Parents Help Children Cope with Strong Feelings (page 2)
When her one-year-old daughter began screaming in a store and threw herself on the floor, “at first, I felt embarrassed,” recalls Los Angeles mom Nancy DeLeon Meeker. “[Then] I realized the priority was my daughter’s well-being. Rather than getting mad at her because I felt embarrassed, I just sat on the floor with her and supported her, saying, ‘I know this is really hard. You’re frustrated and you want to leave.’”
Parents and educators share strategies for staying connected with children who are struggling with strong emotions—and helping children learn to cope with these difficult feelings.
Shift your perception
A meltdown is a child’s way of saying, “‘I’m overwhelmed! I have to release some feelings before I can deal with the situation,’” says Patricia Wipfler, a mother and director of Hand in Hand in Palo Alto.
When we realize meltdowns are normal, Wipfler adds, it’s easier to help children through the experience—“all that needs to happen is the parent being close and offering kindness until the child [is ready to do] something else.”
The term “tantrum” implies a child is purposely misbehaving, adds Marguerite Wright, mother of four and psychologist at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital. Shifting our language allows us to see these experiences as “panic attacks,” when a child doesn’t know how else to deal with their feelings, she adds.
Meeker’s family is from Guatemala and she says the culture she grew up in saw tantrums as a sign of disrespect, something that got children a spanking. “[Spanking] is all my dad knew, and that’s why I took [parenting] classes, to learn something different.”
“Staying connected [when my daughter has strong emotions] allows her to learn to deal with her feelings and helps me understand my child more,” Meeker adds. “And at three, [my daughter] asks for space instead of expressing herself through a push. She can tell us what’s going on with her—and that gives us a chance to support and maybe even help her. Many [adults] have trouble doing this! This process takes longer, but it’s worth it.”
Connect with your child by listening
When Meeker’s husband was away for a few days, her daughter “was pointing at the door and looking sad,” recalls Meeker. “I asked her to use her words and she said, ‘I miss Daddy.’ I said, ‘I know it’s hard, you’re thinking about Daddy and you’re missing him. You’re thinking about how he normally walks through the door and missing him.’ She cried for 45 minutes. I told her, ‘It’s okay to be sad. [But] Daddy always comes back.’ She kept saying, ‘Yes, I’m sad.’ I encouraged her to take a deep breath and it seemed [to help].
“After she calmed down on her own,” adds Meeker, “we pulled out a map and I showed her where Daddy was and I described what he was doing. We looked at pictures of him. It would have been easier to say, ‘Well you’ll be okay, Daddy will come back.’ But I feel like we’re doing a good job because she can tell us what’s happening with her.”
Meltdowns can be a strategy for expressing unmet needs, adds Nancy Kahn, a mother of two and a trainer for Bay Area Nonviolent Communication. “I want to understand my children’s needs,” she says, “and that requires me listening to what they say or what their body language says—Are you wanting to be your own boss? Are you feeling annoyed and wanting to play more?” Children may also be hungry or tired.
Set and hold limits
“A child wants something, the parent says no, [then] the child cries and screams for ten minutes [and] the parent gives in, [then] the child learns that crying and screaming are effective methods of getting what they want,” says Nancy Lim Yee, Program Director at the San Francisco’s Chinatown Child Development Center.
Susan Goldberg faces this challenge when her boys want to eat Halloween candy for breakfast. “When I’ve been clear with the limit, my son’s feelings get bigger,” says Goldberg, a parent educator for the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting. “I say, ‘You really want the candy and that’s frustrating for you that you can’t have it.’ The feelings pass and he learns he can get through difficulties.”
Sometimes frustrated children grab, hit, or bite. Rather than demanding the child stop, suggests Wipfler, adults can use their body to gently, but firmly, end the behavior. Parents might say, “We don’t hit people’s bodies because that hurts, but we can hit a pillow.” Children can also pull on a towel or a stuffed animal or tear scrap paper when they’re angry.
“Repair what happened” after you lose your temper
“If [parents are] really tired it’s harder to be available,” says Percy Vazquez, mother of two and owner of The Peace School child care co-op.
She recalls one night at a friend’s house when she lost her temper and yelled at her daughter—“Sonaya was tired, her dad was at a meeting and she was missing him. I was trying to get her to put on her shoes and go. She had a big explosion of feelings, 20 minutes of screaming, crying, and kicking.
“In the car there was more crying,” she says. “After 45 minutes, she wanted the radio and I needed quiet to regulate, so her tactic is, ‘I want the radio, I want the radio….’ I said, ‘I need you to stop,’ and then I yelled. Then I pulled over and I got out and said, ‘I’m sorry I yelled, I was very upset.’
“When we got home we talked about the whole situation. I said, ‘I know you don't want to leave your friend’s house and I know it’s hard.’ I went back and tried to repair what happened and think about what could have been done differently.
“It’s an opportunity to reflect and heal, it’s also an opportunity to empower the child and give them a voice. They can say, ‘It hurt my feelings,’ and we can say, ‘I’m sorry, I will work on it.’”
Talk with other adults
“Once several parents were helping at my daughter’s school,” says Vazquez, “[but] she wanted me to just help her. She was crying a lot. I was saying, ‘It’s hard to have your mom helping other people when you want her attention.’ [But] the teacher came over and said, ‘Dry your tears, the other kids aren’t crying.’”
Vazquez talked with her daughter afterward, telling her “it’s still OK to have your feelings.” She also talked with the teacher—she had noticed her daughter would erupt in the evening after holding in her feelings all day at school. While the teacher seemed resistant at first, she was more receptive toward the end of the conversation, says Vazquez.
Hand in Hand Parenting: parenting classes, support groups, and online parenting information in English and Spanish. 650-322-5323, www.handinhandparenting.org
Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting: parenting classes and workshops in English and Spanish. 213-484-6676, www.cnvep.org
Compassionate Parenting: a blog by this article’s author, Jennie Marie Mahalick, http://compassionateparenting.blogspot.com
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman and Joan DeClare, 1998
Connection Parenting: Parenting through Connection instead of Coercion, by Pam Leo, 2007
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 1999, English and Spanish.
Extra resources from the Children’s Advocate bulletin
- Center for Non Violent Communication offers trainings and resources on "compassionate communication," which aims to help people resolve conflicts in a way that compassionately meets the needs of all concerned.
- Additional books:
- Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg, Puddledancer Press, 2003
- Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn, Atria Books, 2006
- Playful Parenting. by Lawrence Cohen, Ballantine Books, 2002
- Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books, 1995
- Teaching Children Self-Discipline, by Thomas Gordon, Crown, 1989
To stay informed about new and upcoming Children’s Advocate articles, related resources, and advocacy opportunities, sign up for our Children’s Advocate bulletin
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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