"How much more love and affection can I give him? .... Because once you pee on your brother, you've gone too far, and we have to fix this now."
What's a parent to do when a child acts out in a big way, like peeing on the baby? We can understand the toddler's jealousy, but we obviously can't let him pee on the baby.
Punishing him with spanking or even time-out will just create more sibling rivalry, because it convinces him that he really has lost you. Sticker Charts are unlikely to be effective, because they don't get to the root of the behavior.
In Everybody's got a hungry heart, we talked about how to nip this behavior in the bud by focusing on prevention. Refill your child’s love tank and give her an emotional tune-up on a daily basis, and you won’t end up in the breakdown lane nearly as often. Takes a lot of time and energy? Yes. But it works. When you connect with your child in the way she needs, most of the time her behavior improves dramatically.
But what if it doesn't?
"Just how much more love and attention can I give him?"
I call this the leaky cup syndrome. The answer is, if you're really giving him all the love and attention you can, and it isn't changing his behavior, it's because he needs a different kind of loving attention to heal the feelings driving the behavior.
Your child is showing you that he needs you to lovingly welcome all those big emotions and help him work them through.
Why? Because fears -- like his fear that you don't love him as much as the baby -- don't just go away. First we have to let ourselves experience them, after which they dissipate. But when kids are too scared to go near those emotions -- or they've gotten the message that feelings aren't okay -- they repress them.
Think of this as stuffing them down into a heavy emotional backpack your child is lugging around. That makes them cranky and whiny. Worse yet, the feelings don't stay put; they bubble up to get healed. Kids try to defend against them by getting controlling, aggressive, territorial. They might even start marking out their territory like a small mammal, and pee on the baby.
Here's the bottom line: Any time children act out, it's because they're feeling disconnected and driven by emotions and needs they can't handle.
Are you wondering if kids sometimes act out just because they want something? Of course. But that's a symptom that what they want is more important to them than their relationship with you. Which is a red flag that there's a disconnect, either ongoing, or for the moment, caused by big emotions. So "bad" behavior is always a cry for you to help them with their feelings.
Here's how to help your child when love and attention don't seem to be enough.
1. Start daily roughhousing that gets your child laughing.
Kids who are aggressive (and peeing on someone is an aggressive act) have fear locked up inside. Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to loosen up that fear: laughter. Try physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response, such as chasing them around the house, bucking bronco rides, or a kids-against-grownup pillow fight. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin, so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.
Daily roughhousing will help your child be happier and more cooperative, and sometimes that's all children need to work through their unhappiness.
But sometimes, even daily laughter isn't enough, and a child still acts out in provocative ways. Luckily, all that laughter loosens up those tears so that your child begins to cry more easily. That's a GOOD thing; you want him to show you all the tears and fears he's been fighting off, so they'll heal.
2. Schedule a meltdown.
What's a scheduled meltdown? It's the same meltdown your child would have had at the supermarket, except you give her a chance to have it at home when you can really listen and love her through them. You're not creating the meltdown; she's got all those feelings inside, making her contrary. You're welcoming those emotions so she can heal.
I know, you’d rather she not have a meltdown at all. But tears are nature's way of healing big emotions. So it’s a huge gift if you can welcome your child's upsets and help her through the tempest. Your goal is to help your child express what's going on. Most kids can't articulate it, of course, and the truth is that words aren’t useful to her at this point; they pull her out of her emotions. Instead, help her show you that upset. How?
3. First, connect so there's a warm feeling between you.
Do a little roughhousing and laughing. Then, set a calm, kind limit. If there's a new baby in the family and your child feels he isn't getting enough of you, then even saying "We'll have to stop soon.... I know you wish you could have me to yourself all day" is likely to bring those feelings of need and hurt to the surface.
