He peeked into the window at the community center. His eyes were darting back and forth, his brow was furrowed, his face red. He didn’t look happy. When he burst into the room, his mom was greeted by a loud and somewhat angry demand: “Take me to dad’s house now!”
Talk about button-pushing!
At this point, it would have been easy to just lose it as a parent. His mom, Carol, had no idea why he was acting this way. It was really out of character for him. James is the kid who is normally fairly laid back.
This is the part where most parents have learned (and experienced) to both shut down the behavior AND the expression of feelings. This is where we, as parents, are likely to focus on the behavior and why it isn’t ok. We’re likely to raise our voices, lecture, explain, or send them away to go calm down on their own.
But this mom did something else.
See how it feels to you when approached this way.
Carol knew that her son needed attention and she had learned from her parenting support person, Rebecca, that this kind of behavior means he needs support. While the demands weren’t really acceptable, and she certainly didn’t want to encourage this kind of behavior no matter how dysregulated he was, she knew that ignoring him right now would not ultimately be helpful.
She paused for a moment. This pause was for her. She centered herself around the realization that her child was distressed and this was how he was expressing it in this moment. She wasn’t going to do what he was demanding. That would not be healthy for either of them. But she stopped what she was doing and gave him her full attention. She ignored his behavior in this moment and focused on him, her child, who was clearly having a rough time.
She was a bit agitated herself, so she tried to stay focused on how they were both feeling. It would be easy to fly off the handle here and put him in his place. And it would be easy to disconnect by trying to just focus on acting calm, even if she wasn’t feeling that and the situation didn’t need calm. He was yelling. This situation needed attention and connection with him as a child, as a person.
She said, “You’re really upset right now!” Yes, she stated the obvious, but he took it as an invitation. They had done this dance before.
He explained that he had woken up and not known where she was. He was ready to go back to his dad’s house, which was already the plan for later that day, but he couldn’t call her and tell her. That had been frustrating for him.
Mom listened and reflected back a little bit of what she was hearing. “I bet that was super frustrating to wake up and not know where I was. And then to not have your phone to contact me. I can understand how upsetting that would have felt.”
More tears rolled down his face. She was getting how he was feeling.
“So take me to dad’s! Now!”
This is where mom set a boundary.
“I can’t do that right now. I have some things I need to finish up here first and then we’ll figure it out.”
She didn’t give in to his demands, but she wasn’t ignoring him, either. She was giving him her attention, to help him regulate by connecting with him in the emotional place he was in. He was on yellow. She was on yellow with him, in the way that we connect deeply with one another (not that we’re on the brink of exploding ourselves).
She didn’t say anything about the demands he was making and how inappropriate it was. Yes, she may have had to bite her tongue a time or two to keep from saying something, but she’d learned over the years that it always worked out better for everyone to focus on her child, not his behavior. She knew that a conversation about his behavior would happen when he was more regulated. In fact, she knew that this demanding was just a communication of how dysregulated he really was. When he’s regulated, he isn’t like that. He needed help to regulate so he could connect with his thinking brain. And then he would act better, too.
She sat down to finish her work so she could pack up. He came and sat next to her and started bumping the table with his leg. She turned to him and simply said that it would take longer if he was distracting her. He settled a bit and was able to be respectful of her request. He was already more regulated, and mom could tell because he was able to respect her request. He still wasn’t on green, but he was definitely more regulated and closer to calm. Regulation had happened because she listened to him.
After a few more minutes, her task was completed, Carol told him that it was time to head out. She never said she would take him to his dad’s house, but she continued to give him attention. As they walked back home, which was a great way to relieve just a little more stress, he started to tell her about his day.
The waking up by himself without his phone had just been the last straw after a difficult day. Once he shared his story of the other things he had experienced during the day, he visibly relaxed. There was suddenly a shift, a calming. His conversation shifted into something lighter. He was no longer making any sort of demands. He was regulated.
Carol knew that he didn’t NEED to go to his dad’s house right that minute. She knew that he wanted to go to his dad’s house because he thought that would make him feel better, since it was a familiar place after the move his mom had just made. She knew that what he really needed was for someone to meet him in his distress. He needed someone to see him, feel him, and hear him without judgment. He didn’t know why he was so upset, but he didn’t want to feel like that, either.
The real need was for connection.
In the end, he still went to dad’s house at the same time he would have otherwise. But when he left, he was feeling good and they were feeling connected. Mom felt good because she was able to respect her own needs for her evening without giving in to his demands. She hadn’t blown up at him, which was something that had taken her a long time to be able to control, and she felt like she was able to really see that his yellow, emotional-brain moment wasn’t about her. She could see that HE was distressed and he needed her help to regulate.
In the past, this would have gone very differently. She would have missed the real reason for his distress from earlier in the day by reacting to his over-reaction. By focusing on the skill of regulating, she was giving him tools to handle life’s inevitable distresses and find more appropriate ways of expressing them. This is a big-picture approach, and much more effective than the shaming, blaming, and punishing that normally happens in our culture. But it is like learning to speak another language.
Have you had any situations lately where you can now see that your child was dysregulated and maybe needed your help? Be gentle with yourself here. It’s a process to learn to see things in a different light.
But what would it have felt like to you if your distress had been handled in this way? It’s definitely worth the effort to learn and to make these shifts in your family. The ripples will go far into the future.
To learn more about healthy relationships and what they really look like in families, check out my book, Consciously Parenting: What it Really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families. You can read the first three chapters free, just sign up below.
Names and details of the story have been changed to protect the identity of the parent and child, but the story is real.
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