Beneath the tantrum is the love – address the feelings and the behaviours start to resolve themselves

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative c...

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative commons license and are free for everyone to download, edit, alter and use as long as you give me, “D Sharon Pruitt” credit as the original owner of the photo. Have fun and enjoy! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child is acting out or having a tantrum, the question for me is ‘can I see past the kid’s behaviour to their Heart’? Even when my child is screaming ‘I hate you and want to hit you’ can I see her suffering?… and beneath that her love?

I reach to connect with her underlying needs and feelings and, in a sense, refuse to believe what she is saying or doing represents her innermost truth. I don’t mean we should ignore the behaviour, mind you. Limits that ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing, as well as keeping property protected are very important… but I just do not believe that behaviour truly represents ‘who she is’! I keep looking and listening for clues of what is really going on and what is getting in the way of her being her highest, most loving self. What is she feeling, how is she perceiving this situation and how is the reality of this experience for her? Then I act with all that in mind – seeing her as Love, even in the midst of a storm of anger, fear or sadness.

My primary aim, then, is not to stop the ‘wrong behaviour’ but to re-connect, validate the feelings and meet the underlying needs. I do not deploy time-outs, consequences or other punishments to try and get her to do what I want. Instead, I slow down and try to listen and connect first. Amazingly, I find when that truly happens, when she feels deeply heard and understood, when her basic needs (not all her wants!) are met, the behaviour very often  corrects itself, as if by magic. She just needed to feel loved and seen for who she is. And when she feels safe and secure in my love, again, she wants to co-operate, she wants to work with me and find solutions for going forward together, because she too loves me.

This sounds romantic, but actually, it is based in hard science. Neuroscience now firmly tells us that kids cannot physically take in what we are saying to them while they are upset (and if they are throwing a tantrum or acting out, trust me, they are not in their ‘happy place’). When the brain is flooded by stress hormones, the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reason, logic and empathy, among other faculties) pretty much literally shuts down. Then the part of the brain left in charge is the limbic system. The limbic system processes and records feelings. With the impulse-control center (the pre-frontal cortex) shut down, kids are now pretty much all feelings and impulses.

If (instead of punishing or banishing) we can take a minute, stay with them, listening, modeling calmness and, through our loving presence, validate whatever emotion is coming up for our children (because, let’s face it, all emotions are valid. You are never wrong for feeling what you feel – you just do – it is how you deal with those feelings that counts); if we can keep them and ourselves safe (physically preventing them from hurting anyone) while still baring in mind that they are, at their core, LOVE, they will in time return to centre. When all their emotions are spent, when they have expressed themselves to the full and they feel heard and held by us, in our caring heart – then they return to themselves, their pre-frontal cortex is ON again and now they can truly hear us. Now, that they feel accepted and loved, they can listen to any guidance we have to offer. By this point, I for one, don’t feel like pontificating or lecturing. Usually if the limits are clear (“I will not let you hit”, etc) then there is little need to explain why nor is there need to ask why they did it. If they’ve just been crying for 30 minutes or more, it is clear that they were letting go of a huge backlog of anger, fear or stress that was causing their behaviour to go off-track.

And so, this is it, the magic of positive parenting and why we don’t need to use punishments or rewards. When kids feel loved, connected and understood they most often want to co-operate. So, my main job, at any time, is to do what I can to keep that connection alive in my heart and in my kid’s.

This is work, the true work of parenting, for me. It is not always easy (AT ALL) and I am forever learning more… but this path of conscious, peaceful parenting feels good to me. You?

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If you are interested in the neuroscience there are many good books out there popularising this stuff and making it accessible to everyone. For a really easy to understand explanation of this stuff (the neuroscience of kids emotions and how they learn both to ‘behave’ and to empathise with others) I would recommend The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. which is also chock full of practical tips for applying this knowledge to your parenting.

