By Bev Bos
The most important thing to remember about discipline for young children is that it needs to be kind,
tender, and humane. And so often it is not. Why are adults so afraid of being kind when disciplining?
I think there are lots of reasons: one reason stems from how we were disciplined as children. In a tense
moment we often go back to how we were raised even if we resented how we were treated. Fear, also,
keeps us from being kind and tender because we are so afraid that our child will become a rude, hurtful,
out of control adult. Sometimes we just don’t know a better way.
Part of the way adults react has to do with the world we live in and the uncertainty adults face everyday
about the future. A few years ago life followed a predictable pattern of school, job, marriage, home, and
family. Since the 1960’s social upheaval, out of control financial worries, and simplification of divorce
procedures have created new patterns of living, mating, and child rearing. There are anxieties about
drugs, sex, crime, and unstable family life. Confused by shattered traditions and searching for
immediate solutions, adults are caught up in the vicious cycle of trying to change their children instead of changing the conditions that pose the real threat.
Often adults convey anger and disappointment to children. Children are anxious to please adults and really, really want to do the right thing. But instead of giving encouragement, too often we reprimand them with put downs and punishments. Adults frequently talk down to their children, they are demanding and rude. They often treat children in a way they would never treat another adult.
When we threaten children we:
* Model for children how to be an angry, yelling person who humiliates others
* Have children who, having been made to feel that they are genuinely bad people, may act that way
* Teach them how to freeze up, lowering their own expectations of discovery and success in order to stay out of the line of fire
* Have children who have been made to fell that the adults in their lives are enemies. A golden rule to remember: “What I want for myself, I must also want for you; what I want from you I must also be willing to give.” Think of your children as royal guests in your home. In many ways, they are, because they come and stay only for a short while. What they remember when they leave affects them and their loved ones forever. So when you talk to children:
* Always be sure to have their full attention. Get down on your knees and speak firmly but quietly
* Keep it simple, say what you mean. Do not pose a question (Why did you hit your brother?) but state what you can’t let happen. “I can’t let you hit your brother. When you hit, it hurts.”
* You might have the aggressor look at the face of the hurt child so they begin to look for non-verbal clues. Remember, children are developmentally egocentric until they are at least six. It is difficult if not impossible for them to understand another point of view. That’s why they have parents to help them. The contorted face of a two year old can sometimes scare a seasoned adult.
* Do not badger the child but encourage conversation. “Tell me what you think I said.”
* Please don’t hurry the child. So often problems come up when you are going out the door, or in the grocery store, or trying to get dinner on the table, etc. We whiz in and yell and holler and the child doesn’t feel understood.
This article would have to be ten pages long to give you answers to all the questions you have.
What follows are a few important things to pay attention to:
When the conflict is between two children, do not let children be victims. When one child comes whining, instead of attacking the other child because yours got hurt, a better way is to help your child tell the other child what they do not like. Check first to see if the child is physically hurt, holding them and consoling-then ask “Did you like that?” And, “What would you like to say to Michael?” Take the child by the hand, stand by for support and help your child begin the most important thing they can do-communicate with words how they feel and what they don’t like. And remember, for goodness sake, that this kind of conflict resolution takes more than once, it takes TIME! But it is a gift, which pays enormous dividends. You cannot hold your child’s hand throughout their life so the earlier you help them learn how to resolve conflict without inflicting physical pain the more productive and happy their lives will be. Let me give you a four-step plan for helping children resolve conflict.
1. Take the hand, firmly, of the child who is hurt and go find the other child. Hold the hand of the other child and say, “Emily, tell Julie how you feel.” Then, “Julie, tell Emily how you feel.” Now, do it again-they always have more to say. Do not interrupt and do not put words in their mouths. You want them to develop skills to communicate.
2. Next, say to each child, “Anything else?” Provide ample time for each child to respond. If one child interrupts, very calmly respond, “Emily isn’t through.”
