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.

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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?