There have been a few photos going viral of parents standing calmly by with a serene looks on their faces as a child thrashes on the floor in the throes of a tantrum. Commenters celebrate what a great gift they are giving their child by supporting the child’s emotional expression. I’m not here to judge. I see the heart behind what the parents are doing. I understand the desire to allow a child the space to explore their emotions.
But, you won’t see me standing calmly by while my child “self-expresses” on the floor of the grocery store. (If you see me doing this, call the ambulance because my poor Mama brain just melted down or something. I’m not doing it on purpose.)
Spectating tantrums is not how I do things. I’m not opposed simply because it is “different” than my comfort zone, but because I have very specific reasons for why I handle my children’s emotional expression the way that I do. And if you are happy and settled with the way you deal with your child’s tough moments, this post probably won’t mean much to you. We each have our own way of addressing issues, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
If you are one who sees those posts with the parents standing while the child is on the floor, and the empathy factor resonates with you, but it seems a little out of balance in the boundaries department perhaps this post will spark some ideas on how to gain balance in dealing with your child’s emotions.
So if you were to see me in the grocery store… and let’s say one of my children had a meltdown….this is what you would see: (and let me be clear, I’m talking about a meltdown as a result of not getting their way, not injury or as a result of developmental/ learning issues)
I would bend down to their level and hoist them gently but firmly to their feet. If they refused to stand I would hold them. Then I would calmly and firmly say, “Stop. Take a deep breath. Stop throwing a fit and look at me.” I would not get embarrassed (okay…I might feel embarrassed, but I’m easily embarrassed when attention is called to me. That’s not my kid’s problem, it’s mine.) I would remain calm and model for my child an unruffled demeanor in the midst of a chaotic moment despite how I was feeling.
Then, I would ask them to verbalize what they are feeling. The age and development of the child depends on how that conversation would go. A conversation with a one year old goes much differently than with a four year old having a tough moment. With a younger toddler I might say, “I know. I know you are tired, but we are not quite finished yet.” OR “I know you are disappointed because I said no.” If they are more verbal I might ask, “Are you angry?” or “Are you sad?” and offer them the chance to answer. Then, I would say something along the lines of, “I know you are tired/hungry/disappointed/ or whatever feeling fits here. I understand, but we do not throw fits when we do not get our way. It is okay to be disappointed, but it’s not okay to act that way.”
As my children grew, I did less of the talking and let them tell me what they’re feeling and how those feelings influenced their choices.
It sounds like a long process, but is actually quite quick. I get on their level. I remove them from their state of chaos and place them in a different position. I speak with calm authority which gets their attention. I acknowledge and share their feelings to the extent that they are willing and able, and then I give them instruction on how I expect them to behave. And then we move on with the shopping trip. It is a learning process, and it isn’t always perfect in execution, but it is the goal.
A child having a tantrum is communicating, but it is very limited communication. It is not truly free-expression. Because free indicates that they have a choice on how they communicate.
If they only know the infantile way, they are not free to choose another way. Most times, unless it is a situation in which a child has learned that they can manipulate others with their behavior, the child is unaware of their feelings, they lack self-regulation, and they are acting impulsively. Sometimes they become so stirred up in their emotional tornado, that they feel lost and frightened by the strength of their own emotions.
I can distinctly remember an incident with my oldest child, who is passionate in all emotional displays, at probably around 18 months. He was playing in his room and got very angry and frustrated. Who knows why? But his temper was hot. I listened for a moment before I intervened. His angry expression escalated. He was throwing toys and screaming uncontrollably. I will never forget the look in his eyes when I walked in the room. He was terrified. Not of me. At the emotion that had taken him over. I scooped him up, held him close, and told him to stop. He needed to hear that. He needed to know he could have self-control. The anger didn’t have to run over him. And then we snuggled a while and found something calm to do.
Emotional intelligence is important, and the teaching process can begin at a very early age.
So, how does this play out in real life as time has gone by? Are my kids emotionally stifled because I tell them that there are certain ways of expressing emotions that are inappropriate for the situation?
At any point in the day I can ask my children how they are feeling, and they are able to tell me. Whether it is my two year old, four year old, or six year old. The other day, I noticed my oldest was about to do something to aggravate his younger sister. I could sense the mischief in the air. I had been watching, and I had a good idea of what motivated his desire to aggravate. I called him over to me and said, “Why are you thinking about doing that to your sister?”
He stopped and thought a moment, and then said, “She wouldn’t share her toy with me a few minutes ago, and I guess I’m still a little mad at her.”
I then asked him if he thought that was a good way to handle what he was feeling. He smiled sheepishly, and went and found another way to occupy himself.
They display empathy with their peers, and age-appropriate understanding of their feelings and how their feelings influence behavior. Are they perfect? Absolutely not. Am I? Definitely not. I’m fully aware that I am an imperfect parent, and that I make parenting mistakes. But, I do feel that I am their safe place. Not just safe for the sake of being safe, but a safe place to receive instruction and correction.
If I allow them to toss haplessly on the floor, I am not helping them learn emotions do not have to dictate actions. I am not teaching them how to sail their own ship in stormy weather.
My job is to teach them to move from infantile ways of expressing themselves to mature ways of expressing themselves. I am teaching them to understand and communicate feelings.
Following this model for myself into adulthood…let’s say my husband makes me angry.
Taking on the model of allowing myself to express my emotions any way that feels right to me, I could do something passive aggressive like “accidentally” burn his dinner. I could be aggressive and yell and break plates. I could dump a pitcher of water on his head. I could give him the silent treatment. All those things would probably feel fairly gratifying in the moment. But, have I really accomplished anything of value for myself or my relationship?
What if instead: I still feel angry at my husband. I feel like doing all the things from the other example, but instead, I take notice of the intensity of emotion I am experiencing. I let my emotions result in thinking rather than action. What really has caused me to react so strongly to the incident? Is my emotion really about this particular incident or something else? Once I become more aware of myself, I can validate my own emotions by taking the time to gain a better understanding of what is going on inside of me. Then I calmly and firmly express how I feel. And if I am not being heard when I share this with my spouse, I can be aware of that and make that known as well. Somehow, the second one, though riddled with self-control, seems to be more truly free. Because I am not being dictated to by my feelings.
P.S. Does this mean that no one at my house struggles to express their emotions? Does it mean that I am always calm, patient, and understanding? We try, but no, were all very human here. We do, however, all challenge each other to find the best possible ways to express ourselves in ways the people who love us can understand. We laugh. We cry. We mourn. We dance. We’re silly. We’re serious. We understand that there is nothing wrong with healthy boundaries. Sometimes we break them. And there is grace, love, and correction to be found.