Do you feel like you walk on eggshells around your child’s emotions? Do you have a sense of dread every time you realize you have to tell your child “no” or give them a consequence? Perhaps you fear the intense, out of control tantrum you know will result when things don’t go just his way. If you have a child prone to major outbursts (aka, tantrums, rages, throwing a fit) then you know the stress you feel when having to manage it. Many parenting programs focus on how to talk to your child before they are upset but few help you know how to respond when they are already upset. Really upset.
Before you can understand how to help your child, you have to have an understanding of what’s happening in their brain. The human brain is hardwired to respond to threats by triggering survival mode: freeze/fight/flight. So much energy expenditure goes into this amygdala driven response that higher levels of thinking go off line. But why does you saying he or she can’t have that second cookie trigger that survival mode mechanism anyway?
Young children have a very difficult time differentiating between “wants” and “needs.” Think about it, how many times even as adults do we joke we “need” that chocolate or just “have to have a diet coke.” It’s even more complicated for children! Any time we tell them they can’t have, or must have, or can’t do, or must do something that differs from what their body and mind is saying, it feels like a threat to their sense of safety. They interpret this difference as you not caring for their needs (even when we really know these are wants).
And that's when your child is triggered to freeze (shut down or disassociate), fight (throw a rage), or flee (run off).
So, what do you do?
Meet Physical Needs
First, recognize that we are all more sensitive to not getting our way when we are hungry, tired, thirsty, or already feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Children, especially those with difficulty understanding or processing physical sensations (such as children with developmental delays, autism, or trauma histories, for example) may struggle to recognize they have a true need that should be met. When your child is in this state, attempt to keep you and them calm by very gently using when/then statements to help reduce the perceived threat that you do not care to meet their needs. Offer to help them feel physically more comfortable. Sometimes, a quick snack or drink of water can calm a flustered child!
Help Your Child Feel Safe
To a young child, an adult can be an imposing figure. Lower yourself to their eye level to speak with them. Lower your voice and slow….it….down…..Another tip is to turn somewhat to the side rather than directly towards them to reduce appearing threatening. Keep your arms relaxed at your side or better yet, open them slightly, palms up, as if offering a hug. Some children will collapse in to the safety of your embrace.
For more aggressive children, it may be important to survey the vicinity for potential items that could be used aggressively on themselves or others. In general, it is not good to block any potential exit points as that only leads a dysregulated child to feeling trapped and resort to attacking. However, if they have a history of darting in to the street or running away (which is different than running off to regulate themselves) you may need to consider keeping an eye on these points of exit. Sometimes it's okay to let kids run off to cool off. Most kids will return after a short period of time and be in a better frame of mind to discuss the issue.
When a child feels powerless and out of control, they may wrongly interpret that you do not care about them or purposefully are causing them distress. They may even feel hated! Use brief, reassuring statements and ignore any attempts to engage you in to a verbal power battle. Let them know you are right here for them if they should need you. However, if you as the adult need a break because of your own dysregulation, take it! Let them know you will be waiting in the other room for when they are ready to speak calmly or want a hug.
Staying in a state of hyper-arousal is physical and emotionally draining. Most kids will have subtle signs they are starting to wear themselves out. In these moments, calming praise them for their use of any coping skills: “I see your doing some deep breathing! That’s very good, I like how you remembered that skill!” If you are not sure whether the child is really moving towards a more regulated state, you can sometimes as them for a small act of compliance to check if they are beginning to process things better: “Hey buddy, can you pick up that shoe you threw and put it by the other one? Thanks!”
It’s never a good time to lecture your child. Children do not learn through lecturing! If you lecture, you rob your child the opportunity to self-reflect and develop insight. Lessons they learn through insight will have a much more lasting impact than a well-meaning adult, once again, telling them what they should feel and how they should think and behave. Ask them how they feel when they get out of control and what they could have done differently. Help them think of ways to remember what they could do differently next time.
What About Consequences?
Just because you can be understanding of tantrums or rages, does not mean you do not give consequences. However, most kids will fail to remember specific things they may have said or done during the rage. It’s not worth making them recall the details. Instead, help them come up with away to repair any damage done, make amends for not having used their coping or self-calming skills, and then (and this is important) let it go! Children need a chance to start fresh. If they are receiving consequences still for something they did last week, or even yesterday, the lesson is often lost. In fact, the frustration they feel with the situation may add to the inability to move forward and do better.
What if None of This Works?
Sometimes, all the talking, and understanding in the world gets you nowhere. Sometimes, holding a child in your arms to prevent violent attacks against you, themselves or others is the only option. If you think this might be the case for your child, consider getting trained professionally in how to safely restrain someone. Restraining is always a risk and never fun. It can even add to the child's trauma, and your own as well! Work with their therapist to be sure you are not further triggering them. It’s very important that if you have a child who is this violent to be consulting with professionals to help find other options for behavior modification as quickly as possible.
Parenting very difficult children is exhausting. Take care of yourself in between the difficult moments, prepare a safety plan ahead of time to know how you will respond to their behaviors in the heat of the moment, and build a support group to step in when you are struggling.
Call Family Solutions Counseling at 435-915-6777 to learn more about how to help your child.
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