that and the other. I got angry. I told him to stop being so nasty to his brother. I tried to fix and interfere and offer ways to help him. He ramped up and got more angry. He pleads for me to help him, saying “Mammy you’re meant to help me and show me kindness, I need your help!”. My 4 year old is reminding me of how I’d like to parent, even in the midst of his meltdown.
In my autopilot state, my natural reaction is to teach him that he can’t behave like that, but actually the messages I’m giving him are far from what I want…
- It’s not ok to cry or be upset
- I don’t want to hear you’re upset, I’m going to make it better
- You are “bad” for acting like this
- When you have a problem, deal with it on your own, I’m only here for you when you’re “good”
So it feels like a roller coaster. I know how I’d like to respond but its takes strength and consciousness and practice like any skill – I suppose doing the opposite of what comes naturally takes more effort.
It has got easier (I’ve had a good bit of practice this week!). The duration of his emotional outpouring has been shorter and our relationship has stayed in tact. I’ve offered more cuddles and boundaries have been stronger so he knows what I expect. I’ve breathed and paused before responding. He said ‘I love you Mammy’ after his tears this evening.
So, what worked for me:
– Acknowledging the feeling behind the behaviour – “You felt really upset that F took your aeroplane” – this way we’re giving a vocabulary to use in time (rather than hitting). Also, naming the emotion can help diffuse it because the child feels understood and accepted. I’ve found that when my children feel heard, they can release the feelings, let go and move on more quickly.
As Janet Lansbury wrote in her book “No Bad Kids” ….”when a child feels understood, he senses empathy behind our limits and corrections. He still resists, crys, complains, but he knows we are with him, always in his corner”.
-Setting clear boundaries – to keep him safe and secure in knowing what he can and can’t do “You can hit the cushion, I can’t let you hit me”.
– Staying close – this helps the child feel safe, these are big emotions for little people
– Keeping in mind that “he is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time”. And also this is a completely normal developmental process, he’s not turning into a monster.
– Remembering that disciplining in the tantrum will only fall on deaf ears. The rational, left hand part of the brain is not open for business. The emotional right hand brain is in charge.
As Siegel & Bryson state in their book “The Whole Brain Child”…”if a child is showing a …non-rational, emotional response, meet with your right brain of nurturing and listening to feelings…logic won’t work until we have responded to the child’s emotional needs”. Then, when connected and calm, we can discuss and problem solve what could be done differently next time.
– Saying sorry when I’ve not responded in a way I would have liked.
-Trusting that this process works. Keeping calm and connected can come with some very rewarding results. Like when your little boy apologises of his own accord…”I’m sorry Mammy for being unkind”. When we shout and punish we disconnect from them and so sever any way of the child making amends. They view themselves as bad and “you can’t make children behave better by making them feel worse” (Pam Leo).