The breakdown on big feelings


Many young children resort to a physical act to express anger or frustration. They don’t always have the words to describe their emotions and don’t quite know how to control their feelings. When they get frustrated or angry and can’t cope with the situation they might react with a bite, hit, kick or scratch.

Why is the age range of 2 to 6 years such a turbulent time for kids?

Kids this age are trying to synthesize two different developmental stages: on the one hand, they feel an increasing sense of competence and independence, like a big kid; but on the other hand, they still feel helpless and vulnerable at times, like a baby or little kid. They’re constantly seesawing back and forth between “I can do it myself – don’t help me!” and “Whoah, this is too much for me to take on – help!” It’s confusing for parents, because you’re always trying to figure out whether to step in or stand back. Take a snapshot of this stage and store it away for future reference, because you’re going to revisit the same dynamics when they’re tweens seesawing back and forth between teenager and child, and then again as teenagers when they’re about to launch into adulthood.

Why do kids go through those phases where they seem to be pushing boundaries and testing limits constantly?

Testing is part of the job description at this age, because kids can’t know where the boundaries are until they cross them. They’re trying to get a sense of their place in the family, and in the world. They’re trying to figure out how much power they have, and who’s really in charge – it’s all about “my will vs. your will,” because what you are really witnessing at this age is the birth of the human ego, or sense of self or separateness. If kids feel like they’re able to call the shots and control you through their behavior, they actually feel quite unsafe. At the end of the day, what they really want to know is that you’re in charge and they’re not – deep down, they know this is how things should be. So the parent’s task is to lovingly and firmly remind their child where the boundaries are – over and over and over again.

The other thing that’s happening for young children is they’re newly experiencing big surges of feelings, and it takes several years to master allowing these surges without getting carried away by them. That’s what emotional mastery is. To young children, emotions can feel like giant tsunamis – and some of the testing behavior is them saying, “I’m getting flooded by all of this emotion, and I have no idea what to do – please help me!” Kids need to know that you are bigger than their big feelings, and that you can help contain them when they can’t do that for themselves. If your emotions escalate right along with theirs, you’re both going to drown in the flood.

What usually triggers tantrums and acting-out behavior?

There are two ways to think about this – one is from the perspective of the bigger picture, and one focuses more on the smaller picture. From the smaller-picture perspective, the main triggers for acting out at this age are vying for your attention, transitions, and power struggles – they want something and you’re setting a limit. All of these fall under the heading “I want what I want, not what you want.” Kids this age don’t have much impulse control yet, so they need to be taught how to delay gratification, how to tolerate frustration, how to be patient and wait for something. These are core self-regulation skills they need to succeed in life. The key for parents is to allow for the degree of choice and freedom appropriate to the age, and simultaneously to own your authority as the parent – finding that balance. It’s not about wanting to having power over your child, which is really more about fear, but about holding a grounded, calm, loving space for him – in other words, keeping yourself emotionally regulated – as he navigates the turbulent waters of this developmental stage. This will go a long way toward helping him stay on a more even keel.

From a bigger-picture perspective, when kids tantrum what they’re also doing, inadvertently, is helping you get right into the NOW moment – this is where kids live. If you are often stressed or emotionally checked out, and it’s challenging for you to be fully present in your day-to-day interactions with your child, you may well have a child who tests more as she attempts to pull you out of your distraction. Part of what your child is here to teach you is how to return to the here and now – this is where life’s joy is! (Ok, except when your child is tantruming.) You once lived there, too, when you were a child – but you’ve forgotten how to stay there. One of a child’s greatest offerings is to remind us how to stop living mostly in the future and the past. To do that, you need to be emotionally present with yourself first – then you can offer that to your child as well.

Sometimes the talking back seems totally irrational, like they’re just arguing for argument’s sake. Calm responses and reflective understanding just seem to make it worse.