Other related posts:

  • By Janet Lansbury: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/dont-fight-the-feelings/
  • By Julianne Idleman of Hand in Hand Parenting (founded by Patty Wipfler): http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/parent-education-listening-and-limits/
  • By Genevieve  Simperingham founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute:  http://peacefulparent.com/how-to-set-limits-while-maintaining-the-connection/

    Enjoy exploring those, too. :)

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Let’s not punish our kids for our mistakes

Angry? No... tired!

Angry? No… tired! (Photo credit: Sébastien Barillot)

Nika had her second ever ice-cream parlour (soy) ice-cream today. She loved it, of course… Unfortunately the combination of sugar, over-stimulation (mostly from hanging out with a well-meaning and super-fun uncle and auntie) and staying up past her bedtime proved too much for her. After a good, long cry, she fell asleep on my lap in the bathroom – before brushing her teeth!! Bless her…

I really felt for her, though. Those last 30 mins or so before sleep were really tough. She was obviously stressed and wound-up beyond belief.

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Often, I reflect on how many tantrums kids get punished or shamed for that were really caused by us, adults – stuff we did or failed to do to safeguard their basic wellbeing. It is natural and predictable that kids will get stressed and overwhelmed when they are in very noisy, busy environments, when they eat stimulating foods (including sugar and artificial colourings), when they fall out of their routine (or have none to begin with), when they are exposed to lots of new people or transitions or things that stress them personally. If we put them in those situations (which, lets face it, sometimes is inevitable) is it fair if we then turn around and punish them for being over-tired and stressed and expressing that through off-track behaviour, tantrums or crying? Do we adults not get more ratty and impatient and ‘moody’ when we have had a stressful, tiring day?

If we really can’t prevent these over-stimulating factors to crowd their day on occasion, we have at least a duty, imo, to see the tantrum (or the off behaviour) coming and meet it with empathy and compassion rather than surprise, shock and anger.

And, hey, I think limits are important. All feelings are acceptable but not all behaviours are. I think ‘teaching’ kids how to deal with their big emotions in appropriate ways is vital… but we do not do this best through punishment – quite the opposite. Punishing a kid who is already stressed out of their brain only compounds the problem and makes them feel shame for their natural reaction to an unnatural situation they were put in, in this case.

Furthermore, I believe (drawing from research in this area) that kids learn to control their impulses and to express their emotions in socially ‘appropriate’ ways, primarily through observing and living with our example of how we deal with our emotions. the calmer we are, the calmer they can learn to become, essentially (assuming their brains are wired  along ‘neurotypical’ lines). Kids also internalise how we treat them when they have big emotions. If we listen and show compassion for our children when the big waves of feeling are arising, they in time will learn to connect with and express their own feelings, knowing they are valid and accepting them as they come up. They also learn to become naturally caring and empathic towards others, as their first response.

So, yes, supporting kids to behave in socially acceptable ways even when they are angry or tired is very important to me. But the first step to that is empathy, always empathy, not punishment or shame.

Parent peacefully BECAUSE it is hard for you

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E. Frankl

So often I hear how hard it is to break away from the way we were parented to parent differently, more peacefully, more calmly. It takes every ounce of energy we can muster not to react how we were reacted to, not to continue a cycle of parenting violence that did not serve us but that we seem powerless to stop ourselves from repeating.

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was brought up really quite peacefully. This is often thrown at me like a weakness in a ‘you have it so easy’ kind of a way. They are right. I do have it easier. Our brains are literally molded by the way we were parented. The fact that my parents did not beat or even ‘spank’ me, that they did not habitually yell at me and that their responses were not erratic and unpredictable has given me the ability to respond more thoughtfully and peacefully to those things that trigger me (and yes, I get triggered, too!)  And a life-time of spiritual practice has further helped re-wire my brain so that there is often a tiny bit longer pause between stimulus and response – so that I may choose how I want to respond rather than let my conditioning take-over or find myself reacting in ways I later regret.

