Parenting Your Child’s Emotional Upheavals and Upsets
Part 1: The Difficult to Soothe Child
Peter, arms crossed as he rocks back and forth in the aisle, holds his ground and refuses to take his seat on the plane. His mother tells him firmly that he must sit down, while settling in her thirsty toddler in the row behind him. A bottleneck of disgruntled passengers look on as Peter stamps his feet and continues his rant about wanting to watch television on the plane. “For the last time, Peter, sit down or else!” threatens his father, who picks Peter up and tries to secure him in his seat. In response, Peter begins a loud wail of protest as he kicks and struggles to free himself from his perceived bondage. His younger sibling begins to cry as his mother begs Peter to stop his tirade and his father informs Peter that he has now lost all his video game privileges. A flight attendant approaches calling out, “is there a problem here?”
It’s hard to feel like a good parent when your child is having trouble. Your child acts inappropriately and struggles with their behavior and somehow, you are supposed to set things right. You try to comfort, assist, or redirect your child. If these efforts are ineffective and the misbehavior is prolonged, heightened and, especially, recurrent, you feel pressure to change what is happening and at the same time, feel helpless to do so. If the negative behaviors occur in public and are witnessed by others, you may feel embarrassed by your child, worry what others might think of him or her, or that they are judging you. At some point, you begin to feel desperate. You might be shocked, panicked, angry, upset, fearful, disappointed, or dismayed. Depending on what else is going on in your life, you may also be stressed, tired, preoccupied or, heavens forbid, impatient. And yet, amidst the chaos of your own emotional reactions to your child’s behavior, you still must manage the situation, be the problem solver, and simultaneously respond to your child’s needs (and if this weren’t enough, deal with a sibling or two that is concurrently vying for your attention). You wish things were easier.
Nonetheless, you try and help your child and search for the right solution to their problems. You try to use discipline and set firmer limits. You attempt to reason and appease. You create reward systems. You punish them. You try everything, but because you don’t see the results you seek you are not consistent in your approach. You seek to understand what works and try to be more patient. You inevitably, at times, run out of patience and react poorly to your child, which results in mixed feelings of regret, disappointment, and frustration. You wish your child would just behave better and stop it already. You wonder why they won’t listen to you, follow directions, and learn from their mistakes.
When a child is tantrumming, screaming, bawling, having a fit, or stubbornly fixed and in lock down mode, they are essentially in an emotionally overwhelmed and reactive state that compromises their thinking. Your child’s behavior is an attempt to express his or her emotionality in order to release and get rid of the tumultuous and discomforting thoughts and feelings from within. Sometimes their egocentric wish for others to feel as bad as they do causes them to provoke you. At these moments, you too might be experiencing multiple emotions, responding to both your child’s behavior and your own upset about it.
Like your child, your ability to problem solve is compromised by the multitude, intensity, and/or range of feelings surging through you. Chances are, there is a negative interaction between the frustration your child evokes in you and your ability to parent effectively. You want to be a calming and organizing influence on your child and teach them how to manage their strong feelings. To do so, you first need to step out of the power struggle in order to regain your composure and think clearly.
One thing that often helps parents to regain their wits when entrenched in a difficult encounter with their child is to consider that the intensity of the emotions they feel at these moments are, in fact, comparable to the child’s emotions. In other words, if you are feeling deeply upset, reactive and confused — so is your child. Take a moment and think about that. If you feel this way and are incapable of managing your monstrous and disorganizing feelings, spoiling your best efforts at remaining calm, imagine how overwhelmed your child must feel. Reassess the situation from your child’s perspective. By focusing on the child’s experience and curtailing your own reactions, you are better able to regain your composure, think clearly, and find empathy for your child.
Parents often need to step away from the situation, breath, and think. In some instances, this means literally removing yourself from the action by informing your child you need a minute to think and/or get calm. Stepping away from the situation has the added benefit of not rewarding the behavior with negative attention, which can fuel it further. At other times, it is an internal adjustment made by shifting your attention away from the content of your reactive thoughts and instead noticing the level of intensity in the room. Instead of arguing back and forth and attending to what is being said, look at your child. Can you empathize with how emotionally overwhelmed your child must feel?
Let your child know that you realize how hard a time they are having at this moment and support your interpretation with a brief reflection of what they have said, done, or shown you through their behavior, as best meets their age appropriate needs. If your child is young, contain the child through comfort, distraction, humor, or by separating them from the situation. Use definitive words to label their feelings, clarify their emotions, and organize their affects. This practice will broaden and improve their ability to communicate their frustration with words.
When you are able to tell your child that you see their struggle, label their feelings, and sympathize with their difficulty, it organizes and calms them. Your ability to reflect back to them that you have heard their upset and understand how they feel validates for them your concern for their well being, soothes their upset, and helps them begin to process their feelings more effectively. Moreover, it helps you realign with your child and puts you back in charge of both yourself and the situation at hand. Once your child understands that you are a sympathetic support and wish to help, your child will be better able to respond to redirection. After all, the best lesson you can teach a child who is mismanaging their emotions is how to handle difficult emotions more effectively.
