An Alternative View of Tantrums and Emotional Upsets

An-alternative-view-of-tantrums-and-emotional-upsets

Originally published on The Consciously Parenting Blog February 11, 2012


I’ve been working on the part of my book about nurturing relationships.

Honestly, I found myself feeling kind of stumped. I’ve found that life circumstances sometimes create irony and laugh in the face of a writer trying to explore a particular topic. I’ve been blessed with a feeling of doubt- that I have no idea what I’m actually trying to say. Seriously. I’ve stared at this part of the book for days and days now and it was supposed to be finished last week.

And then, often, an opportunity arises to explore it deeply. Tonight, I had a moment where it all came together for me. Nurturing relationships is about taking the time and making the space for connection. Not just being in the same room or not interrupting. But connecting heart to heart.

It seems like a “duh” moment. Like I really didn’t need nearly 40 years on the planet, 18+ years of schooling, and nearly 20 years working with families to come up with that.

But bear with me.

Nurturing relationships means moving in closer when others might back away.

Like when your child is having a tantrum on the floor.

Or your spouse had a hard day.

It seems that many well-intentioned parents are trying to remain calm in the face of that tantrum. Somehow, we’ve got the idea that if we just stay happy or make it look like we’ve got it all together, our children will pull it together and we’ll all get back to eating our soup or having a fun day at the park.

And add to that the “expert” chatter. We’ve been advised to ignore tantrums. We’ve been told to put our children in time-out. And if we’re really trying to do something different, we might talk to them and mirror back what they’re saying.

Or we try to fix it for them. Or give them what they say they want.

But what do they really need?

Connection. Deep, someone gets me, and feels it, too, connection.

They need to know that someone gets it. That someone gets them and feels it with them. That they aren’t alone with the sadness, the anger, the frustration.

I’d go so far as to say that what your child needs, in essence, is the same thing you need when you’re upset.

Tonight, I was upset. I was upset about times in the past when I’ve been alone with deep, painful emotions. With grief and loss. Add in some abandonment and rejection layered like a thick, heavy wet blanket and you’ve probably got the idea. Those painful circumstances are in the past, but the pain surfacing for me was very real.

Recently, I attended Adventures in Intimacy with my husband. This is an amazing weekend with Hedy and Yumi Schleifer of www.hedyyumi.com where they teach couples how to deeply connect with one another using a technique called Crossing the Bridge. When you “Cross the Bridge,” you leave your own world on a shelf and come to visit the world of your partner. As the visiting partner, you repeat back what you hear your partner saying and ask, “Have I got you?” to make sure you heard and felt what they said.

As we crossed the bridge tonight, I felt seen and heard and felt. My husband can’t make the losses of the past different, but he can be here for me now. I felt my body relax. Something really important happened for me in the space of our connection.

And this is what our children need from us, as well.

If you were upset and your partner or a friend came over and ignored you, tried to put you in time-out, or just repeated back the words you were saying in a monotone, you might become very upset. You’d probably have some words for your partner or friend about how you need someone to understand. You need someone to get you, not make it worse by creating a mosh of feelings including abandonment (leaving physically or emotionally) and/or rejection, even if that isn’t their intention.

Think of someone you feel supports you- maybe a good friend or perhaps your partner. What does this person do? Do they try to fix it? Give you a solution? Send you away? Hang up the phone until you can calm yourself down? No.

Someone who supports you probably notices how you’re feeling and stops what they’re doing to be with you. This is someone who wants you to tell them more. To keep going. Who will help hold space for the tears, the anger, the frustration.

But adults are different, you may be thinking. They can at least tell us why they’re upset!

True. Kids can’t always tell us what they’re upset about. Even if they’re verbal, they may not know what’s bothering them or be able to explain it in a way that someone can understand, either in the moment of the upset or later. Part of that is maturity. And part of it is the way the brain is wired. There aren’t always words. If you’ve ever sobbed in someone’s arms and not said a word, you know what I’m talking about here.

But we want to understand what is happening with them. If we don’t understand WHY our child is upset, we tend to have less compassion. We feel like he just needs to get over it. And we push against our children to try to get them to straighten up and behave themselves.

Consider for a moment how frustrating it is sometimes to have a 2 year-old. All the hazards- busy streets, light sockets, hearing “no” at inconvenient times, not being on your own time table, but instead on the time table of someone who is completely focused on the centipede crawling down the sidewalk instead of getting into the car.  Now put yourself in the shoes of your child. Just feel what it must be like to be 2 and not be able to do all the things you want to do, go where you want to go, etc. It must be frustrating.

And this is just normal 2 year old stuff. This isn’t thinking about other big things that may be happening in your child’s life. (The grandma who just died, the tension in the home from her parent’s stressful marriage, etc.) Put yourself in your child’s shoes and feel that. That’s enough. When you can feel it, too, there will be a connection.

Baby asleep after tantrumAnd that’s all your child is really needing in that moment. When we connect- truly, deeply connect- there is a shift in our child. Maybe his crying changes to a whimpering. Maybe she crawls into your lap. That’s how you know you’ve connected.

I’ll never forget a session with a mom, Brenda, and her 18 month-old daughter, Raina. Raina started screaming during our session when Brenda set a limit about nursing. This was one of those ear-piercing shrieks where you know you’re either going deaf or it must stop. Brenda was doing a great job of holding the space for her daughter’s feelings, but she wasn’t connecting with her.

Raina sat on the other side of the room and Brenda was using a gentle tone of voice. Between her daughter’s screams, I asked Brenda how it felt for her to need to wean Raina and the tears began to fall. I suggested she tell Raina how hard it was for her (the mom) and that she knows it must be hard for her daughter, too.

As Brenda cried, Raina crawled up into her mother’s lap in a cradle position (something she normally didn’t do unless she was going to nurse) and cried a really sad cry. They cried together as mom softly talked about how hard it has been for both of them.

And then, after about 5 or 10 minutes, Raina fell into a deep sleep in her mom’s arms. Instead of the tantrum ending in more frustration for everyone and more disconnection, they understood one another. And they connected deeply in that space.

Children aren’t trying to make our lives difficult with all their emotional expressions. They’re trying to get support. They’re trying to connect. And when we do connect with them, everything changes. They don’t need to explode to get our attention. And if they do, we might have an idea of what to do to support them. A need when met will go away. A need unmet is here to stay.

Meet the need underlying the behavior and the behavior will not need to be there anymore.

It is all about connection, isn’t it? That’s what we’re all looking for.

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