Impulses Hijack Reason—but only in the moment
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Your child has suddenly lost it. He can no longer tolerate what has happened. His impulses take over. And you say:
“Remember we talked about taking turns.”
“I already told you that you can’t have another popsicle.”
“Calm down. Don’t get so upset.”
“You know better.”
At the height of a child’s anger and outrage, most parents try to reason to get their child to understand. Inevitably the reaction is pushback—harder crying, screaming at the parent to stop talking, kicking.
What do you expect? Your child to stop and say, Oh, yeah. Now I remember. We did talk about that and you’re right, Mommy. I’ll stop now? You laugh when that is said out loud, however the expectation of your rationale at the time of the tantrum is just that. You wouldn’t reason with your angry child if you knew it would do no good.
Well, guess what? It does no good. However, that does not mean that the talking you did earlier, the problem solving that happened before, the teaching you did, the rule that you made is wiped out with the meltdown. It has just been temporarily hijacked.
We forget how impulsive a child is. Temperamentally some children have a harder time gaining impulse control than others. Slower, more cautious girls will gain impulse control long before aggressive, active boys. There is no developmental marker that says your child can now control his impulses. But never expect it before age three.
We all know what it’s like to act impulsively, to let our emotions get the better of us and go with what feels good right now. We often make life decisions impulsively with little forethought to future consequences. When we react to our children’s behavior in ways we later regret, it is because our impulse won out over our reason. Remember the last time you felt really angry about something and your partner or friend said, “Stop getting so upset. It’s not that big a deal.” How did that feel? Now put yourself in your six-year-old’s shoes listening to you try to reason when he has lost at a board game.
If your child has done something he knows is wrong, his embarrassment or shame adds to his emotional turmoil. So when you get angry at his offense, you are rubbing salt in his wound. Now is not the time. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He made an impulsive mistake. His reasoning was undermined by his impulse.
When your child is having a meltdown:
- Wait it out. Stay present if you can.
- Remind yourself that your child is in a lot of pain with huge emotions that he can’t control. He is more miserable than you are.
- Tell yourself that you do not have to fix this or make it go away. Try to disengage emotionally from what your child is going through. Your upset at his upset will only make things worse.
- Reassure yourself that your child will be fine.
- Try offering something to punch or jump on, but don’t expect your child to use it.
- If you say anything, make sure your tone is kind, not blaming.
- Wait for your child to get through it on his own. Your support and loving but quiet presence will help him feel understood.
AFTER it is over is the time for reason. Of course you might need more time than your child, since as soon as her emotions are spent, she is fine—you may be left in a puddle. When you are both calm, go back to the situation and talk about what happened. Your child won’t want to until she trusts that this part makes her feel better. Problem solving rather than telling her what to do will reassure her.
- What do you think you can do the next time you feel so angry that you want to hit?
- If that happens again, can you think of a way to get what you want without a fight?
- If we had it to do over again, here’s what I wish I had said to you…. Is there anything you wish you had said or done differently?
But always remember that reason returns to your child once the impulse runs its course. She also likes to make amends at this time if she has not felt blamed. No need to worry that she has forgotten what was learned. You also know better when you get angry, don’t you?
Questions and Answers
Q. Our feisty 5 yo is not settling too well into school, and we have to attend meetings with the teacher due to his misbehaving ways. When asked why he acts out, ie: drawing on walls, running away from the class, ignoring instructions etc, he says, “because I felt like it”. This is quite concerning as he attends a Catholic School and is raised by a practising Catholic Mother with very loving and devoted Parents. He does not seem to understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s position. We are at a loss after trying to talk to him and discuss alternative ways of behaving with no positive results. Another concern is his lack of concentration as he has approx. 4mins attentiveness before he loses interest and proceeds to do what he wants to do, sometimes ignoring instructions and/or consequences. I have been doing some research and strongly believe he may need some assistance with self-regulating. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can help our strong willed, stubborn child who is loved very much. We very much want him to enjoy school rather than say he hates school and doesn’t want to go?
A. Keep in mind that your son is only five and should not be expected to consider another’s position. This sounds like a misfit of child and environment. Our job as parents is to provide environments that meet our children’s needs, not the other way around. Your son sounds like a perfectly normal, active, distractible boy. His “misbehavior” shown as running off, not listening indicates that he is being asked to do what he cannot do at this point—the structure of the school may be too restrictive for his needs. If his teacher has unrealistic expectations for him, he will not be able to meet them. Therefore he will act out in reaction. His response, “Because I felt like it” is quite accurate. What you can be sure of is that he has a hard time sitting still and listening, so he uses his imagination to amuse himself. The problem comes when that doesn’t work in his environment. Then he gets yelled at, criticized, blamed, given consequences and then feels bad about himself, which exacerbates his behavior. When he learns he is bad, he will continue to behave badly. When appropriate expectations are held for him—that he can’t sit still like some of the other kids, he needs something to keep his body moving, etc. then he will respond more cooperatively. If he cannot hold his attention longer than 4 min., put him in a school environment where that is okay, not one that forces him to be attentive longer than he can be. If his needs are met now, he will be able to regulate himself and follow rules as he gets older. You will have more success if you put him in an environment that accepts who he is rather than who you or the school wants him to be.
