My 2-going-on-3-year-old has recently entered a phase complete with very BIG feelings and lots of yelling and hitting. I think it’s a combination of age/developmental stage, having a new baby brother (who he loves, but it’s still a hard adjustment) and being cooped up inside watching too much TV. On top of that, he has been sick for over a week and has been extra clingy and needy – and only mom will do.
This morning I was holding a tired baby, getting ready to get him to sleep. My toddler was upset about something and wanted me to hold him.
He said, “put the baby down on the couch.”
I said, “I’ll try, but I think he’s tired, so that may not work so well.”
I laid the baby down, and sure enough, he started crying. So I picked him back up, sat on the couch, and invited my toddler to come sit on my lap. He wasn’t having anything to do with that idea though – he wanted me to hold just him. He got super upset, screaming at me to put the baby down and trying to hit me.
I held his hands and prevented him from hitting me, saying, “I won’t let you hit me; I will keep everyone safe.”
I empathized with him about how hard it is to share his mommy. I repeated back what he was saying, and assured him I was there.
This went on for several minutes, and eventually he climbed up on my lap and calmed down.
I kissed his head and said, “I love you.”
He said, “I love you too, Mommy.”
I said, “I am here for you – when you’re really upset, and when you’re happy, and no matter how you feel. I will help you with your feelings. I will keep everyone safe. And I will always love you.”
By showing love and acceptance to him in this moment was I rewarding or reinforcing bad behavior? Not at all.
I held my limit and did not allow him to hurt me or anyone else.
I didn’t “give in” and do what he was screaming at me to do (put the baby down).
Instead I tried my best to meet both of my boys’ needs to be held and cared for, while remaining empathetic and firm in my limits.
“My child is not giving me a hard time. My child is having a hard time.” -Unknown
I have come to understand that emotions and behavior are two separate things – all emotions are acceptable; all behavior is not.
And I understand that emotions are what drive our behavior, and must be addressed in order for the behavior to change – behavior is more of a symptom than anything. Withdrawing my love or attention would have been counterproductive.
“Behavior is a signal. Focus on what is driving the behavior, rather than the behavior itself; that is where connection begins.” -Racheous
I also understand that tantrums are just nature’s way of offloading big emotions when they get too overwhelming for little ones to handle. Tantrums are not bad behavior. They are a natural and developmentally appropriate response to overwhelming upset. Kids in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown are not in control, and in fact, probably feel quite out of control and even afraid of their own feelings and actions.
So it is our responsibility to stop harmful behavior, keep everyone safe, and share our calm rather than adding to the storm.
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” -L.R. Knost
This is what actually helps kids learn to self-regulate in time. Is it easy to do? Heck no. It has taken me years to get to the point where I can remain present and calm and compassionate through a meltdown, and I am still not always successful. But having the understanding of what tantrums are and what children need from us during these emotional storms helps a lot. It also helps to examine our triggers and why we get so upset when our kids act this way, and then to allow our buried feelings to be felt and validated and healed.
After all of this, if we’re worried about important lessons not being clear, we can always do any teaching we feel we need to, once everyone is calm and the connection has been restored. Trying to teach in the midst of the storm is futile.
Tantrums and meltdowns can be overwhelming and challenging to say the least. But honestly, the connection I felt with my son after he had been heard and helped was well worth the challenge of remaining calm.