Let’s be clear, though, I am NOT perfect. I am very much a work in progress, too. My husband and I have argued far more than I’d like, for example (and we are working on that, too). But generally speaking I am a relatively calm person and I find I often have a surprising amount of patience for my little one and that, in particular, I tend not to take her emotional outbursts personally. I can usually see past the mad to the sad (to quote my friend Tabitha). I can usually look past the behaviour and even the angry words to the underlying feelings and needs that are driving those behaviours. I can, in most cases, with some effort, reach in and find some genuine empathy for what she is going through, even when she is shouting that she hates me or is going to hit me or whatever… And I do think the fact that I was not punished, shamed or hit, yelled at or called names when I was growing up plays a part in making sure those are not my first responses to my child, either.

The other day, while I was speaking to a friend who was, in her words, ‘brought up pretty physically’ and who, like so many others is finding it hard to transition smoothly to positive, gentle parenting, it struck me that this is exactly why it is so important that we parent our children peacefully. We want their first responses to be loving and compassionate. We want their default setting to be to build connection, whenever possible. We want them not to have to struggle to change their own patterns in the future when or if they decide they want to live with more awareness and more peace in their heart – perhaps for the sake of their children.

And I know it is possible. I am surrounded by living examples of people who were brought up with repeated physical punishment and humiliation who are now choosing to bring up their children in more respectful, compassionate ways. I have friends who suffered repeated abuse at the hand of their parents and other family members and are now parenting in such gentle, loving ways they are an inspiration and a joy to behold. Their children, too, most often give out what they have received: respect, co-operation and attentiveness. Change is possible. I know this from my own experience, too. I am forever learning and growing (as I trust everyone here is) and working to overcome my own challenges – some of those deep and complex. And change comes.

Still, the harder you are finding it to move to peaceful, conscious parenting the more obvious it should be to you how very important it is that you do so. If there is in you yearning to parent your child/ren in non-violent ways that build connection, closeness and trust but you feel locked in by the conditioning that comes from how you were parented… then you know how much this stuff sticks. How we respond to our kids – especially in their first three years but throughout their childhood – shapes who they are, how they relate to others and how they react under stress pretty much for the rest of their lives until or unless they, like you, decide to get more conscious and put time and effort into building new habits. Let’s make it easy on our kids to be kind, gentle and empathic to others, in the future – let’s be kind, gentle and empathic toward them, now.

Toddler Tantrum ‘First Aid’

IMG_4151

IMG_4151 (Photo credit: justinhenry)

So, your 15 month old has started having daily meltdowns – how do you respond? So many people tell us to ignore them. That doesn’t feel right… but what is the alternative?

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We all know, connection parenting is 90% prevention… but what do we do when (despite or actually because of the safety of all that emotional closeness we have created) they begin to show some BIG feelings?…

Here’s the thing, when this happens our children are telling (or showing) us how they feel and, like with anybody, the most important thing for them is to feel heard and seen.

1. For me, the first thing is always to empathise: try and put myself in their shoes. What emotion is coming up for them (anger, frustration, sadness, jealousy…)? What triggered this? How would I feel in that situation? etc.

2. Then, I move in close, try and catch their eye and give them words/a story for what is happening, like ‘oh you couldn’t reach that *** and now you are really frustrated’.

What we are doing here is:

a) validating and acknowledging the frustration (and 15 months is a frustrating age, so much you just realised you want to do but you don’t quite have the motor skills or words to make it happen!!);

b) reassuring them we love them THROUGH their strong feelings (not suspending our love/affection when big stuff comes up for them);

c) by staying calm yourself we are helping them re-find their centre and begin to build the neural pathways for self-comfort in the future;

d) giving them the first tools in their future emotional intelligence kit – knowing how to recognise and name their own feelings (honestly, I know adults who are not in touch with their feelings well enough to say ‘I feel angry/sad’ right now). This is huge. In a sense we are helping them build their own future inner dialogue when big feelings come up. As they grow older we can continue to model and actively demonstrate ways to channel those feelings in a peaceful way – but the foundation is this: recognising and naming our feelings.

3. After that, I’d just stay with them until they are done ‘telling’ or showing me how they feel and then when they are ready offer a hug.

