Imagine that you are confused, scared, hurt and/or angry and you don’t know how to communicate your feelings to those around you. You don’t know why you feel the way you do, you aren’t sure how to change how you are feeling and you are even more frustrated because you have limited ways of letting others know. As an adult I can recall moments like these.
Then imagine that because you feel this way you are put in a corner to think about it, or told that you’re behaving in a way that is inappropriate and you will need to have a punishment. As a child you internalize that there must be something wrong with how you are feeling and yet you don’t know what is behind that feeling or how to move through it. You begin to feel stuck and the feelings may even intensify. I am sure I am not the only one who can identify with this scenario.
What children are communicating through their behavior is often an assumption on the part of parents and adults who interact with children that a child’s behavior is about “bad” behavior. Before jumping to any conclusions, a more empowering suggestion would be to apply some of the strategies presented below. These strategies will allow parent and child to be together to explore feelings and behaviors from a space that honors the child.
1. Don’t react, give space to take a break.
Often you can sense when your child is beginning to feel over whelmed by an emotion. There is usually a sign that they are getting frustrated, angry, or confused. They may cry, hit things, stomp, withdraw, or any other display that shows that something is amiss. When you see this happening stop and check in with yourself that you aren’t reacting with any kind of judgment or surprise. Remove both of you to a new space to take a breath, stretch, move, and then you can ask a question to see if they can tell you what was going on. If they aren’t able to tell you in words you can just be with them and ask yourself, “What do I know about this? What do I sense is going on?” Trust that you do know your child better than you think you do.
Ask your child if the feeling they are having really belongs to them. Often kids will pick up other people’s emotions and take them on as their own. Just because something feels like ours, doesn’t mean that it is. Explain that they can simply bottle it all up and send it back. Doing it together shows them that even you too sometimes take on the feelings of others. When your child has calmed down, ask them what they would like to do now? It will be a time of seeing that they can move forward and leave the incident behind them. It is also alright if they choose to stay in the feeling and you can allow them to do so without any judgment. When kids begin to acknowledge that they have choice over how they perceive emotions they can be more active towards choosing what they would truly like to be. If a child does choose to stay in anger or sadness, let them know that at any time they can choose something else and that you will be choosing to be what you prefer.
2. Give it another go
Have you ever made a choice and wished you could do it over? Give your child the opportunity to have a do over if it is appropriate. It may be a simple matter of asking, “What would you do differently next time?” Asking other questions can be insightful too as long as the questions don’t project any judgment. An example of this would be, “What were you thinking? How could you do such a thing?” Instead you could ask, “Was that the only choice you had? What do you know now that you made that choice?” Acknowledge when your child gets an awareness from a choice and learns from it. It is how we all learn. Share with your child that when you make a choice that doesn’t work out, you learn how you can improve on it. Use examples from your life. You may even ask your child if you can have a “do over” when you make a choice that affects them that you wish you had handled differently. Perhaps you lost your temper and you would like a “do over”.
3. Ask for another possibility
If there is a problem and your child is acting out of frustration, let him know that there may be some other possibilities that would give him a different outcome. Ask him what he thinks those may be. If he can’t think of any in the moment, ask him if an idea you have might work out as a possibility? Always let the child check in with what might work for him. If he isn’t in a place to choose because he is too caught up in the frustration and has just shut down, move onto something else- go for a walk, play a game, do something that will remove the frustration until you can come back to it and talk about it. Many kids are very curious and so putting an idea forth as an “I wonder” statement can allow them to indulge in other possibilities.
“I wonder if there is another possibility that we haven’t thought of yet.”
“I wonder what would happen if ______________.”
4. Ask questions to get to the real issue
Sometimes children do things and we don’t quite understand how they could do such things. We jump to assuming that they did it to be “bad” or to “hurt” something when in fact they are just trying to understand something or feel they need something as part of their play. Ask them what it is that they are doing with the intention of just getting info, not to react or judge them. Then you can direct and guide them in the direction for them to get what it is they want. If they have caused damage, don’t judge their actions, just ask them to help you repair it and encourage them to ask you in the future.
One boy was found scraping white paint off of his mother’s living room wall. Rather than coming unglued about it, she asked him what he was doing. He replied that he needed some snow for his action figure play. She was able to redirect him to getting some flour and realized that he didn’t mean to damage the wall. It is important not to stifle our children’s creativity by punishing them for having an imagination.
5. Allow for choices
If your child makes choices that end up in disaster or don’t work out to his well-being, guide him in processing the choice he made. Ask him questions like, “How did that work?” “How did that not work?” “What would be a different choice you could make next time?” “How will that work for you?”
For younger children you may need to offer some ideas and follow that up with, “Which choice would work best for you?” You can always allow your child to offer additional choices. Children will surprise you with how much they do know and the ideas that they can come up with.
The key is to be in allowance. It doesn’t mean that you accept every choice they make but you give them the space to have choice. For choices that you aren’t ready to have them indulge in, you can simply reply, “I get how much you would like to choose that, and my sense is that it isn’t going to work for me at this time. Is there another choice that you would like to consider?”
6. Have fun with your child
Many children want to have fun. All too often adults want to take the fun away and make life serious. What would you teach your children about doing chores if you brought some fun into it? What if your children saw you enjoying life no matter what you are doing? What if you asked your child, “How can we do this and have fun too?” After all they are the experts when it comes to having fun. Most children complain that they don’t get enough play time with their parents. If play is vital to your child and he isn’t getting it, you can bet that he is going to need some kind of behavior to let you know that. He isn’t being bad; he just wants to have more play time.
7. Go outside
Give your children lots of opportunity to be outside, to play, to run around, to connect with nature, to be curious and to breathe in the spaciousness of the outside world. It is distressing the anxiety and depression that many young children experience. Being in nature has proven to ease these feelings. Your children will learn that there are other options to choose from besides TV and computer games that are fun and enriching.
Laugh a lot. Laugh at anything and everything. Laugh together and find the humor in any situation. Let kids experience laughing at themselves. It will teach them not to take life so seriously. And be sure to laugh at yourself, experience how good it can feel.
9. Draw pictures, sing songs, make up stories
Some children can get their feelings out through their own creativity. They can express their feelings through art- drawing, painting, singing, music or even telling stories. Children also learn by watching adults. How much would you like to express through some art? How much fun would it be to have family art time? Be aware that you don’t tell your child how to be creative, allow their own creativity to come through without any reaction from you.
Every child and every situation is unique, so these tools are not one-size-fits-all but rather a list of ideas to lean on to expand your parenting toolbox. I find that striving to use proactive tools like these to respond to and to guide children towards better choices works far more positively than having to react when things have gotten out of hand. I wonder how many different ways you will find to explore your child’s true feelings.