When Your Child Acts Out but Can’t Cry: Building Safety
“Dr. Laura . . . My son is wound tighter than a drum and everything makes him mad. I know there are tears under there, especially from having a new baby sister. But he won’t cry, he just gets mad! He throws things, hits the dog. How can I help him?”
-Nicole, mother of two
There will be times when you embrace your acting-out child with your warm compassion and he bursts into tears, sobs his heart out, and is cooperative and delightful for the rest of the day. But more often, your child will be too frightened of that logjam of emotion he’s been tamping down. The problem is, he needs to cry to release all those feelings. Otherwise, he’ll spend the day bouncing from one angry incident to the next.
How can you break through his anger to release the tears and fears underneath? By building safety through play when he “misbehaves.” Here’s how:
When you see your son trying to hit the dog, intervene in a playful way.
Grab him up and say warmly, “What’s that? Hitting the dog?! . . .Yes, yes, we can be mad, but no, we can’t hit the dog!” Take him to the couch to roughhouse a bit (kissing him all over or tossing him around), or run around the room with him, chanting, “We’re mad, we’re mad, but we can’t hurt the dog!”. When you put him down, he may simply bask in your warm attention, in which case that was what he needed—to feel reconnected with you. You’ve wrapped him in enough warm attention that you’ve melted some of those thorny feelings.
Play while he can.
There’s a good chance that his feelings are too big for even the sun of your adoration to melt them, and he will take your playfulness as “permission” or a dare, or what it really is—a lighthearted acknowledgment of his feelings. In this case, he will immediately head back toward the dog. That’s good! Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to show you his feelings; being playful defuses the tension. So as soon as he heads for the dog, you grab him up and repeat your playful exuberant running around and chanting. After a few rounds of this, your son may relax and snuggle up to you. If so, great! He giggled a lot, and now he’s feeling deeply connected.
Let him cry when he has to.
Or you may notice that your son is getting a bit frenzied, which means that his feelings are reaching a fevered pitch. Or you may just have had enough. That’s a good time to take a deep breath and change your demeanor to one of calm compassion instead of playfulness. This is just like setting any other empathic limit, but you’ve increased your child’s sense of safety by playing first. So you set the limit and support him through the meltdown.
Set a compassionate limit.
Stop and put him next to you on the couch or the rug, look him in the eye, and say compassionately and seriously, “Okay, sweetie, no more playing . . . I won’t let you hurt the dog.” Almost certainly, you will have built up enough of a sense of safety that your child will begin crying. Then you can support him with a scheduled meltdown.
The good news is that you don’t have to do anything to make your child “feel” his emotions. All you have to do is embrace him with warm compassion and adore him, messy, contrary feelings and all. In the safe embrace of your unconditional love, your child will open up to healing.