February ’18 Q&A – Handling Big Emotions, When Anger Gets Physical and When to Negotiate and When Not

Handling Big Emotions

Q. My 4-year-old son still has very intense fits/tantrums. He has an older brother who is 6 1/2. A lot of the time we try and ignore his fits, and usually he will go to his bed and get his loveys and cry. Sometimes his fits can be more than 15 minutes. But the times when I’m struggling with how to deal with them is when we simply can’t ignore and wait—when he does not want to leave the house. I had to literally drag him kicking and screaming into the car. After 10 minutes of him standing in the car (unwilling to get in his seat) and screaming, my husband took him out and hugged/held him and tried to connect with him. We brought him back to the car and the same thing ensued. At this point, we forced him into his chair and buckled him and went to the park as planned, as our older son had been very patiently waiting. He cried the whole 10 minutes there, and refused to get out of the car for a while. Eventually he did get out, and of course he had a fabulous time riding his bike and playing at the park for the next hour. The same thing happens often.

Once we told him he needed to get in his car seat or else there would be a consequence. He asked what is the consequence? Since he is very motivated by sweets, we said there would be no cake at his aunties birthday party tomorrow if he chose not to get into his seat. He didn’t get into the seat, we had to force him in again and told him no cake. A few minutes later when we were unloading at the beach he said the reason he didn’t get in his chair was because his legs were stuck, and could he please have cake? Of course we said no cake, we need you to obey when we ask you to do something. Do you have any specific advice that you think would be helpful to us in this situation?

A. You are right to give him space and allow the meltdowns. Your patience and understanding are helpful. Although, I would not ignore them. Stay with him or nearby as often as you can, letting him know that you are there when he’s ready for a hug. You want to make sure that he understands that you understand. Ignoring often sends the message that you don’t care.

He is a strong-willed, intense child who has a very hard time doing what someone tells him to do. Nothing wrong with that just a pain for the parent! He will learn with maturity and especially your calm responses, but they may go on for a couple more years.

Two points to consider. Take advantage of the calm and rationale that follows the meltdown. That is the time to talk about how to move forward. Ask him, “When you are having such a hard time, what would make it easier for you? What do you want from me when you are crying so hard?” Then say, “Sometimes we have to get in the car and go when you wish you could keep crying and stay where you are. Sometimes we don’t have time to give you all the time you need. What can we figure out to do at times like that?” Of course there is no guarantee that this will help during future meltdowns, but the more you do this, the more he will feel understood and important to you. Keep working toward solutions that you talk about AFTER the emotions are all cooled.

The other point is to never threaten with a punishment (withdrawal of something he loves). As you saw in the cake incident it does not get you what you want, and it only teaches him that you are going to use your power to make him do what you want. Because of his temperament, he will resist you longer and harder than you have the energy for, and it will damage your relationship going forward. You want him to want to make things easier for all of you. The more connected you are in your relationship, the sooner that will happen. It is tempting to threaten the withdrawal of something he loves, but he will come to distrust you and you may in fact teach him to lie (his legs being stuck was minor compared to what may come in later years).


When Anger Gets Physical – and it’s toward you

Q. I am perplexed about what to do with the physical behavior directed at me from my 9 yr. old son. Several times a week, usually when I set a limit he knows about, we do everyday, and we have agreed to (time to turn off the video, time to go to bed, yes, you have to wash the dirt off your feet before bed, no, you can’t have more candy), he flies into a rage, his body gets stiff, he tries to “head-butt” me, kick me, push me, bite me or pinch me. He is pretty calm and steady most of the time, but when he meets these moments, it scares me and triggers aggression in me to “fight back”. Tonight I yelled at him when he did it, “You may not hurt me when you are angry!” I went into the kitchen to cool off, but then I came back and yelled it again, “just for good measure” or something, I could feel how angry I was, doing it for spite – yucky. Then he cried. I felt bad but didn’t want to go to him. He whimpered, “I know, ok…ok…” Nobody said anything for awhile, then we went upstairs for the bedtime routine (with another, smaller fuss about clean feet which I handled calmly). My husband came up to read a story (an unusual treat). My son and I snuggled and made up, I guess, but I felt bad about it all night, and also upset and stirred up. What is going on? And what should I do?

A. Your son sounds like a very sensitive kid with some big emotions he keeps inside. I doubt if any one of those limits is what he is reacting to. My guess is that he is full up with emotion and a limit is just the trigger he needs to open up and unleash. It’s great that he ended up crying. That is just what you want when big emotions get hurled. Underneath the anger is fear and sadness and the tears show he has dropped into that. It was your limit—telling him not to hurt you when he’s angry—that brought on the tears. No reason to feel bad about that. Yelling when you are firm and clear can be powerful, if you don’t yell all the time. You must not let him hurt you.

