This post is a result of phone calls from seven different families in seven days. I found myself repeating myself to each one. Each parent was afraid because their child had suddenly “lost control”, was tantruming over the smallest inconvenience or disagreement.
“S/he is falling a part.”
“S/he is so angry.”
“I can’t win.”
“It turns into an hour tantrum.”
“I try to help and it only makes it worse.”
“S/he can’t make up their mind.”
These sweet parents, felt defeated, worn-out, and like failures. And by the description of their children’s behavior, each child was scared. If this sounds familiar, read on.
When children struggle with a transition or “get stuck” on an activity, they need a leader to help them take a step forward.
I call this strategy “Confident Leader” and I most commonly recommend it for two common “battles” with young children. The first is transitions. Transitions can be overwhelming, and anxiety provoking for young children, even in the normal, daily routines.
The second common behavior pattern when children become anxious is what we called the “Yes/No Game” when I grew-up.
It looks something like this:
Parent: “Let’s get in the car to go to the park.”
Child: “I don’t want to go to the park!”
Parent: “Ok. We can stay home. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Child: “I want to go!”
Parent: “Ok. Let’s get in the car.”
Child: “No! I want to stay home.”
Parent: “You just said you wanted to go. Which one is it?”
And the situation escalates from there.
Underneath the behavior is anxiety. Uncertainty. A hint of fear (spoiler alert: anxiety is fear in small doses). Their big feelings are so overwhelming, they feel trapped in a cycle of indecisiveness. In our household, my husband and I refer to this as “Analysis Paralysis”; when we get so caught-up in our own head, we can’t make a decision.
As adults, we can do this too! I distinctly remember being one week postpartum with my second son, a category 5 hurricane hurtling towards our hometown, and sitting on the couch sobbing because I kept flip-flopping between wanting to stay and wanting to risk the 30 hour traffic-jammed trip to safety. I so desperately wanted my husband to step-up, be a confident leader, and make decisions for our family. I was too scared, emotional, tired, and overwhelmed to think rationally.
This is the place we find our children. Maybe their fear is about the park. Maybe it’s the perfect storm of a developmental leap, not enough sleep, and hunger. Maybe they have major life transitions happening around them, and they feel out of control. Regardless, they NEED us to step-in and be that confident leader. We need to set a clear limit and let them process and accept that limit.
So how do we do this?
Observe your child. Feel their angst. Notice the internal struggle they are experiencing and reframe it as: “They’re not giving me a hard time. They’re having a hard time.” Remind yourself of how overwhelming the world feels to you sometimes, and then think about how it must feel to face that with only a few years of experience. This will help you empathize with them. Once you feel that empathy, they make some neutral observations. Reflect to them: “You are having a hard time deciding if you want to the park. You said you want to go, but now you don’t want to go.”
Now is the time to step-in and become the confident leader they need. They may not like what you say, but they will rest in your confidence. Calm, confident, concrete limits sound like this:
“We are going to the park. I can carry you to the car or you can walk.” Pause. If they don’t move, we pick them up, or guide them to the car.
“We won’t go the park. We will stay home and play outside.”
Once the limit is given, we don’t discuss it any further. If we negotiate, justify, ask, bribe, threaten, etc. we are communicating our uncertainty and/or lack of confidence.
We listen to their acceptance of the limit. Often times, they have to process a feeling of defeat, which takes the form of a tantrum. They may try to bait you. They may try to reengage you, to push against that limit you set to see “if you’re really sure about it.” We need to communicate, “Yes. We are confident in the limit we set.” Then let it go. Make space for their feelings around the boundary.
Welcome their tantrum. It’s their way of processing their big emotions; accepting the limit, and moving on. If we welcome the tantrums instead of stop them, they will be able to efficiently move through it instead of staying stuck.
“Welcoming the tantrum” can look like:
Creating space for their tantrum.
Keeping them safe while they flail.
Sitting far enough away from them with open arms so they can sit with you if they want.
Keeping yourself safe.
Validate their feelings.
Most of the time, the less you talk, the better.
Keep in mind, some of these are opposite strategies because different people need different approaches.
“Staying stuck” can look like:
Changing their minds.
“Trying to stop” the tantrum can look like:
Trying to please them.
Reassuring them (“You’ll have fun, I promise”).
Moving the boundary.
Minimizing their feelings (“It’s no big deal”)
Telling them “it’s ok”.
If we make a habit of setting confident limits, our children will feel safe and secure. They won’t feel the need to “check” (often times referred to as “testing”) our limits as often because they know we say what we mean.
If we set these limits with empathy and understanding, our children feel heard, seen, and validated. This is not about controlling our children. We are not ruling with a heavy fist with rigid rules. Instead, we recognize our child’s cry for help, and recognize they need someone to step-in and move them out of the “analysis paralysis. They need to know “Mom/Dad can handle this. They will keep me safe.” When we set boundaries with that intention, our relationship is strengthened and our children can rest in the fact that we will help them when they can’t help themselves.