You know when your child does something – like throw his toys on the floor – to show his frustration over a perceived injustice, and you tell him to clean it up, and he refuses, and you insist, and he digs in his heels, and your ego is insulted and says “How dare he?!”, so you resort to punishment because you feel powerless, and then he gets angry at you because “You’re so mean!” and sees himself as the victim, and you lose the opportunity to teach a lesson about dealing with frustration?
It would be great if our kids would snap to attention the moment we demand they fix what they’ve done wrong. But most of the time they won’t… Because they CAN’T. When a big emotion takes over, it floods their rational brain with stress hormones, so their instinctual brain takes over. It’s the “fight, flight, or freeze” brain, which is why most children will either run away, become aggressive, or totally shut down when confronted with an overwhelming frustration.
Here’s an experience we recently had that shows the importance of waiting until the rational mind has a chance to recover, what happens when you don’t, and how you can support the process.
Zachary (4yrs 3mo) has recently been having a hard time leaving places where he’s having fun (like the park or a friend’s house). We’ve tried empathizing, sharing our feelings, setting alarms, giving 5-minute warnings, acknowledging his helpful choices… You name it. Yesterday was no exception; I picked him up from a friend’s house and he flipped out.
When we got home, he dumped a box of PVC piping joints all over the living room (he uses them to build). I told him to pick them up (yay, me!) but he yelled “No!” and ran upstairs. When I went to look for him to try to acknowledge his feelings and work through them, I saw he had dumped the neatly folded contents of two large laundry baskets all over the floor. Well, I wasn’t in much of a mood to empathize then!!!
I felt anger bubbling up inside me, and I said, “You need to put those clothes back in the baskets right now!” (I know, *facepalm*) He yelled, “No!” and I didn’t know what else to do; I felt so powerless. So I did the only thing I could do (and the first thing that made sense): I closed the door and left him there.
I ran downstairs and flipped open my computer. I pulled up this article from Dr. Laura and quickly re-read it (for the fifth time). When I got to point #1, I was SO GLAD I had closed the door when I did! I had to move myself from anger to empathy before I could help him do the same.
Reading the article calmed me down a great deal, because I felt like I had a game plan that would work. Just then, my husband came home. I quickly told him what happened and asked that he not try to punish him or shame him into cleaning up. He looked confused but agreed. I called everyone down to dinner and we had our normal “How was your day?” conversation during the meal.
After dinner, Zachary gets to play with his dad for 30 minutes before bedtime, so I said: “Before you start playing, I’d like you to please pick up the PVC joints you threw on the floor.” He refused, so my husband said: “What if mommy times you to see how quickly you can pick them up?” No four-year-old can resist a one-person race! He jumped up and began flinging joints into the box with a goofy smile on his face.
They then played and did the rest of their bedtime routine while I put the baby to bed. When I came out of the baby’s room, Zach and my husband were reading a book a friend lent to us, called “I Love You Because You’re You“. The book’s message is simple but profound: no matter how you behave, we’ll always love you. I think it was exactly what Zachary needed to hear, because when I walked in to kiss him good-night, he asked me to read the book to him. When he climbed into bed, I stroked his hair and said, “Tomorrow we can talk about what happened and then you and I can work together to put the clothes away.”
Before going to bed, I re-read Dr. Laura’s article. Game on! This morning, I asked my husband to stay with the baby when Zach woke up. I went to his room and read him the book again. That put a big smile on his face. Then I said, “Can you tell me how you were feeling yesterday?” He told me he didn’t want to leave his friend’s house and asked if he could return. I pointed out that he had refused to clean up when his friend’s mom asked him to, and he had started yelling and crying when it was time to leave, which he knows frightens his friend. I explained that he’d have to talk with his friend’s mom to see if they’d be willing to invite him back, and asked him what he was going to have to do differently if he wanted to be welcomed at their house. He said he was going to clean up when asked and leave without crying. We practiced how he would talk with his friend and his mom.
Then I said, “Do you know what we need to do now?” He replied, “Clean up the clothes.” He hopped out of bed and we walked into my bedroom. I explained that I would pass the clothes to him one by one and he would stack them neatly in the baskets. About a third of the way through, he complained that it was a lot of work. I said, “I know! That’s why I felt really frustrated when I saw that you had dumped them out. I work very hard during the day so that you all have clean clothes.” He kept working quietly and didn’t complain again.
While we worked, I asked him how I could help him feel less frustrated when it was time to leave his friend’s house. He said, “I just want to stay there all the time.” So I asked, “If you knew that you were going to visit your friend’s house every Thursday, would it make it easier to leave?” He said yes, so I suggested we talk with his friend’s mom and try to set up a regular visit once a week.
I felt so proud of both of us! He had been cooperative and communicative, while I had once again proven to myself (and my husband) how important it was to Wait and Connect.
To learn more about how your child’s brain is wired and what specific techniques you can use to discipline effectively, I highly recommend reading “No-Drama Discipline” by Daniel Siegel.
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