Part One: How to help my child when they act out
As a play therapist and psychologist who works with kids, I frequently get asked, "what do I do when my child has an outburst, (or a tantrum, or an emotional explosion, or… you get the idea). I will offer my response here. I will start by addressing three choices I believe a parent must make in every moment of difficulty for their child:
The first choice, "will I give my child attention for this behavior?" I believe the answer should be yes! Determining whether a child is acting up intentionally to get attention does not matter, either way, they need help. And, giving attention does not have to reward any negative behavior. Read further to learn how to offer attention without rewarding negative behaviors.
Second, I believe the parent has to decide, "will I connect with my child or oppose negative
behaviors? " This is tough, and I can imagine my readers saying, "I want to do both." Your child will likely understand only one, which will you choose? Read further to learn how to connect with your child without accepting misbehavior (not accepting behaviors is different from opposing behaviors).
Third, the parent has to determine if they will react to the difficult behaviors or respond to the child's hidden need/want/ or pain. Reacting will likely be your own hidden needs/wants/ & pain directed toward your child. Reacting will happen, and is normal. Responding will be hard work done intentionally.
OK, what these three choices tell us for helping our children in their times of difficulty:
Children need attention in times of difficulty.
Children need a relational safe space to share vulnerably & explore new ways of coping
We need to help ourselves to be of best service, and we need to model the calm response we want children to learn
Expanding on these three concepts, and putting them into demonstration.
When your child encounters a difficulty overwhelming their coping abilities, the first thing to do is offer your presence through empathy - "you must be really mad" or "I hear that you really want…" or "it is painful when friends say mean things." You want to say these things from a calm energy which teaches 'this difficulty does not have to be overwhelming.' Frequently, it teaches this lesson by your living it out in this vary difficulty your child has invited you into. If you do not know what is troubling them so intensely, simply describe what you see. "You are really throwing your arms around" or "you are really scrunching up your face." These first actions of response will provide the most promise. By giving empathy, you have not aligned yourself in any opposition of your child - this freedom from defending them self will allow & promote the child's self-exploration, self-discovery, and self-responsibility. The safer a child, (or anybody), feels from judgement, the more willing they are to share of themselves and explore alternative understandings or actions.
After having first offered a calm presence to your child, you can now try to help the child express their pain in a more appropriate manner. Here is where you can articulate more appropriate coping strategies and explore consequences. If your child is not yet ready to hear alternative choices, you will likely need to spend more time showing empathy. For a child who is quite dysregulated, much time and empathy will be needed. This time may need to be long enough for the child's 'thinking' brain to come back 'online.' When the human brain is fully in fight/flight/or freeze, it is unable to hear or consider reason. Be prepared and willing to calmly, perhaps even quietly, offer empathy while waiting for the child's thinking brain to come back online. This is why number three above is so important. If time, or safety concerns, do not allow for extended empathy, and what is needed is timely compliance - you will need to read my next blog. But, for now lets suppose, we have time and space to extend more empathy, and offer alternative coping strategies. Communicating coping strategies is making more available choices & options known.
Examples & Conclusion
"I can see how mad you are, but your bed is not for jumping on, perhaps you could stomp
around downstairs to get the energy out." -- "Honey, I see how sad you are to not have been invited. I wonder if we could color together for a little bit while we wait for the pain to pass." Both of these examples illustrate a piece of empathy first and an alternative option for dealing with the current pain. Neither of these examples oppose behavior, nor accept negative behavior. Helping a child find an acceptable way to express pain is far more effective and useful than opposing one negative behavior after another while the child is searching for good ways to cope with pain. This is the equivalent of prompting a dog for praise versus scolding behavior as illustrated in my previous post.
References & Resources:
Play Therapy: The art of the relationship by Garry L. Landreth
Child Parent Relationship Therapy (training)
The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson