My son hasn’t really been himself these past few days. He’s 5 1/2. He’s been irritable, short fused and completely irrational.
In other words, he’s been impossible.
Like most parents, when my son tumbles into erratic tantrums, I am likely to get swept away by the torrent his behavior, when really, what I should be doing is asking myself, “What’s really going on for my kid?”.
At the best of times, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in the mind for your kid, let alone these days, but one thing is for sure:
It’s not just our worlds that have come to a complete halt and taken an about face, your children’s world has also changed dramatically in a very short amount of time too.
While some kids will ride the waves with ease, some kids, especially younger ones, may feel confused, overwhelmed and a sudden sense of a loss of control.
I bet you know a little bit about how that feels.
The problem is, your kids’ experience can often go unnoticed, not just to you, but to themselves as well. So it can come as a surprise, even feel like an attack, when they start acting out.
Your kids won’t tell you how they’re feeling because they don’t know for themselves. Not only do they not have the words to express their inner experience, they haven’t made sense of it yet.
That is precisely why it can feel so overwhelming (and why you are so important): All these big, unfamiliar feelings, and no idea what’s going on or what to do. It’s the place where fear and confusion meet powerlessness. Also known as futility.
Big emotions, like futility, aren’t isolated either. For kids, and adults too, big emotions take over and consume one’s reality and perception.
It’s not like when your kid gets a scrape on their knee, points to the source of the pain and tells you what happened.
Big emotions are intangible, they take no visual form and their source is often hard to identify (even for the most self aware adult, let alone a child).
The lack of understanding means that it can feel as though this emotional experience is all that exists, which only adds to the sense of fear and futility.
When we encounter big emotions, our brains tell us to act. Sometimes it means retreating into isolation, and other times it looks a lot like a tantrum. If it’s not hunger or pure exhaustion, it’s likely a symptom of a strong sense of fear and futility.
Here are a few things you can do to stay calm and help your kid gain a sense of control in the chaos:
1. Recognize your urge to fight or flee.
When our sense of order is threatened, we automatically go into a stress response. That means you might find yourself either fighting, or giving in to, the urge to just walk away from your kid. “I don’t need this!”, you think. Or you, straight up, fight back. You fight fire 🔥 with fire.
You get angry, you snap, you say things that you know you shouldn’t and do things you regret, even though in the moment, they all seem perfectly justifiable.
You’re not alone, so you can suspend all of your self criticism and instead, take a breath and make space for your thoughts and feelings. Then, turn your attention to what’s going on for your kid in this moment.
2. Get real.
Acknowledge that your kid’s behavior is not meaningless. There’s more than meets the eye, and it’s real. Get curious about what’s really going on for them and consider the possibility that they’re having a hard time.
3. Give it words.
In your mind, give your child’s experience words. Tell their story. For example, when my son was losing it this morning I imagined that underneath his rotten behavior was a kid that feels overwhelmed and out of control. He doesn’t want to feel this way, but doesn’t know what to do. I imagine that he probably feels scared, alone and helpless. I realize that he needs help but doesn’t quite realize it, let alone know how to ask for it.
4. Set a boundary.
Boundaries aren’t just about limits and punishments. They offer containment and create space for connection which are particularly important when your kid is feeling overwhelmed by big emotion and out of control.
[I teach my 3 step framework to setting boundaries that work in my online course. To learn more and access the free preview click here.]
5. Stay the course.
When your kid is losing it, it can be easy to fall into automatic; lose your cool or run away. It’s not unlike navigating a ship in stormy seas. It can be trying, and you may feel like giving up, but you are the captain of this ship, and your kid needs you to hold tight to the ropes and steer the ship.When all hope is lost, remember to stay the course, because without you, your child feels lost at sea.
When my son was threatening to smash the portable stereo to the ground, I took a deep breath, and acknowledged my urge to smack him. There it was, whether I like it or not. But instead of acting out myself, I figured that my usually playful and cooperative kid (remember all those things you love about your kid? ) must be going through something. Something big.
I couldn’t be entirely sure, but I knew he needed my patience and presence, so I stayed put, but there was no way I was going to let him damage any property. So I drew the line, removed the object from his hand. I gave him some space, without fleeing the scene. I stayed calm, al the while projecting the implicit message, “I know this is rough, but I’m here for you”.
By holding course, with very few words, I could keep my cool and help him regain his sense of calm and control.
It’s not easy, but when we remember that there’s more to your kids behavior that meets the eye, that they’re likely struggling and that they need your hel, it becomes mich easier to keep cool and stay the course.
Want to keep your cool and respond thoughtfully to your kids?
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Hey there, I'm Liba
I’m a psychologist, parenting coach, and a mother of 4, and I teach moms how to regain their sense of calm and control so they can feel confident raising content, capable and considerate kids.