This may happen for several reasons. If your child is hungry or tired, the best course is to just let it go. But sometimes a child will react this way if he feels like you haven’t genuinely heard him. Offering a non-charged response and using reflective-listening tools won’t work if you’re just going through the motions – kids are much smarter than we give them credit for, and they’ll see right through that. Imagine if you were in a grouchy mood and your spouse said to you, without emotion: “Oh, I can see that you’re really angry right now. It’s OK for you to feel angry.” That would drive you nuts! With your child, take a step back and really tune into what he is expressing – get into his shoes and see if you can feel what he’s feeling. Rather than just reflecting, see if you can offer some interpretation: instead of “You’re so frustrated that we have to leave now,” try, “You want to stay, and you want to keep playing with Theo. You really don’t want to leave at all, and you wish you could keep on playing as long as you want.” Don’t worry that your child will then get even more upset – far more often than not, feeling genuinely heard will calm him almost instantly. And whatever you do, don’t add “but” and then explain why you have to leave anyway, which will send him right back into feeling not-heard.

But sometimes your child’s negativity is about something else altogether: fear. She may be anxious about starting a new school or activity, welcoming a baby into the home, interacting with another child at school who’s threatening in some way, or simply growing up and becoming more independent from you, if she’s taking a big developmental leap forward. When we’re in fear, we’re in our “negative ego,” or that aspect of ourselves that focuses on separateness and comparison and comes up short. We’ve given our power away, and now we seek to regain it. The negative ego always seeks to engage with negative energy – that’s what it feeds on. It’s a trap for you, because you’ll feel like you’re being attacked and your first instinct will be to defend yourself.

Don’t buy in. If you suspect your child’s negativity is masking anxiety, saying so will help lift a huge burden off of her shoulders, because she’ll have been trying to hide it. Tell her that although she sounds angry or upset, you’re wondering if she’s having a hard time with new baby, new transition, whatever it is. Help her process what’s causing her fears – talk about it; encourage her to draw or paint her feelings; engage her in imaginary play; help build her confidence back up by asking her to teach you how to do something, like bake cookies in her pretend oven.

Sometimes it’s just so hard not to get angry and want to punish these outbursts and moments that feel like serious disrespect. What can we do instead?

Most parents will notice that some of your child’s behaviors pushes their buttons way more than others. When this happens, it’s usually because there’s a pattern being repeated that’s reminding you of something difficult from your own childhood. Whatever age your child is, they represent a portal back in time to your own childhood at that age – and the strong emotional charge often indicates that there’s something you experienced as a child that you couldn’t make sense of or fully process at the time, so it remains unresolved.

Don’t shoot the messenger! Your child is simply serving as your mirror, and the reaction you’re having is an opportunity to take a look at one of your own childhood beliefs or patterns that’s no longer serving you. Once you get to the root of what’s pushing your buttons with your child, you’ll find that her behavior doesn’t trigger you in the same way anymore.

How can we encourage more cooperation and less push back?

First and foremost, by focusing on your own well-being. If you’re overworked, overwrought, and overtired, you won’t have anything to bring to your relationship with your child – and your disconnect from yourself will show up in the mirror of his behavior. Taking care of you also means attuning to your own internal emotional experience as a parent – honoring it and staying present with it rather than glossing over or dismissing it. As you become more aware of your own feelings, you’ll do a better job of attuning and attending to those of your child.

Also, you can’t express too often that your child is A-OK just the way he is, even if you sometimes need to discipline his behavior. One way to do that is to allow all of his feelings – no matter how big, no matter how inconvenient – without trying to prevent or fix or change them. Arguably the most loving thing we can do for kids – or anyone, for that matter – is to give them permission to have their experience in life. That’s what each of us really wants. We can have lots of company and support and friendship and companionship on our journey, but we want to know that our experience is our own, and that we are free to have it. A child who is loved no matter what knows that your happiness is not tied to her ups and downs – and the positive self-esteem that flowers from that seed will translate as calmer, more cooperative behavior.

If you anticipate your child is about to act-out, should parents remove the child from the other child before any actions take place?

As you watch your child’s actions, you may be able to prevent an aggressive act before it occurs. Most children show warning signs beforehand; they yell, cry, grab or push. If you see that your child is getting frustrated or angry – perhaps in the middle of a scrimmage over a toy – step in. Separate the children, help the emotional child to calm down and deal with her feelings properly. Then coach her on how to properly deal with the situation.

Which child is that?

