Handling Big Emotions and Understanding the Behavior
Q. We had an episode with our 5 1/2 yr. old son. For the past 2 years, we have tried every approach. Our son is smart but immature. We feel he lacks confidence and tends to hold things in rather than talk. I tried to get to the root cause but he still won’t budge (one might say stubborn). Tonight he was off the wall jumping on chairs, interrupting when I had someone over and had to help them work. No matter how many times my husband or I ask him to stop jumping on chairs, he would say “no never”. He has a temper – will hit, throw, slam doors, spit and call us “stupid” or say “never” when we’re explaining how we want him to stop hitting and start listening. However, his tantrums have become less frequent and recovering has become quicker except tonight. Usually he’ll go through the tantrum and then start crying. If we try to challenge him and he’s in the mood, he’ll do it. But most of the time, he’ll say, no let’s do something totally different or I can’t or don’t know how. If I say I’ll show you, then he’ll whine and say he’s a baby. He always has a comeback. What do you think?
A. Sounds like you have a very strong-willed, spirited guy who does not like being told to do what someone else wants him to do. All good news – in my book anyway. When you think it’s your job to get him to comply, you are working against him rather than with him. And if you think he should talk and answer your questions, your expectations are off track. “Still won’t budge” indicates that you think he is purposefully not telling you what is going on with him. He can’t possibly know why he does what he does. He’s 5. Most adults don’t know. That’s your job to figure out by understanding that his behavior is telling you that he is having a problem, not being a problem. You don’t have to know what the problem is, just that there is one. He doesn’t like behaving the way he is any more than you do. He needs help coming back to regulation. When he resists anything you say, says no never, jumps on furniture, etc. it’s because right then he can’t do anything else to express his upset/dysregulation. Boys tend to hold things in more than girls anyway. Your compassion for how hard it is for him will go much further than your criticism with tones of anger and frustration that are causing his lack of confidence.
Can you interpret his acting out behavior when he was interrupting your time with the person you were helping as telling you he wanted you, he didn’t know how to handle not having you when you were right there. Expecting him to understand your need is unrealistic at 5. Plan in advance to have someone with him if you are working.
Try connecting with him when you’re both active. Boys do better talking when the focus is elsewhere. Or at bedtime. Don’t ask questions when you are connecting. Use statements like, “You really didn’t like it when I was working with that person tonight. You wanted me and you didn’t know what to do.” Statements release him from the obligation to answer and therefore motivate more talking than questions. And they validate his emotions and help him feel understood and accepted. After you have connected thoroughly—accepting his feelings and desires—then you can get to questions and problem solve. But this is the time we want to tell children what to do and not ask questions. “Next time you really want my attention and I am busy what could do to get it in a way that I can hear and respond to? Let’s see if we can come up with some ideas.”
Instead of trying to get him to stop jumping on furniture, give him one or two things in the middle of everything that he can jump on. He needs to get that energy out, not hold it in until it explodes. It sounds like from his perspective he is told no, stop it a great deal of the time. That erodes anyone’s self-confidence. Find yeses, acknowledge what he wants and needs even if he can’t have it. Tell him what TO do instead of what not to do. “Feet on the floor, please.” Calling you “stupid” may mean that he doesn’t like what you’re saying to him. Back up, breathe, and say it again with more respect in your tone.
When he exhibits his temper, that is the time to redirect him to a punching pillow that can represent whoever he is angry with. Let him draw your face or stomach with his finger and punch it really hard. Or bang on a piano, jump on a trampoline or the allotted piece of furniture. Or draw how he feels and then rip it up in as many pieces as he can, or run while you count to see how fast he can go. You are telling him his energy is fine while giving him an acceptable outlet.
The only way a 5 yo will lack confidence is if he fears he’s bad in the eyes of the important people in his life. This is why our compassion for their huge emotions that they rarely can control is essential. When he is having a meltdown, perfectly normal at this time, your job is to let him know that you are there in support when he is done. In the meltdown he is miserable and possibly terrified. He needs you to help him back to feeling loved and cared about. After that when all your thinking cortexes are back online and no longer flooded with emotions, you can problem solve what happened.
When Fear leads to Angry Outbursts
Q. I’m writing because we had a big blow out with our 8 yo son last night. My first question is, “What do you do when you know your child has a problem, but you just can’t understand it?” We think this blow out was due to hearing the Peter and The Wolf audio story at school, which has been very upsetting to him in the past. They are studying it for a month. At first, he excused himself from the class while they played the story, but eventually was convinced to listen to the Spanish version, but it’s not the talking that upsets him, it’s the music. Sigh. I guess I can see how things blew out of proportion last night. The kids have a place and a couch to build forts, but he used the “fort free” couch to build with. We allowed him to leave it up while he was at school, so he could play for a few minutes when he got home, but then he needed to take it down. When we asked him to start taking it down, he flipped. He started screaming and threatening. When I reached over to help him off the couch he started punching and trying to bite me …. It was all downhill from that point – both my husband and I had are buttons stuck down and none of us could get out of it. It lasted for 2 hours. I hated everything that happened and felt that we’d screwed everything up (my husband takes away his stuffed animals, which I disagree with, but I couldn’t stop it when it started happening).
We both feel so frustrated that this keeps happening – the triggers are just so foreign to us (seeing a video in class, listening to a scary audio story … it could even be hearing a scary “out-loud” story). What should we do when he starts threatening and talking back and talking fresh?