4. If he gets angry, ratchet up your empathy a notch.
Yes, kids get angry when we empathize. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. He’s snapping at you because when you connect with compassion, it moves him back into his heart, where all those feelings are, both good and bad. It doesn't feel good. So he lashes out. Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to go behind the anger. "Oh, Sweetie, I see you're upset...I'm sorry this is so hard.” If you can stay compassionate enough—which is the challenge for most of us—he'll cry. That's what's therapeutic, not the anger.
5. Stay present.
Most of us want to run in the other direction when our children get upset. If you can respond to your child’s anger with compassion and a softening of your heart, she’ll soften too, and she may even cry. The more she cries, the better. She needs to show you her fear that you no longer love her, which is locked in her body. She may thrash around and sweat and want to push against something; that all helps her body let go of the fear. Don't let her hurt you; step back or hold her gently, but only if necessary to keep yourself safe. Remember, your goal is to create safety. The more you create emotional safety with your compassion, the less likely she'll get aggressive. Breathe your way through it, and remind yourself that THIS is the help your child was asking for when she acted out.
6. What if he doesn’t cry?
Back off, and step up the connection and safety for a few days, using the other preventive maintenance tools like empathy, roughhousing and special time to increase safety. Then try again. (Here's a post on that: What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?)
7. What if he yells at you to shut up?
Stop talking. Words take your child out of his heart and into his head, and make it harder for him to cry. Don’t ask questions. Don’t give explanations. Don’t expect your child to be able to articulate his feelings. Just help him feel safe enough to cry. Just say “I'm sorry this is so hard... You’re safe… I’m here… Everybody needs to cry sometimes.” There will be plenty of time to teach later.
8. What if she yells at you to go away?
She doesn’t mean it. She’s trying to regulate the intensity of the emotion. Because she feels safe with you, her feelings come up more intensely in your presence. So she’s trying to send you away so that she won’t feel those unbearable emotions. But she doesn’t really want you to leave, because she needs you to see her safely through. Sure, she’ll calm down if you leave her alone—but that just means she’s stuffed the feelings again and they’ll pop out later. Wouldn’t you rather just help her get through them now? Say “I’ll move back to here… I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. I’ll be right here when you’re ready for a hug.” With older kids, you might need to sit outside the door of their room the first couple of times you do this, until you earn their trust.
9. Honor his grief.
Usually after children express their fears, they collapse into your arms in tears. He might sob like his heart is broken. In a sense it is. But crying in your arms is his chance to let that grief out, and begin to heal it. Let him cry as long as he wants. If he stops, make loving eye contact. If he has more feelings to get out, your loving gaze will unlock them. If he's able to hold your gaze, he's let out what he needs to.
10. Once he stops crying, help him understand.
He’ll probably want to cuddle. He might want to change the subject. You can just say “Those were some big feelings. That was hard work. Can I give you a big hug?” If he's open to it, describe what happened in the form of a story: “You were so mad and sad… You yelled at Mommy and tried to hit me… Mommy said ‘No hitting! Hitting hurts!’ and Mommy held you so you couldn’t hit. Mommy will always keep everyone safe. You were so upset. You cried and cried. Everybody needs to cry sometimes. Then you were done crying, and Mommy hugged you and held you and we snuggled. Then we all felt better.”
You'll be amazed at how affectionate and cooperative your little guy is after you "hear and see" his feelings. He may fall asleep, or he may go on to have a wonderful evening with you. If you've ever felt better after someone you trust has held you through a good cry, you'll know how healing this is. Just magnify your adult experience by a factor of one thousand to understand the intensity for your child.
Yes, it's a lot of work for you. You'll have to breathe your way through it each time, and probably repeat a little mantra to soothe yourself. This may bring up big feelings from your own childhood, so you may need to find a safe adult who will let YOU cry safely about all the feelings this brings up in you.
But wait until you see how much closer you and your child feel to each other. It's worth every bit of sweat and tears.
Not to mention, your child won't be peeing on the baby any more. Because you gave him the kind of love and attention he actually needed.