3. “Give me three solutions? How can we solve this problem? How could this be different? This sounds very sophisticated for little kids but you would be surprised at how quickly they get the idea when adults are supportive. Sometimes a child’s solution will be punitive like, “Well, I could hit her!” At this point, without raising your voice, you say, “That’s not an acceptable solution.” Always go for three solutions.
4. Lastly, ask, “Does anybody need a hug?”
All of us lose it occasionally. Children and adults let anger get beyond control. Sometimes it happens when we are tired, hurried, and frustrated with our busy days. If adults could practice these four steps of resolving conflict with their spouses-holding hands, give each other time to respond, look for solutions, and hug each other instead of yelling and hurting each other with words that can never be taken back and seem to be remembered long after the conflict, what a wonderful world this would be. Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible. It just takes a different way of thinking.
When It All Falls Apart: Toddlers, Tantrums and Turmoilby
by Lauren Lindsey Porter
The pasta for dinner isn’t right. Or the puzzle piece won’t fit into its outline.
Big sister won’t share her new pen. Or you need to make an important
phone call. Suddenly, your calm little child begins to spin out of control.
Call it what you will – tantrum, outburst, meltdown, or fit – it is a scene
familiar to almost every parent. You may feel embarrassed, angry, frustrated
or confused, but no matter what you’re feeling, you’re not alone. Tantrums
are a common occurrence for children between 18 months and 4 years old.
They are noted among the most common behavioral problems reported by
parents. In fact, recent research indicates that 90% of parents say that their
3-year-old has had a tantrum in the last month!
Let us not look back in anger,
nor forward in fear,
but around in awareness.
Tantrums tend to occur when a child is hungry, tired or already upset. They often coincide with moments when parents are distracted, stressed or trying to accomplish something that interferes with child-centered connection, such as getting the grocery shopping done. The majority of tantrums last between 1.5 and 5 minutes, though they can be as short as 30 seconds or as painfully long as two hours.
When researchers study children and tantrums, they find that tantrums have common features and flows that can help parents understand when they occur, why they happen and how to intervene once they do.
When analyzed, tantrums unfold in stages and appear to have an early turning point, before which they can be forestalled by appropriate intervention but after which they must be waited out. Tantrums involve the expression of strong emotions and typically begin with loud physical expressions of anger and then progress to intense demonstrations of sadness, withdrawal and often comfort-seeking.
One may survive distress, but not disgrace.
Little children have big feelings but almost no experience in managing those feelings. They typically don’t have the words to name their emotions, much less the ability to understand them or the capacity to control them. As children reach toddlerhood, they are increasingly able to move autonomously and explore their world. While this affords them great opportunities, it also leaves them wide open for frustration, confusion and overload. In the bid for independence, a young child continually encounters an adult world that often stifles natural inclination. Often the things a two-year-old wants to pursue are the very things that are either not allowed or are beyond their abilities. Without the capability to calm their minds and bodies in the face of such disappointment and perplexity, they tend to spin out of control. Instead of holding the feelings in, their anger and sadness become all-consuming and are unable to be contained. With empathic assistance, the feelings can be transformed from something overwhelming into something understandable.
The angry people are those people who are most afraid.
-Dr. Robert Anthony
The core of a child’s emotional and social development involves learning how to make sense of and handle feelings. When a child throws a tantrum it is a strong yet simple message that their ability has been exceeded and they are in need of help. A child in the throes of such emotional turmoil is not having any fun. It is scary to lose control, to be trounced by one’s own mounting distress.
If we can shift our perspective and see the tantrum through the eyes of our child, we open ourselves up to understanding, and intervening in helpful ways. As the data indicates, tantrums have a preliminary build-up when children give both subtle and overt signs that things are heading toward meltdown. Reading and responding to those early cues – and getting to know what they are for your particular child – is essential in preventing a tantrum. If you can learn the early warning signs that your child is becoming overloaded, it may often be possible to provide the rest, change of scene, snack, focused attention, or distraction that your child needs before reaching the point of no return.
