"Dr. Laura...You wrote: 'Sometimes
kids need to cry...Set a reasonable limit and welcome his meltdown.'
Are you saying that I should just say No and let my son cry, and things
will get better? That's what my parents did, and I spent hours in my
room crying. It wasn't good for me, and it made me so angry at them." -
Shelly makes a good point. Kids do need to cry, to heal all those feelings that are making them act out. But that's only healing if they have a compassionate witness -- the safe haven of a parent. Leaving your child to cry alone gives her the message that she's all alone with those scary feelings, just when she needs us most.
So when a child is acting out, remember that she's "acting out" feelings she can't express verbally. That's a signal that she has a full emotional backpack that needs emptying. She just needs you to connect with her to help her feel safe enough. How? You summon up all your compassion, get down on her level, look her in the eye, use her name. And then you set a reasonable, kind limit, to give her something to rail against.
How do you know when to do this? Whenever your child is making you or others miserable, it's a red flag that she's miserable inside and needs your help with her big feelings. That's your cue to step in. She's signaling that she needs you to hold her -- figuratively and literally. And she'll keep acting out until you help her.
If you punish her for misbehaving, you're not helping her learn to manage the emotions that are fueling her misbehavior. Even "mild" punishments like timeouts isolate her and disconnect her from you just when she needs you most. But that doesn't mean you don't set limits as necessary. In fact, a limit -- set empathically so she feels safe -- may be just what she needs to trigger the release of her upset feelings. Crying in the safety of your loving presence restores your child to a state of well-being and connection. Once she feels good again, she'll "act good" -- because our kids naturally want to connect happily with the adults they love.
How do you set limits that help your child?
1. Be kind but firm: "We don't hit....It's time for bed.....Toys are not for throwing....It's time to leave the playground." Usually, you'll need to intervene physically to enforce the limit because kids in an upset state can't control themselves. Your child needs to know it's a firm limit. If he senses you waffling, he'll keep fighting to change the limit rather than grieving and moving on.
2. Connect and empathize: "I know that makes you sad and mad.....You wish you could have the candy now....It's hard to stop playing." Feeling understood defuses the angry energy and puts your child in touch with the more threatening feelings that always hide behind anger -- sadness, hurt, fear, disappointment, powerlessness. If you set the limit harshly, your child stays in anger and can't get to those underlying feelings he needs to discharge.
3. Welcome feelings. You've given your child a tremendous gift: access to the feelings that were making him act out. You may think he's over-reacting, but who knows what hurts he has stored up that he needs to get off his chest? It's your loving, attentive presence that allows him to feel all these scary feelings and let them go. Hold him if you can, but if he struggles, just stay close. Be his witness. Reassure him that it's ok: "I love you...You're safe...Everybody feels upset sometimes....it's good to get all your mads and sads out...I'm right here....When you're ready, I will hold you."
4. Behind rage, there's always fear and hurt. Kids don't want to feel those emotions that bubble up to be felt as the emotional backpack empties. There's a reason those feelings got stuffed to begin with -- They hurt! So children will often try to defend against them by lashing out. If you take a deep breath and stay compassionate, the tears and fears won't be far behind. Just send your child love and say things like 'I'm sorry this is so hard...I'm right here...You're safe." If she runs away, stay with her. If she yells at you to leave, say "I hear you...I will step back two steps...but I won't leave you alone with these scary feelings." (Later, kids always say they did not want us to leave, even when they screamed that they hated the parent.) If your child tries to distract herself (asks to nurse, or find Daddy, or watch TV) just say "We can do that soon, but not right now. Right now, we will sit here for a few minutes...I'm sorry it's hard...It will feel better soon, I promise."
5. Reconnect. After kids have a meltdown, they're ready to reconnect with you. Don't insist they talk about their emotions. They probably don't know why there were so upset, and feeling analyzed will make them feel less safe about trusting you with their inner lives. Just scoop them up, hug them, tell them they did some hard work, reassure them that everyone needs to cry sometimes and that you love them no matter what.
Should you always set limits? No. First be sure that what you're asking is age-appropriate. You can't ask a two year old to sit quietly in a restaurant in the name of setting limits. Second, be sure you're not creating the situation with your own impatience. Kids are acutely sensitive to disconnections from us and always respond by acting out; in those cases a big hug will restore everyone's sanity. Third, offer help. Sometimes your child can pull himself together if you just offer assistance with whatever's frustrating him.
But if he seems hellbent on trouble, he's asking for your help. Give him the heaven of your loving attention, and you'll get your little angel back.