Q. I got my buttons pushed when I let my kids have an apple for dessert and they started jumping around. I told them if they jumped around I would take the apple because it was dangerous. They ignored me, so I took their apples. Well, you’d think I’d killed someone. Total freak-outs. And I really did want to kill them. I just can’t stand it when they ignore me. Everything goes crazy inside me and I want to force them to do what I say.
A. The good news is that they are happy with apples for dessert! Kids love to jump. They were having fun. You were rightly worried that they could choke. But instead of threatening them (If you jump, I will take the apples away), which fuels the freak-out, give them less opportunities to ignore you. When jumping starts, tell them to take their bites after jumping, chew, then go back to jumping. Telling them what TO do instead of threatening them will make sense to them. Taking their apples away for jumping makes no sense. You’re asking them to take care of your problem – so naturally they will resist. It’s not that they’re ignoring you (your button and your assumption), it’s that they are having fun and doing what they want. So before you tell them to stop doing something they want to do, ask yourself, How important is this? And either let it go or tell them what TO do instead.
Does Tough Love Mean Conditional Love?
Q. What my parents called “Tough Love,” I experienced as “Conditional Love.” Is there a difference? Do either have their place? My sons are 16 and 14. There are times I think we’re too lenient or liberal in our parenting style. My husband was brought up by hands-off parents who trusted that their kids would make good decisions, and they did. I was raised by very authoritarian style parents, so when my older son speaks to me or treats me in a way that makes me question whether he remembers I’m his mother and that he darn well better respect me, I think we’ve let the reigns grow slack. My older siblings rebelled, and had I not been the third and very compliant child, I imagine I would have been lying and sneaking as much as my older brother and sister. It’s not unusual for my 16-year-old to want to parse some tough subjects with me and test boundaries (ie: when is the beginning of life? would legalizing marijuana make it less attractive? when do parents decisions trump state or federal laws? Etc. ) I love that he feels safe to do that with me, and that he’s interested in my perspective—something I never did with my parents even as an adult. You have a way of framing things that helps me get a handle on squishy parenting issues. What do you think?
A. Your son does respect you BECAUSE he talks and argues, and tests boundaries. When you said, he darn well better respect me, you meant, he darn well better obey me—what you had to do. We get those words confused a lot. Respect is not won with fear as a motivator, obedience can be. I say can be only because you need to have an already compliant child to be motivated into obedience by fear. When brought up by strict authority, we question our “leniency” often because it doesn’t lead to obedient behavior. Research shows that teens who argue with their parents, even to the point of parents feeling depressed about the relationship, say they respect their parents far more than teens who do not communicate with their parents. Tough love usually involves withholding love, support and even food and a roof. I will not go so far as to say it is never appropriate as there have been situations when a relationship has gotten so far out of hand or the child has gotten so lost that the relationship no longer serves them. When we place conditions on a child, we are saying, I will accept you only on these conditions, and if you don’t follow these conditions, then I will not. Some are influenced by this kind of conditional parenting (a good deal of our population actually), and it is why we keep doing the same old reward and punishment model with out kids. These compliant ones, I worry about. These are the walking wounded of our culture—those who are addicted to any number of substances or behaviors attempting to fill those empty holes inside. But many other kids have to fight this kind of dictatorship because their temperaments simply cannot comply. However, being firm, setting limits, saying what you mean and meaning what you say never has to involve conditional love or any kind of punishment or “consequences”. It requires a parent having enough self-confidence to be clear and not easily worn down by a child’s arguments. This kind of confidence is hard to come by for parents who have been brought up in either a permissive or an authoritarian household. This is not the “I’m right, you’re wrong” kind of confidence. It’s a confidence that comes from a deep inner sense of right and wrong. It leads a parent to think, this doesn’t feel right to me, rather than what would other people think. If you’re not allowed to say this doesn’t feel right to me as a child and be heard, you must learn it through personal work in adulthood. Lacking this confidence parents question themselves and flip back and forth on the continuum from permissive to authoritarian. Gritting teeth to stay calm and stuffing resentment will only fester and result in a blow up and an enforcement of conditions or tough love.
I am often rushing around the kitchen in a way that makes my 6 yo son nervous. Sometimes he sticks his foot out to trip me as I pass, to slow me down. I understand why he does it, but it drives me crazy, and I am afraid I am going to get hurt. Yesterday, I ACTIVELY owned my anger about it when he tripped me, saying I was not mad “at” him, but it made me feel SO MAD!! when I got tripped as I was trying to get dinner ready, and I was afraid of getting hurt – (he always looks so relieved when I manage to separate my anger from him). I had read about doing this, but didn’t think saying it aloud in the “detached” way would be very satisfying, rather more strained or “fake” or sugar-coated, but it felt GREAT! I could put all my authentic feeling into the statement, and it wasn’t “at” him, and he could stay calm and grounded, even laugh a little, and we could laugh together, and it was ok – released.