A bloodcurdling scream broke through my reverie. I was searching for the right word to place in a sentence and D. (then two-and-a-half) was playing happily with his toy kitchen tools when something got the better of him – a cap he couldn’t quite unscrew.
As was his default response to frustration at the time, he screamed.
“Can’t DO DAT!” he shouted with exasperation, shaking with the effort of trying to undo the jar cap.
I had rushed to his side in response to his shriek – not knowing whether he was hurt or otherwise. So when I saw what was causing his distress, I bent down beside him and stroked his hair.
“You can’t undo the cap, so you’re frustrated!” I said.
“Yeth. Fruth-trated,” he lisped.
“Shall I help you? Here – turn it this way,” I undid the jar, “And the next time you have trouble, you can call Mama instead of shouting, OK? You can tell me that you’re frustrated.”
He played happily again, and I returned to my computer to finish the paragraph I was writing.
These are the toddler years. The years of Big Feelings and no maturity to deal with them. The years that give us a glimpse of what it’ll be like to deal with them and their emotional ups and downs in years to come.
It wasn’t always that easy. He wasn’t always so quickly placated.
Sometimes the rage built up and he gave vent to toddler angst that was undirected, unrestrained, and seemingly unstoppable. He’d scream and cry in response to a perceived injustice and sob for a while afterwards, even in the comfort of my arms. But he has been learning. Now, barely three, he is finding words for his feelings. I’m teaching him to name his emotions as I teach him to deal with them, too.
This is a part of parenting that can challenge even the most zen mother or father. Emotional outbursts, especially the off-the-chart reactions to upsets – and the ridiculous reasons for kids feeling upset in the first place – can drive parents crazy. There are hilarious websites dedicated to the mercurial temperaments and unreasonable demands of toddlers (Reasons My Son is Crying and The Honest Toddler are two of many).
But it also makes sense.
We all know that we can turn to a kid and find them blue-lipped and shivering in a T-shirt with their warm coat sitting right beside them. It’s like they don’t even know they’re cold. In fact, if we were to comment on their frozen appearance, they’d likely deny feeling any discomfort. But if we were to throw their coat over their shoulders, they’d probably snuggle into it and enjoy the relief of warming up.
Similarly, it can take an adult to identify the leg-plucking, wriggly jitterbug as the ‘pee pee dance’ and send a kid off to use the toilet – whereas the child himself might not figure out that he was bursting to go until he had to make a mad dash for relief.
A lot of the time, kids don’t recognize what they’re feeling.
And if kids are oblivious to physical input like this, think of how much less aware they are of the emotional side of things.
This is why, when a child is feeling left out or ridiculed at school, he’ll come home and treat his siblings unkindly. Why he’ll fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Why he accuses his family of not loving or caring about him when he’s disciplined. He doesn’t know what his feelings are, and he definitely doesn’t know what to do with them.
So we as parents have to be prepared to act as guides for our kids. We have to help them navigate the process of figuring out their feelings and finding ways of expressing those emotions.
This isn’t just a matter of letting kids ‘vent’. While we definitely don’t want to dismiss our kids’ feelings, I don’t think it’s healthy to encourage a tirade from them whenever they’re upset about something – and I feel that encouraging them to express their emotions physically (i.e. punching a pillow) can actually increase aggression. We don’t want to allow our children an unfettered response to every emotional trigger. But helping kids identify feelings and giving them boundaries within which they can express those emotions will open up a world of communication and self-awareness that would otherwise be closed to them.
If they’re frustrated, acknowledge their frustration. If they say, “It’s not FAIR!” don’t tell them that it is – tell them you understand how they’re feeling and accept that this feels BAD to them: “It doesn’t seem fair and you want things to be equal. What would that look like, to you?” This position is respectful of them and their emotions but also invites an exchange of ideas, leading to the opportunity for you, as a parent, to provide some perspective.
If they’re sad, provide nurture. Come alongside them in their unhappiness. Not, “What are you crying about? That’s just ridiculous!” but, “Oh, honey – you’re so sad about this! Can I give you a cuddle?” From the warmth of your embrace and the sanctuary you provide when you acknowledge their feelings, they can often get beyond the trigger for their tears and down to the root of their upset.
If they’re angry, don’t reflect their rage. This is the hardest one for me – my pulse starts racing and I begin feeling defensive, and pretty soon I’m as upset as they are. Anger, in particular, is usually a secondary emotion; that is, a child (or adult) is feeling lonely, misunderstood, dismissed, or whatever – and that sadness or upset grows into a feeling of defensiveness and anger. But at the root of the rage is this little child who just desperately needs understanding. When we don’t react to their anger, we open up the potential for them to engage with their primary emotion and deal with it. This becomes a preventative for future outbursts.
If they’re excited, give them the freedom to express it in childish ways. It’s so easy to become irritated with excitable kids – they’re silly, loud, and can even be a bit aggressive – but we need to cut them some slack. Yes, we need to maintain boundaries for them, but we also need to set boundaries around our own feelings. “OK, they’re acting a bit crazy – but it’s so exciting for them that they’re going to this birthday party and they’re having trouble containing themselves.”