Another helpful tactic in addressing recurrent outbursts is to look for patterns in your child’s behavior and address them proactively. Try to understand what triggers or precipitants lend themselves to a pattern of problematic outcomes. What happened first? What else was occurring at the time of the conflict or what other factors preceded the outburst. With young children, consider hunger, sleep, and environmental stimuli as potential contributing circumstances. Make remediation accordingly for future situations and try to take notice of signs early, when things begin to stir up and before they have escalated.
Make plans for how you will handle other siblings at these times and how you and other caregivers will support one another. Review conflicts after they have resolved and when everyone is calm enough to participate in the discussion, when you are all better able to learn from what occurred and remediate past mistakes. Plan together what each person can do or say differently the next time, to seek a different outcome. Listen to your child’s point-of-view and rehearse the plan, imagining different possible scenarios and how they will be handled if they do, and do not, go as planned. Make allowances for mistakes and let the child know that should things go wrong, you will continue to work with them to resolve problems better.
If your child is prone to acting out publicly, you will likely be best served by being your child’s greatest support and advocate. This means you may need to push past your hurt pride and instead model appropriate and effective behavior by empathizing with your child. Show other people the respect for your child that you would like them to demonstrate to the both of you. Model for them that it is no one’s job to judge your child, and maintain your composure by sympathizing with and managing your child’s needs. When necessary, you can inform other adults who express concern that you are working on the situation and this is how you are handling it. At family gatherings and other social occasions, let others know they can speak to you or another assigned caregiver to express concerns that may arise, but that it is important they let you address your child and not do it themselves.
When you have a plan for coping with your child’s behavior, you’ll feel a lot more in charge of the situation and prepared to parent your child in a purposeful way. Your ability to disengage from the power struggle, argue less, and instead empathize with your child’s needs, will allow you to broaden your toolbox to find ways to help your child calm down and problem solve. Simultaneously, through your words and actions, you will be helping your child improve their ability to manage their emotions and self-sooth as they internalize your lessons over time.
Parenting Your Child’s Emotional Upheavals and Upsets
Part 2: When Things Go Wrong
Jenna throws her shoe across the car. “Jenna, stop it!” her mother shouts back as she pulls over the car, glancing at her watch. “No! I won’t! You stop it!” Jenna hollers back, a look of defiance on her face. “Jenna, that’s enough! How many times do we have to do this? I’m not going until you apologize.” “I hate you,” Jenna replies, “I’m never listening to you again!” Although Jenna’s mother knows her daughter is still a child, visions of her future adolescent daughter calling her names or worse threats further the mother’s momentary panic and dismay. If her daughter is this much trouble now, what does the future hold? How will she resolve this mess? When will the chaos stop?
It is exhausting to parent a difficult child. You never know when a problem will occur or what occasion will be spoiled by another one of your child’s outbursts. You feel on edge making plans to do things knowing that your child’s moods or behavior are unpredictable and risk adding your own disappointment and frustration to the mix by trying. Your fed up with the recurring challenges to your authority and feel unable to set things right. In truth, you often do not know why your child behaves the way he or she does.
Parenting a struggling child is tiring. You may be frustrated by the roller coaster where you see your child do better, hope things can and will change, only to see the behavior derail again. Perhaps, to recover your sense of efficacy, you busy yourself with other tasks or concerns. At least in these other situations, you feel competent and capable. If you have the resources, you have your sitter work more hours because it seems to you your child acts better for him or her. You find yourself being more anxious, unhappy, depressed, guilty or angry. You may disengage or yell a lot. This makes you feel even worse.
Perhaps you have another child whose behavior is easy to manage. Thereby, you recognize that the problem isn’t some deficit within you, although like most parents who have been repeatedly or chronically frustrated by raising a hard to manage child, you feel intense guilt over your perceived mistakes and are confused by your child’s behavior. You may experience thoughts and feelings you don’t wish to have. When your child acts this way, you sometimes feel at that moment that you don’t like them very much, although really, it is the behavior you don’t like. You worry not only about your child, but also about your relationship with your child and your abilities as a parent.
Parenting a challenging child can be isolating and alienating. Depending on your child’s behavior or moods, interactions with other parents, caregivers, teachers, and extended family members can be complicated and tricky. People may complain about your child or criticize your parenting, and their comments can range from helpful and constructive to accusatory and hurtful. At times you are defensive and hurt by other people’s comments. You realize your child’s behavior is troublesome, but feel let down by the absence of tolerance and support from those around you. Or else you may feel shamed by your child’s behavior, worry that their shortcomings are a reflection on you or assume that others must think it so.
In the face of criticism, you struggle between protecting your child’s feelings, redirecting their behavior, and standing up for your child. You are frustrated because you correctly assume that others cannot possibly know what you and your child are going through. The lack of support you feel furthers your disappointment and is emotionally deflating. Criticisms from others can lead to significant rifts in social relations, inauthentic relationships, negative interactions, and a general lack of joy and pleasure. When these rifts aggravate marital alliances, they add another negative dimension to existing stressors and lessen the family’s ability to cope productively.