My biggest problem is that I have a slow processing brain. Words never come out right for me.
It is so hard that he thinks we are these evil overlords who treat him unfairly and don’t give him enough ___ (fill in the blank).
A. Let’s fill in that line with acceptance. This is usually what we fall short of when we don’t understand our children and what their struggles are. Especially when we think it’s our job to take those struggles away and make our children happy. We send the message, even though unintended and unaware, that you have to do it my way before I will be okay with you.
When you know your child is having a problem, but you don’t know what it is (so often is the case), simply understanding that there is a problem that is provoking the behavior will turn you toward compassion instead of anger. In this case, you already know your son gets upset when his sensitive auditory nerves send signals that scare him. You don’t have to have any experience with this condition to have compassion for him and awareness that his senses may be dysregulated for the rest of the day. I think the compassion gets buried under your fears about what you should be doing about his problem and what it means to his and your futures. It’s hard to trust the process of maturity when we live in our fears.
If he is reacting sooo strongly to being told he has to put the fort away, that is your cue to stop and listen. Something way more important is going on. Simply watch and witness his upset and anger. He will not attack you if you are not resisting him. Of course you have to prevent him from hurting things or himself. Just wait it out. It’s good the words don’t come for you because you don’t need them. It escalated when you reached for him. That’s when he felt threatened and self-protective.
Your two hour fight shows how you all got locked in and how attached to being right you and your husband are. Also how intense this issue is for your son. You might have avoided the 2 hr. fight if as soon as he went off, you stopped, waited, and listened until he calmed and it was over, and then, once reconnected, said something like, “I wonder if the Peter and the Wolf is nagging at you and feels very upsetting.” His response will clue you into whether or not you’ve got it. If so then he might cry about it. If he does, he will come out of it stronger and kinder. But if you fight him, the screams and anger will not let down into crying and sadness. If he doesn’t respond, the least he gets is that you are listening and wondering what’s going on for him rather than reacting because he is not doing what you want. That’s when he “talks back” – he’s perhaps telling you that he can’t be who he thinks you want him to be. But addressing the underneath emotional cause of the behavior means you probably don’t even need to address the behavior.
Backing up even further, knowing how sensitive he is and predicting that telling him to clean up the “fort-free” couch could trigger him, including him in the decision about putting it back might help. As soon as he came home, you might have suggested that together you choose a time for him to play and set a timer to tell him when to clean it up. Then after all is done, discuss why the rule about the 2 couches is an important one.
I would pay less attention to what triggers your son and more attention to what triggers you. Not that I don’t understand how frustrating and sometimes intolerable this seems. Sometimes when he is simply throwing barbs at you, try saying, “I don’t like being spoken to that way. I’ll be in the kitchen when you want to talk to me differently.” That goes way further than getting mad at him for being rude. It’s us with our buttons that need taming way more than our kids.
A Must Read for Parents of Young Kids
Q. Although my daughters are now 21 and 19 I always enjoy reading your advice. But just yesterday a friend and I were talking about how hard it can be to parent older children, ages 18-24 or so. Her 18 yo son is horribly angry and defiant. It always seems like a battle for her. Obviously they are considered adults even though they straddle two worlds. And at times we as parents are truly not permitted by society to engage in significant ways (medical, legal). My daughters and I are very close but they went through some tough stuff in their late teens! They’re both thriving now but I was truly at a loss at times. I’m wondering what advice you have for parents of young adults.
A. This question points out exactly why we must start raising our children to be independent and responsible for themselves and their problems gradually, starting from the get-go. We cannot wait until all hell breaks loose to get help and learn how to connect with our older teen (although it’s never too late). Responsibility and a good, trusting, connected relationship starts at birth — learning how to let go, trust your child’s impulses, be clear about your boundaries, and modeling empathy and respect.
We are in such fear that our teens are going to make terrible mistakes (which they may) that we try to maintain control and don’t learn how to let go and allow them to be their own consciences. Problem solving right from the beginning helps children from very young ages manage and solve their own problems rather than telling them what to do about their problems or fix them or punishing them for having problems. When teens know how to problem solve, their focus is different, their attitude is different, and their solutions are usually better because they have been allowed to lead their own lives. In turn, they have less to rebel against. They use their parents as sounding boards and guides in solving their problems. They go to their parents for help and advice rather than their peers who they know won’t tell them what to do.
It’s possible your friend’s 18 yr old is angry and defiant because he perceives his mother trying to control him and his decisions. Often young adults grow into a “hostile dependency”, which means they have grown dependent on a parent to fix things for them or smooth their way. Then when they want to be independent, they find they are incapable, and they flounder. They basically feel angry with themselves for not being able to handle life, but they take it out on the parent they resent and have become angrily dependent on.
Once they are off on their own and can control their own shots, if they have not had the chance to make mistakes and learn from them to gain resilience early in life, those shots can be big failures. My advice to your friend would be to leave his life decisions up to him, back off being a parent, be available for help and guidance when asked for, and from now on focus on being his friend.
To submit a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.
We punish our children in an attempt to keep them from pushing our buttons, often escalating the original problem into a cycle of anger and blame. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is not about what to do to your kids to get them to stop pushing your buttons. This book is about how to be the parent you wish you could be-the parent that only you are holding yourself back from.