To add to that, after his anger and his tears are past, heard and handled, talk about what each of you could do differently when he needs to get that anger out that wouldn’t hurt you. For instance, you holding up a pillow in front of you that he could hit. If he goes at you, you must restrain him from physical contact. Push back against him—his head, arm, hand—again in a calm but firm manner. That might give him the force he needs to be physical but you do not get hurt. You might even end up play-fighting.

Of course in order for you to be the wall he needs to push against, you must be calm. If you are angry, you might hurt him unintentionally. I’m sure it’s pretty hard to think of your 9 yo physically attacking you. Identify what thought you have that brings on that aggressiveness in you (it’s probably pretty old). Practice consciously thinking, He’s having a problem, not being a problem. His anger is something that is happening inside him, it’s not about me. If you can change what you think about his behavior to something that causes you to feel compassion, you can remain calm.


When to negotiate and when not

Q. I clicked your article about starting the new school year right and it raised the question that I’ve been wanting to ask concerning my 11 yr. old son. We have major struggles around bedtime among other situations when I tell him something he doesn’t like. I read in your article: “Establish a sit-down time to talk about what time and place your child wants to choose for homework acknowledging when you will and will not be available for help. Decide on media times and rules. Make sure to include both your child’s and your desires in the discussion. Whatever you come up with must be agreed on by all parties involved. Create a weekly calendar and a contract if appropriate.” What do you do if your child refuses to sit down and talk? Won’t engage with the discussion? Refuses to agree to anything, or if you get his reluctant agreement, he then simply doesn’t do what you thought he’d agreed to? I know you are probably going to say it means I’m trying to force my point of view or solutions or requirements on him – but I’m not. I’m trying to get him to come up with what he thinks would work and be ok for him, but he just won’t engage in that kind of discussion. I’ve been trying since he was little and he never has.

A. It sounds like he’s the “it doesn’t matter to me” kid – also I’m assuming an “Integrity” kid who just wants you to leave him alone to raise himself. He sounds very independent and “put upon” if he is told what to do. Is he an introvert who likes to process things internally? Negotiations will likely work better when they are about something he wants to do that you’re not so keen on. Then he will be invested in the outcome. When it’s about what you want—your agenda—it makes no difference to many integrity kids, so they don’t want to waste time on it. What’s in it for him? i.e. You off his back with nagging reminders, getting more computer time, etc. If he cares about this, you may get somewhere otherwise it looks like it’s just for your benefit, i.e., you get to tell him what to do.

However, in the case of bedtime, it is important that you make sure he gets enough sleep. He doesn’t care about. He’s a kid. That is not only your agenda, it’s your job. I would give up trying to negotiate with him on things that he has to do and instead offer choices. “Your bedtime is… Would you like me to read to you after you’re in bed, or would you like 1/2 hour extra to do whatever you want in bed before lights out?”

You need to use your parent authority when it comes to managing issues that children can’t be expected to want to do simply because they’re kids and they don’t want to. Of course he doesn’t want you telling him to go to bed, do his homework, get to a doctor’s appt., so why would he want to negotiate with you about something he just doesn’t want to do. If you let him go to bed when he wants to avoid the struggle, you are teaching him that what he wants goes. He knows yelling at bedtime is your problem (he doesn’t seem to get riled by it) and why would he want to help you with that?! So this is where you call on your parent authority card: Expect that he doesn’t want to go to bed when you want him to and let him know that is normal/understood, an “of course”, so that is why he has to live with a parent for approx. 18 yrs. It’s your job to make sure he stays healthy and safe. So he doesn’t have a choice about going to bed—he may want to negotiate a different bedtime—but he does have a choice about what happens when. Then when bedtime comes, hold the attitude that this is your job and stay calm. When you get angry, there is an underlying assumption that he should know better and should just do what you say. To stay calm, you have to know that there is no reason in the world he should want to go to bed.

Also if you do make an agreement, contract, whatever, tell him that you will come back together in a week to discuss how well it worked for both of you. Then no matter what, you say nothing about it during the week. If he got extra computer time and he knows this is going to be reevaluated, he’s invested in making it work. If he did not follow through with the agreement, at the end of the week, you would say, “This didn’t work for me because what we agreed to didn’t happen. What do we need to change so that it will work for both of us?”

This is a drag for most kids. Have some nice snacks on hand for the discussion. Keep reminding him this is for his benefit as well as yours – then make sure it is. If he’s just going through the motions, he won’t want to do it.


To submit a question, email me at bh@bonnieharris.com with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.

When Your Kids Push Buttons BookWe 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.



Related Links:

Taming Temper Tantrums

How to Get Your Child to Apologize

Defiant Child or Full of Integrity?