I know what it’s like when your kid starts wailing about some trivial little thing. She hates the red cup. Her mitten feels weird. She can’t put on her own socks. Fits, tantrums, meltdowns, whatever you want to call them, they suck for everyone involved. Yes, I know a tantrum is different from a meltdown, but they all feel the same when you’re dealing with them day after day.
If you are a parent of a child who has special needs you probably understand exponentially. I get it as a speech-language therapist, but even more as a parent. I know how many times you’ve been late because your kid couldn’t pull it together to get out the door. I know how many times you’ve carried your screaming child out of places that were too much for her to handle. I know how many times you’ve wanted to climb under the covers and never come out, because then you wouldn’t have to deal with the crap any more.
I’m not boo-hooing. I’m applauding you for forging on. It isn’t THAT bad, but when it’s bad, it’s BAD. Yet, you keep on chugging like the Little Engine that Could. You might be applauding me right now for validating your struggles, but here comes the part where you might start booing.
I find that most people, even inherently wonderful, saintly people, respond to anger with anger. It’s natural. It’s the “fight” in “fight or flight.” We’ve all been there. Some more than others. Now, here’s where we get to the booing part. Instead of responding to your child’s anger with anger, yelling, demanding, doling out punishments in an attempt to get control, I urge you to try a different path. Stay calm and show some genuine kindness.
Now, you are probably rolling your eyes. You think this is bullshit. You think kids need stricter parents and swift kicks in the ass. Or maybe you agree, you just think what I’m suggesting is impossible. I’m telling you it isn’t. It isn’t bullshit, it isn’t impossible, and it will win you more fights than strictness and beatings. It will win you more than fights too, because you’ll finally be working together.
First there’s the stay calm part. I’m not saying NEVER yell. That’s insane. I’m just saying don’t yell when your kid is yelling, because nothing good can come out of simultaneous raging fits. Save the yelling for the important stuff. Like all the times she’s being idiotic about safety, or when she flushes random items (Ipod, jewelry, crayons, etc.) down the toilet to “see what will happen.”
Unfortunately, a calm demeanor and tone aren’t the only things you need, though. I made this mistake for far too long, thinking if I only stayed calm and didn’t yell back, everything would be fine. But she could see the frazzle lurking underneath the façade of caring. She could tell I was just playing at kindness.
That’s the next part. Kindness. Anger NEVER works the way kindness does. Kindness diffuses anger. If you want to see your kid melt, and in a good way when she’s angry, go ahead and show her some calm kindness, and see what happens. I’m not saying give in. Hold your ground, for sure. Just do it kindly.
Now, if I haven’t lost you yet, you are probably saying, how on earth do I do that? Or what does that even look like?
Here’s how you do it:
- Drop your body. Get down on your child’s level. This erases the “big parent versus little child” feeling.
- Watch your tone. If you sound snide, your kid won’t listen.
- Lower your volume. She’ll listen to a whisper over a yell any day.
- Show you understand by telling what happened and why she’s mad. This shows you care.
- Ask what will help. If she doesn’t know, give some suggestions. This shows you care enough to help her.
- Wait. And just be there.
Here’s what it looks like:
I’m in the bathroom helping my 3 year old go potty. Yes. I said potty. My one year old is toddling around the bathroom, too. The three-year-old had an accident and we are changing her clothes. She goes to put her shoes back on and can’t get them to cooperate. She throws herself on the floor, throws her shoes at me, and screams for me to put them on.
I drop right down onto the bathroom floor with her. I take a couple of deep breaths (of disgusting bathroom air, of course). I clear my head with a hokey, yet effective pop-psychology thought adapted from Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, and I play it on repeat: she’s not being difficult, she’s having difficulty. Then I say, in a kind, low voice, “What will help?” She just grunts and rolls around, so I say, “It sucks to have a potty accident, and now your shoes are making you mad. You want my help.”
She growls, “Put my shoes on!”
I say, “I’ll help, if you just ask nicely.”
She rolls around (on the gross bathroom floor), grunts, stiffens out, and screams, “I can’t ask nicely!” And in that moment, she really can’t.
I say, “I’ll wait.” And I do. A minute or so passes (even though it feels like ten years).
She says, “Help me, please.” So I do. Then I hug her. We take some more disgusting breaths so she can calm down.
I say, “I want to get out of here. So does your sister. It’s hot. And it smells weird.” She laughs, then she picks up her coat and we leave.
There’s a win for both of us. She feels supported and not hated, while learning what to say and do by watching how I handled a stressful situation. I get out of that bathroom in five minutes instead of twenty, and I don’t have to carry two children (one screaming) to the parking lot. Okay, so there’s a triple win for me because my children are also learning how to be calm and kind adults.
My main point here, is that we learn by example and we emulate the behaviors that are shown to us. Do you want to teach your child to jump head first into every anger outburst by demanding that their way is the only way? Or, do you want to teach your child to respond to anger with patience and understanding? I’m just saying, whichever you choose, she will learn to use the exact method that is shown to her.
After reading this, most people have some comments and questions, such as:
My kid isn’t that strong-willed and I can make him behave. I don’t need to be calm and kind.
Sure, you can force him to behave, but is that what you want? A child who has to be coerced into appropriate behaviors? Even if your kid responds well to demands and force, you are teaching him to act the same pushy way when others are hurting, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Doesn’t this calm kindness thing just teach her that she gets what she wants?
No. I’m not giving in. I explain the boundaries and let her decide when she is ready to stay within them.
But doesn’t it show her that she can act however she wants?
Yes. It does. Because, like all of us, she was born with a tiny little brain of her own. She is a person, not a perfect-child robot. I can’t make her do anything, and I shouldn’t. There are consequences that fit every inappropriate behavior and she’ll have to deal with those.
So then, what are the consequences for flipping out about a shoe, etc.?
Well, first of all, it’s never just about a shoe. Or a cup. Or a sock. She might be embarrassed about crapping her pants in front of her friends. She might be hot in that hellfire of a bathroom. There are so many things that contribute to anger. In fact, anger always starts with fear, anxiety, or frustration. Later, I explain those things to her and what she can do when she first gets frustrated rather than leaping into anger and throwing herself down into a massive meltdown.
Maybe next time she will act more appropriately, or maybe she won’t. Either way, dealing with emotions is a learning process that takes a lifetime for most people, so why should I expect my daughter to have it under control at age three? Besides, does there always need to be an additional consequence dished out by the ‘wronged’ parental figure? Maybe the consequence occurred when I didn’t give in and she had to ask politely for what she needed. Part of me thinks that rolling on the bathroom floor may have been a consequence in itself.