All too often, the difficulties and pressures associated with parenting a child in need leads to stress within the marital relationship and parenting conflicts. The same differences or parallels in world views, personality, and coping styles that attract two people to each other and produce complementary or productive thinking under good conditions can, and often do, result in hostility and opposition when parents are struggling for the right response to a child’s confusing, irrational, stubborn, or desperate behavior. It is also not uncommon for parents to argue with each other in the presence of the tantrumming child, adding another level of chaos, aggravation, and disbelief to the mix. These difficult feelings can carry over and corrode the parents’ relationship, prolonging the conflict beyond the immediacy of the child’s issues. I think most parents would agree that it is hard to be happy together, when their child is notably misbehaving, miserable, or in some way unmanageable. When faced with recurrent outbursts and stressors from both within and outside of the family, parents are bound to run out of patience from time to time and, put simply, lose it.
The Issue of Your Authority
As parents, our need to make things right can make us desperate for order and control. We think we must make sure the child knows what he or she has done wrong and we focus our attention on clarifying their misdeed(s), expressing our disapproval, and determining corrective consequences. This can result in criticism, threats, and a variety of demands. Unfortunately, our need to remediate the problem and regain a sense of authority over the child’s acting out can lead us to create vacuous, inappropriate, or unrealistic consequences, let alone make hurtful comments, that in the end are unproductive and undermine parental authority.
Most children who act up do so because they are emotionally overwhelmed and are in a reactive state that compromises their reasoning skills. In other words, they are frustrated, upset and can’t think clearly. More often than not, your negative comments will upset the child further and worsen their predicament. Additionally, they put you in the precarious position of thinking you need to follow through on your threats in order to maintain your authority.
In the moment of conflict, what you say and do is also affected by your emotional state. Your anger, frustration, or disappointment makes it difficult for you to feel compassion and support your child effectively. For these reasons, emotionally tumultuous moments are not the time to assert your authority, as they are opportunities to demonstrate your ability to tolerate and contain your child’s negativity. To do this, you must first take charge of your own emotions, thoughts, and behavior so that you can help your child take charge of theirs.
If in the process of redirecting your child, you act in ways that are less than ideal and regretful, whether by saying things you shouldn’t have or making threats you don’t wish to or can’t possibly keep, let your child know that your emotions got the best of you. Teaching your child that everyone makes mistakes when upset or angry will help them understand that it is okay to have bad feelings, but that we must learn how to manage them. When the time is right, discuss with your child a plan for managing similar situations better in the future and consider together alternative solutions to the problem. This way, you will be teaching your child how to regulate their emotions, remediate a problem, and learn from their mistakes through both your behavior and instruction.
When More Help Is Needed
Parenting is a humbling business, but parents do not need to be alone in their struggle. There is help and support to address difficult issues with children, and there is help and support to meet your needs as well. Chronic and repeated struggles need and warrant your attention. It does no one in the family good and can damage relationships significantly when any one family member is facing difficulty. There are many excellent books about parenting that can broaden your understanding of your child’s needs and give you parenting guidance. Much of the advice is excellent, especially if it works for you and your family. However, most parents I see in treatment tell me that their child’s issues do not neatly fit into a categorical description or that the child’s behaviors vary, are sporadic, or inconsistent. Although capable and compassionate, they are confused by their child’s behavior despite their efforts to understand and help them. It is because they are attentive and concerned that these parents appear to benefit from speaking with an expert who can help them sort out inconsistencies, clarify issues that underlie the surfacing behaviors in question, and expand on their parenting tools.
Bringing your child to therapy can be a great way to sort out your child’s needs, give them support to make changes, and help them reach their potential. Seeking guidance from a therapist for parent support is another way to help your child, improve your parenting abilities, and build your own resilience so that you can parent with confidence and enjoy your time with your family. Guidance counselors, teachers, school psychologists, pediatricians, and religious leaders can also help you clarify your child’s needs, make recommendations for assistance, and be a support for you and your family.
But, many parents struggle without seeking assistance. Unfortunately, financial and practical barriers to getting treatment present real obstacles. Sometimes, some of the financial burden can be reduced through the use of insurance or sliding scale options provided by a therapist. Importantly, parents should inquire with therapists to see if they can negotiate a lower fee for service due to financial limitations. For other parents, it is the psychological burden and inconvenience of seeing a therapist that deters them from seeking professional help. This burden, which in its details can be unique to each family, is in no way unusual or uncomplicated. Nevertheless, it is surmountable. It does no one in the family any good to continue to encounter repeated conflict, perpetuate negative feelings about oneself and others, or struggle and fail. Conversely, the possibility of change through intervention can reshape identities, repair relationships, expand opportunities, build resilience, and ideally, create joy.
So, the next time you are feeling parental distress in the face of your child’s upheaval, use your upset as indication that you need to change things. If you need further help still, seek out expertise to help you reconsider your options. If professional help is warranted, it is worthy of your time, attention, and investment. A parent should never have to feel alone with his or her struggle. Seek out as much support as you can foster with the means you have. There is always more help to be had and the possibility that a different approach will yield a different outcome when the right supports are in place.