Meanwhile, you want to keep it light and match their energy to theirs (not over-dramatise, if they are ready to move on, move on with them :) – the most important thing is demonstrating that you love them, no matter what and all the time, and that their big feelings are safe with you (will not push you away). Isn’t that a lesson for life?

What I honour in my child, I honour in myself

The more I honour, respect and celebrate my child’s ‘no’s the more I find space and confidence to honour my own ‘no’s.

Each time my daughter says ‘no’, I feel really happy. I am proud of her for knowing what she wants and expressing it so clearly and assertively. Of course that doesn’t mean she always gets what she wants (or doesn’t get what she doesn’t want). Very often I ‘honour’ her ‘no’ by listening to it, validating it (telling her I hear her and understand she doesn’t want what I am proposing, say a diaper change) and then go on to say that this is one of those times when mommy has to go ahead and do it anyway. It happens. But it is rare.

Tantrums

Most of the time, say if I ask for a hug and she says ‘no’ I look closely and find that she was already engaged in something and chances are I was ‘rude’ for interrupting with my sudden (selfish) need to express my bubble of love for her – with no respect or sensitivity to what she was doing. Afterall, my love will still be here in 10 minutes. Or if I say ‘do you want to go to the park?’ and she says ‘noooooo’, I wait. I know that in most cases (especially with something as tantalising as going to the playground) she doesn’t mean ‘no’, she means ‘not now… just let me finish what I am doing here, please, mom’ (but she doesn’t yet have the vocab, let alone the inter-personal awareness to express it this way). In a couple of minutes when she has finished the important business of putting all her toys in the laundry basket, I know she’ll tootle over to me and say ‘PAAAK’. She just needed a minute. I would extend the same courtesy (of listening and letting somebody finish what they were invested in) were it, say, my partner, so why not to my toddler just because she can’t say full sentences, yet. She can express herself very well, already.

As it is, I meet most of my daughters ‘no’s with a ‘yes’ (‘okay, we don’t need to do that, right now’). That seems to really help her trust that I am listening, that I care about what is important to her, that I will respect her wishes whenever possible. I also reckon the fact that 80 or 90% of the times Anya says ‘no’ our response is to smile (because it is so darn cute, apart from anything else), helps her feel empowered.

After all, imagine if every time you said you didn’t want something (sauce on your steak, to watch a re-run of ‘gone in 60 seconds’ with your husband…) not only were you forced to do it, but you were actually frowned upon if not outright punished for daring not to want something. What effect would that have? Would it not make you feel even more angry, hostile and disconnect from the one not listening to your wants?? It would me.

So, I respect my daughter’s fledgling right to self-determination, whenever I can… and as I help her uphold her own boundaries, I slowly but deeply register the importance of these, of ‘outer limits’, in our lives. I am doing all this, at least in part, because I want her to grow up strong in her own self-knowledge, in her ability to tune into herself and know what feels right and what doesn’t – in the moment (not 10 minutes from now) and to express it in a positive way. Somewhere in this process of supporting my daughter’s own, natural connection to her true feelings I find my own atunment growing stronger, too. And, in our relationship, at least, I find that because I have made so many deposits in the bank of ‘it is okay to say no’ I can make withdrawls from it, with confidence, too. I can say ‘no, sorry, you can’t have another go. It is time to go home now’ or whatever, confidently, too. I trust that she will hear me. I trust that she will know I am not just doing this to yank her chain or to exercise power over her. In fact, me being me, (in this example) I will already have told her that was the last go on the slide and we were going home soon, framed it positively and with regards to what is interesting and exciting to her (rather than saying ‘we are going home’, saying ‘do you want to open the gate’ – a big draw at this age)… I don’t just drop a ‘no’ on her, from out of nowhere. It is padded, usually. Padded with love, empathy and sensitivity for her needs, as well as a growing awareness of my own.

The interesting thing, then, is that as I help my daughter value her natural assertiveness, I notice my own finding more appreciation in me, too. All this gentle parenting stuff that I feared would make me weaker, a walk-over (as so many detractors warn us) instead is making me stronger, more in touch with my own feelings and able to express them. What I honour in my daughter I honour in me.