Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

What Your Child Wishes You Knew When She Acts Out

"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 feel safe when I'm with you, and that makes all these feelings even more intense. It must be your fault that 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 she's feeling terrible inside, instead of screaming "I hate you, you're the worst Mom (or Dad) in the world!"?

But when your child is "acting out," it's because she CAN'T articulate those feelings. The only thing she can do is "act them out." It's her way of sending you an SOS. 

So next time your child misbehaves, remind yourself that all misbehavior is a communication about something your child needs. He doesn't understand these big feelings that are overwhelming him and driving his bad behavior. He feels terrible that he can't be the child you want him to be, even if he acts like he doesn't care.

You're his emotion coach. What your child needs when he misbehaves is for you to help him feel safe. Then, the body knows how to heal itself. All those tears and fears -- the hurt, powerlessness, worry that he's not good enough to merit your love -- that he's been stuffing all day, all week, all year, will bubble up. Once he feels them, they'll melt away -- and the anger will no longer be needed as a defense, so it will melt away, too. Your child will feel so much better, as we all do when we work though a troubling emotion. Which means he'll act so much better.

So how do you create that safety? Empathize. "This day really isn't going the way you wanted! You didn't want ________. You wish that______. Do I have that right?"

That might be enough to get him cooperating. Kids don't need to get everything they want, but like the rest of us, they need to be acknowledged.

Or maybe he'll launch into an anguished account of how unfair life is, and what a terrible parent you are. No, this isn't disrespect. This is your child communicating his pain in the only way he knows how. 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 his perspective.

Then give him a hug and say "Sweetie, Thanks for explaining that to me. I see how important this is to you and 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."

Your child learns that she doesn't get everything she wants, but she gets something better: A parent who listens and understands, and loves her, even with all her upset feelings. 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.

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 move through (and past) them. How can you help her? Play when you can, on a daily basis, or before an upset is too big. Otherwise, Cry when you have to.

1. Laugh. 

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 chase games or bucking bronco), it also works directly to work through 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 you take her shoes off and get her to make 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 that happens 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 by moving your hand close but not making contact. That will still elicit the giggles, but they're psychological, not physical.)

2. Cry.

But what if your child is so wound-up that a playful overture would 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 his upset. 

How do you help him feel safe?  Compassion. Don't take anything he says personally. Don't let your buttons get pushed. Don't feel that you have to "correct" his rudeness -- there will be time for that later. Instead, get in touch with your deep love for him and summon up as much kindness as you can. Then empathize. "This is hard, I know..... You wish.... I'm sorry, Honey. I see how unhappy this makes you."

He may yell back at you. That's okay. Stay compassionate. "You must be so upset to use that tone of voice with me. What's wrong, Honey?" If you can stay compassionate, rather than attacking back, he will probably burst into tears. Welcome them. Hold him, if he'll let you, or just stay nearby. 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 show them to you.

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 or rigid.

Should you reprimand him for disrespect? Not now. Just create safety. Later, he'll probably apologize without prompting. If he doesn't, you can have a conversation about how upset he was, and how hard it is to be respectful when you're angry, and how you nonetheless expect him to try to express his needs and wants without attacking, just like you do, and how he never has to be rude to get you to listen to him.

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 may well make you anxious, ready to shut it down at any cost. 

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 her emotions and help her breathe her way through them.  That's the path back to her natural sense of well-being and connection, the only foundation from which she can choose to "act right."

Your child can't tell you this.  But next time she acts out, you'll know.



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