The caveat to this, of course, is that we don’t want to affirm their feelings so much that they continue to respond inappropriately to every upset. The child who always feels victimized by whatever anyone else does clearly needs to be taught a different viewpoint – it’s just that this teaching should be step two of the process.
“Jack’s always bugging me!”
1)“You’re getting frustrated with Jack”; 2) “You feel like he never leaves you alone. I think he just wants you to notice him – maybe he feels left out. Do you think that you could find a way of including him so that he doesn’t bug you to get your attention?”
Step 1: Acknowledge/name the feeling; Step 2: Analyze the feeling and determine/discuss the appropriate response/action. [Step 3 might include Addressing future courses of action – helping the child determine the correct response the next time]
Here’s another example:
“You’re feeling angry at me because it’s time to leave the park [Acknowledgement]. We need to go now, but we can come back another time [Action] – and because you’re coming right when I’ve called you, we’ll be able to stay a little longer next time [a little motivation – Addressing the future – thrown in for good measure].”
There’s no rulebook for how to deal with the daily tantrum or the constant complaints of unfairness or the tearful declarations of wishing to be part of “ANOTHER family!” – except that we need to work hard to move past our kids’ behaviour in order to dig deeper into the feelings that precipitate that behaviour.
It would be great if there were just a one-size-fits-all explanation for why kids act the way they act, but there isn’t.
What we do know is that educating a child about his emotions helps him become more emotionally intelligent as he grows: read this article to find out more. We’ve got to believe that it’s an important investment of our time.
*if you’re in a hurry, skip down to the next asterisk – this is just some insight into my own family, and how I’m working with their individual personalities*
All my boys are different.
A is mercurial – he can be so polite, ingratiating and helpful – but his demeanor can change on a hair trigger and when it does he embodies the typical out-of-control screechy pre-adolescent. At this age, he’s a bundle of emotions. There’s plenty of self-doubt and a somewhat negative self-image (thanks to careless comments by schoolmates and siblings), and these are just fuel for the fire when something sets him off. Two minutes later, he’s penitent and loving. His apology is so sincere that the rest of us, still reeling from his latest outburst, can do nothing but forgive and embrace. Later, though, there is time for the conversation. Right now we’re working on identifying the triggers that lead to him flying off the handle – and I’m working on staying calm in the moment and not reacting to his anger.
B is super-sensitive – For a kid who generally seems confident (almost to the point of arrogance), he is remarkably thin-skinned. Turns out that what seems like self-belief can sometimes be a veneer on a lot of insecurity. He says he’s the fastest runner in his class, because it’s important for him to feel like he is – but he also doubts his own ability. This means that he can be extremely defensive, argumentative, and touchy. He acts like he’s pretty tough and resilient, but when the cracks appear we catch a glimpse of a deeply sensitive soul. Even when he was a toddler, there were songs that touched his heart and brought him to tears. He’s always the kid who sits there clearing his throat during a sad movie, “Oh, I’ve just got something in my eye!” Our challenge with him is to encourage him to be vulnerable with his emotions and not project this armour of arrogance – and, of course, to help him to navigate the deeper emotions when he would otherwise see them as weakness.
C is a stoic – I work hard to get him to acknowledge that he has any emotions, let alone getting him to name them. The answer to “How was school?” is always, “Good!” and the response to my query about the high-points and low-points of his day is always an outright denial of anything negative (he refuses to acknowledge any low-points – unless it is to point out that the sandwich I packed wasn’t to his liking!). Hey, at least he’s happy-go-lucky, I hear you thinking, but of course we need to give him space and license to experience the deeper emotions – even the negative ones – as well.
D is a bit young yet – but as a toddler he’s a bit of a mix. He’s very loving with us – particularly with me (lucky Mama!) – but he’s not always quick to embrace others. In the church nursery he has, on a number of occasions, announced loudly that he “HATEs BABIES!” – to which I always respond, “You don’t like it when I pay attention to babies. I’m still your Mama, and you’re always my baby, but we need to be gentle and kind to babies.” Our job with him is to love and encourage, to set firm boundaries but chastise gently, and to help him identify his emotions as we guide his expression of the same.
*If you’re reading the shorter version of this post, welcome back!*
We need to teach our kids to embrace their feelings, because we were created to be emotional beings. We also need to teach our children how to express and manage their emotions.
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.
– Proverbs 16:32
Raising emotionally intelligent kids is a complex but vital part of parenting. We accomplish this by acknowledging their feelings (and not dismissing them), analyzing their emotions (why they’re feeling that way and determining an appropriate response), and addressing how they might make good choices in expressing their emotions in the future.
Obviously we’re better able to help our kids with these things when we, as parents, are emotionally intelligent as well. In my next post I’ll talk a bit about how we as adults process our feelings. We’re works in progress, too!
Here’s to happy, healthy kids!