"Hey, Mom, Dad, I'm overwhelmed with some big feelings here....I don't know what to do with them...They're bubbling up inside me and I feel so scared and sad and mad...I'll do anything to make these feelings go away, including hit someone...No, don't you come close offering me hugs...that would send me right into tears...I can't bear all that sadness...It must be your fault I'm feeling all these bad feelings....I'll drive you away by any means necessary!"
Don't you wish your child could just TELL you he's feeling this way, instead of
screaming "I hate you, you're the worst mother in the world!"?
But when your child is acting out, it's because he CAN'T tell you about those
feelings. So he "acts them out." It's his way of sending you an SOS.
So next time your child misbehaves, remind yourself that you're his emotion coach.
He doesn't understand these big feelings that are overwhelming him and driving
his bad behavior. He needs your help to feel those tears and fears he's been stuffing
all day, all week, all year. Once you help him feel safe enough to let those feelings
up and out, they'll melt away. He'll feel so much better. Which means he'll act
so much better.
How? Empathize. "You are so upset....You didn't want....You wish....Do I have that right?"
That might be enough to get him cooperating. Or maybe he'll launch into an anguished
account of how unfair life is, and you are. Just listen, nod, and acknowledge. "So you feel like I'm being unfair when..... No wonder you're upset.... You wish I would....." You
don't have to change your decision. Just acknowledge. Then give him a hug and say "Sweetie, Thanks for explaining that to me. I see your view now and I see why you're upset.... I'm sorry we can't do it your way. This is the way it is this time, because it's important to me that ..... But I do hear you. Let me think about this, and we'll talk about it again."
Often, just feeling understood is enough to defuse your child's upset. Over time,
as she learns that you really will think about it and look for win/win solutions,
she'll be more likely to go along with your requests at this point.
But what if her response to your empathy is to get more upset? That just means
the feelings are big and she needs your help to go through them. How? Play when
you can, Cry when you have to.
1. Play. Giggling vents the same anxieties (which means
fears and stresses) that crying does. And it's so much more fun! Every
child needs a roughhousing session of giggling every day, just for emotional maintenance.
Physical play releases oxytocin and other bonding hormones, so it reconnects you
with your child and repairs the erosion in your relationship that's caused by daily
life. If the giggling comes from games that help your child process fears (like
peekaboo or chase games), it also works directly on any backlog of emotion. And
if your child is acting up, sometimes keeping your sense of humor and setting the
limit playfully is enough to help her feel reconnected, so she wants to cooperate. "Whoa, Girlfriend! Shoes don't go on the couch! What do you think this is, a barn? Moooo....Mooo.....!" might
be the perfect playful intervention to get your kid laughing as she takes her shoes
off and begins making animal noises with you. Crisis averted, connection repaired.
(Please note: Tickling doesn't seem to provide this release; it's automatic physiology,
as opposed to the psychological process when mild fear releases through giggling.
And tickling, even when children giggle, often makes kids feel powerless. The child
may seem to be having fun, but she can't HELP laughing. If your child begs for
tickling, try "threatening" to tickle.)
2. Cry. But what if your child is so wound-up that your playful
overtures make him mad? Then he's past the point where play can help. It's
time to cry.
Behind that anger, tears are already welling up. If you can help him feel
safe enough, he'll go past the anger to the healing tears that will wash away all
How do you help him feel safe? Compassion. Don't take anything he
says personally. Get in touch with your deep love for him and summon up as
much kindness as you can. Then empathize "It's so hard, I know.....I'm sorry, Honey."
He may yell back at you. That's okay. Stay compassionate. "You must be so upset, Sweetie. What's wrong?" If
you can stay compassionate, rather than attacking back, he will probably burst
into tears. Welcome them. Hold him, if he'll let you. Don't try to
talk. Breathe and remind yourself that your role is to help him cry by providing
an emotional safe space. Talking would shut off the tears, and he needs to get
If he stops crying, remind him of whatever limit is making him angry: "I'm so sorry we can't do that right now." As
long as he's crying, your goal is to tap into as much upset as you can, to help
him empty that full backpack of feelings that have been making him so demanding
Should you reprimand him for rudeness? No. Just create safety. Later, he'll probably
apologize without prompting.
I know, your childhood training didn't really prepare you for this. You
were probably told to stop crying when you were little--maybe not so sweetly.
So your child's crying makes you anxious.
But emotions only go away once we feel them. Until we do, they're stuck
in the body, bubbling up and driving behavior. So your child really needs you to
accept his emotions and help him breathe his way through them. That's the
path back to his natural sense of well-being and connection, the only foundation
from which he can "act right."
Your child can't tell you this. But next time he acts out, you'll know.
"Dr.Laura's daily emails are the perfect way to start the day with love and compassion"
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
LETTERS & ANSWERS ABOUT
Have a question about parenting your preschooler? Questions from readers, with
wise and practical solutions from Dr. Laura Markham to the worst problems your preschooler can dish out!