You should actually talk with BOTH children and help them each learn from the situation. The child who was angry and aggressive can be taught how to recognize feelings of anger and how to control these and use words or space (move away) instead of aggressive acts. It is, of course, always important to talk with the other child – first to be sure he or she is not hurt. Then to discuss briefly what happened. How you can sometimes talk to an angry person to make them stop being mad. Or how you can go to an adult for help if you feel someone is acting out in a bad way.

Language parents should use when guiding their child away from their impulse to act-out?

If you happen to see the incident, step in quickly. Look your daughter in the eye and tell her in a few short sentences what you want her to know, such as, “Biting hurts. We don’t bite people. Give Jake a hug and say I’m sorry. That will make him feel better.” Then, give your child a few hints on how she should handle her frustration next time: “If you want a toy back, you can ask for it nicely, or come to Mommy or Miss Danielle for help.”

What if the aggressor is too upset to say “I’m sorry?”

If a child is angry and emotional or upset and crying it may be helpful to give him a few minutes to calm down before addressing the situation. Ask him to sit down for a few minutes away from the play area. This is similar to a Time Out – except that the purpose is not punishment, but to allow the child to gain control of his emotions before coming back to the play area to make amends and start anew.

How much attention should we give the “aggressor” compared to the “aggressed?”

Typically parents put all their energy into correcting the biter’s actions and don’t give the child who was bitten enough consolation. Soothing the child who was bitten can show “the biter” that her actions caused another child fear or pain. You can even encourage “the biter” to help comfort her friend.

Is there any credibility to the “biter” seeking negative attention?

Sometimes a child may be seeking attention, though I believe most often it’s about a child who is unable to handle his own extreme emotions, or unable to be patient to wait for a turn, or angry because he wants something and doesn’t know how to get it. Young kids can sometimes be “emotion in motion” – they aren’t acting with forethought, but reacting in order to release emotions or get what they want without thought to other people.

Alternative ways we can help our child channel their frustration — especially if words are too tough for him/her to use.

Keep the lines of communication open. Encourage him to come to you for help when he has a problem or a question. Be thoughtful with responses – don’t shut him down if you don’t have an easy answer, or if his question/s surprise you. Let him share his feelings and then gently guide him through the thought process and on to the best answers.

Could you also expand on what you mean by “if you don’t have an easy answer or if the questions surprise you?

Once you open up the lines of communication a child may release pent-up feelings without a filter. He may tell you he “hates” his friend, or that he’s not sorry he hit her. This is where your mature ability to understand and reason through a situation is most helpful. It may take more than one discussion to sort through these angry feelings, but it’s an important life lesson. You might start by telling him that everyone gets mad, and sometimes it’s hard when we don’t get our way. Point out that it’s not really the other person we hate, but what is happening. Parents need to separate the situation the child is mad about from the person he cares about.

Do you feel “punishment” is a successful mode of changing the behavior of the child that aggresses?

Many parents respond emotionally when their child uses his teeth or fist on another human being; their immediate response is anger, followed by punishment. This is because we view the act from an adult perspective. However, if we can understand that a young child’s hit or bite is most likely a responsive reflex, we can avoid responding in the following typical, yet unnecessary and ineffective ways:

  • Don’t hit a child who is being taught not to hit, and don’t bite your child back to “show her how it feels.”
  • Don’t resort to yelling or punishing, as the important lesson you are trying to teach will be lost. She isn’t purposefully hurting her playmate. By responding with the same action you may be confusing her, or even reinforcing that this is an acceptable behavior. You are frustrated or angry with her – show her how you want her to deal with those emotions when she has them.

Any kind of behavior or words parents should avoid doing/using in order to change their child’s behavior?

You can give your child some words to use if he cannot come up with something herself. You can even have her parrot you. “I think you should say ‘Evan, I’m sorry I hit you. Next time let’s take turns, okay?”

When you understand that your child’s actions are normal, and aren’t intentional aggression, you’ll be able to take the right steps to teach her how to communicate her feelings of frustration. This takes time, consistency, and she’ll need more than one lesson.

When it comes to helping children, ages 3-6, express their feelings, what is the most important thing for parents to do?

Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting suggests the following:

Empathize. (“You’re so frustrated your tower fell after you worked so hard on it!”, “That dog’s bark is loud; it scared you.”) When we empathize with our child, he learns:

  • What he is feeling is normal and acceptable (even if some actions he wants to take may not be acceptable.)
  • His parents understand his feelings, are not scared by them, and can help him manage them.
  • His feeling has a name. He can recognize this feeling in the future and use words to “tame” it.

What if it seems impossible for parents to understand what their child is feeling? Then what can parents do?

Say what you see and reassure the child that she is not alone with her feelings. “You are crying now…You seem so upset…It’s ok to cry, Sweetie…Everyone needs to cry sometimes…I will stay with you…I am right here.”

Could you list specific tips to help children express themselves for a 3, 4, 5, and 6 year old?

2 and 3 yr old – Empathize and give words for feelings. Give your child a safe place to express feelings when she’s upset — your arms! Never send your child away (including to her room) when she’s upset, because that gives her the message that she’s alone with her big scary feelings — just when she needs you most. Help her become comfortable expressing her feelings by crying and/or raging in your arms or near you (“I won’t hold you because you don’t seem to want me to right now, but I am right here. I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. I am right here when you need a hug.”) Are you teaching him to tantrum? No, you are teaching him that he can recognize and express feelings, rather than “stuff” them. It’s the repressed feelings that get us in trouble, as when a three year-old socks his baby brother. If he learns that these chaotic feelings can be accepted and safely expressed, he will gradually develop the frontal lobe capacity and the neural pathways to calm his “big” feelings without the tantrum. And you’ll find that your understanding and empathy extinguish most tantrums before they even begin, since they salve his frustration.

4yr old – 4 year olds are famous for minor bullying: “You can’t come to my birthday party if you don’t play this game my way.” That’s because they are experimenting with power. Help them to reflect on their actions, and refrain from punishments, which teach them to lord power over others. Instead of timeouts, use natural consequences and set limits as necessary, offering empathy when he doesn’t like them. “We have to leave church now because you hit the other boy. I’m sorry you’re mad and sad, but we can’t stay when you hit.”

Does he get a timeout when he gets home? No. That won’t help. Instead you give him words for his feelings and teach him how he might handle them next time. You ask him what happened. As he describes it, you give him words for the feelings involved: “You were mad because the other kids didn’t want to play the game your way. That was pretty frustrating. It’s ok to get mad, all people get mad sometimes. But we NEVER hit. What else can you do when you get really mad?” Go through all the options. Let him suggest the “bad choices” like hitting other kids, and ask him “Would that be a good choice? Nah.” (Smiling is allowed.) Make it clear that while any feeling he has is ok, he chooses his own response to those feelings and he is responsible for his choices. Explain that he needs to acknowledge his angry feelings and choose to do something constructive with them.

5 yr oldIf your five year old is still having “tantrums” or outbursts — not uncommon — help him brainstorm safe ways to express his frustration. Maybe he can carry a squeezy ball in his pocket to fill up with his mad feelings. Maybe he can go off by himself and take ten deep “calming” breaths when he’s frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips). Maybe he can turn around away from other people and hit the empty air. Maybe he can do push-ups. The trick with all of these things is to teach him while he’s feeling good, then remind him when he’s upset, so be sure to share them with his teachers. You’ll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he’s under stres

6 yr oldListen! Six year-olds should be able to use words when they’re upset. If they “act out” with bad behavior instead of expressing themselves verbally to you, it probably means they don’t feel safe expressing their feelings, or don’t feel listened to. Spend a daily minimum of ten minutes, unstructured, alone with each child, listening to them talk about their day. Resist the urge to jump in and solve problems. Six year-olds need parents to listen and help them reflect, rather than to solve their problems. Simply give them your undivided attention and reflect what they say. “Hmm…So you got pretty mad, huh?…Sounds like you’re considering giving him a piece of your mind…But you think that might make things worse?…You’re wondering if it might be better to…” Before you know it, your kid gives you a quick hug and dashes out the door. With lots of confidence in his ability to sort out his own life. What an inspired parent! And what a lucky kid.


You might also like More from author

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.