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 log jam of emotion he’s been tamping down. So he's wound up, demanding, irritable, whiny, difficult.
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, throwing things, hitting the dog, antagonizing the baby.
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 child trying to hit the dog, intervene in a playful way.
Grab him up and say warmly, “What’s that? Hitting the dog?! . . . Oh, no, our lovely loyal dog is not for hitting! Yes, yes, we can be mad, but no, 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 never 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 and he's ready to move on.
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 use the opportunity to work out those feelings, which means he will immediately head back toward the dog. But that’s good! Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to show you those big feelings he's been stuffing; 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. What amazing parenting!
Let him cry when he has to.
Or you may notice that your child is getting a bit frenzied, which means that his feelings are reaching a fevered pitch and he is about to fall apart.
Or you may just have had enough!
That’s a good time to take a deep breath and change your demeanor from playfulness to calm compassion. 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 resulting meltdown.
Make it safe for the emotions to come up.
Stop and hold him, or 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. What's that? It's just welcoming all your child's big emotions, at a time when you can give your child your full attention.
As you probably know, when it comes to emotions, you have to "feel it to heal it." Off track behavior like this signals that your child has built up a backlog of big emotions in his emotional backpack. Once your child feels safe, he'll show them to you and they'll begin to evaporate.
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 knows how to heal.