In any moment, we can choose to set aside the armor that has protected us,
and ally ourselves with our children, giving them the gift of a more open,
compassionate, and understanding parent.
If the window of opportunity closes and your child has a tantrum, remember two key things: stay calm and stay present. Children tend to act their worst when they need us most. The sheer intensity of a tantrum is a window into the level of distress a child is experiencing. This can be a learning opportunity if handled right. If handled insensitively, it furthers a sense of isolation and shame.
Most parental interventions during tantrums have been found to actually be responses to a child’s behavior, not actual interventions. In other words, most of what we do as parents is react. Instead of staying focused on our child’s feelings and what we need to do, we tend to reflexively respond in typical ways. Hence, if our child is showering us with an ear-piercing yell, we walk away. If the behavior is hitting, we put them in a room and shut the door. Unfortunately, the more a parent is reactive, the more the tantrum tends to escalate and the longer it persists. Punishment is not helpful; neither is isolation. What calms a child – and teaches a valuable skill – is empathy and validation.
Mainstream advice can often challenge this wisdom and sets well-intentioned parents on a path toward escalation instead of settling. Recommendations that call for punitive responses and admonishments to parents to stay “in control” contradict empathic reactions and develop an expectation that a child is simply prone to tantrums, high strung, difficult or naughty. Not only is this untrue, but it undermines the very strategies that promote healing and change.
If you are patient in one moment of anger,
you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.
So keep your internal peace and stay by your child’s side. Adopt a soothing, even tone of voice. It may take a while for your child to allow you a cuddle, but be patient and available. Don’t expect a child to “use words” when in the middle of a tantrum. If the event overwhelms you, remove yourself for as long as it takes to regain your own calm, and then return to your child. It may be helpful to you to use the time when your child is in the grip of a tantrum to focus on centering and calming yourself. Notice your own feelings, take some deep breaths, and observe what your child’s intense feelings are triggering in you. By looking after yourself and restoring your own equilibrium you will be healthier and better able to reconnect with your child in a compassionate way. Time-out is not appropriate for children struggling with overwhelming emotions, but it is occasionally necessary for adults to take our own time out when we need to settle our bodies or minds.
I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustrationwere actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.
Once your child has regained equilibrium, spend time with him to talk about his feelings. Even a preverbal child benefits from hearing a parent identify the emotions and explain what has just happened. Keep your language simple and age appropriate, e.g. “You were so mad with me,” or “You really wanted that toy so much.” Validating the frustration, showing understanding, and offering a kind explanation for why it can’t happen (and perhaps a plan for how to accommodate the wish in another way) can go a long way toward instilling a sense of well-being, trust and emotional stability.
Research into attachment and development tells us that children and parents will always have rocky times in their relationships – times when both child and parent feel angry and disconnected from each other. This is a normal part of healthy relationships. In order to keep the relationship strong, what matters most is the ability to set things right again. Parents who are able to weather their children’s emotional storms, manage their own reactions to their child’s big feelings, stay calm and available to their child, and help their child to reunite with them are providing an excellent basis for life. In these experiences, a child learns that relationships can survive tough times, that emotions are safe and manageable, and that who they are and what they feel is okay. When a child expresses intense feelings and then recovers with their most important relationships still intact, the brain wiring for relating to others and for regulating emotional states is developed and strengthened, building capacities in the child that will contribute to psychological well-being for life.
The purpose of the journey is compassion.
Using tantrums, and the frustrations from which they are born, to propel our children toward a deeper understanding of their emotions and a greater sense of trust in our love as parents allows us to demystify the episodes and lay the foundation for future stability. We all feel a greater sense of wellness and connection when someone provides support, kindness and guidance during our most trying moments. Extending this intelligent compassion to our children allows us to loosen their ties to tantrums and upset and, instead, to strengthen their bonds to happiness and their relationships with us.
Lauren Porter, BA, MSW, is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a specialty in children and families. She is the founder and co-Director of the New Zealand Centre for Attachment.