This morning, before I sat down to write my weekly blog, I opened my email to find this message:
Subject: It worked!
Sally at 4.5 years is very emotional and tempestuous. She was lying on the floor and screaming because Patricia would not share her mermaid doll. What I felt like saying was: “Be quiet or I will call your parents to pick you up.”
But I remembered what I read in your column and instead I said, “You must be very frustrated.” At which she stopped screaming and agreed that she was very frustrated. Magic!!!
Wow. What a great bit of parenting “magic.” Hurray for Sally and her Aunt!
This email really inspired me so I thought I’d share it with you and talk about this “magic” and why “it worked”.
Let’s look at all the parts of it.
- “Sally is 4.5 years old.”
What does this tell us?
Here’s some of what we know about four-year-olds.
- Four-year-olds have made great developmental strides.
- They have significantly greater language skills and their vocabularies can amaze us.
- They have acquired an increasing understanding of social interaction. They can actually play with others, make plans with others, create make-believe play with others, invite children to play with them, converse with adults, act more “grown up” in social situations, participate in group activities, follow directions and begin to see the impact of their behaviour on others.
- They have amazing imaginations. They can make up elaborate stories, pretend to be a wide range of characters, immerse themselves in fantasy play, and have a notorious capacity to confuse fantasy and reality.
- They have non-stop curiosity. This is the age of “Why?”
- They have the beginnings of reasoning skills. They begin to understand cause and effect. They start to understand the consequences of people’s actions and “what will happen if…”. They can think in terms of past, present, future.
- They have a blossoming sense of humour. They will tell the same joke over and over and laugh hysterically each time. Many of their jokes contain “poo poo” as the subject matter.
With all of these great 4-year-old developmental leaps, it’s easy for us adults to be fooled. We start having expectations for emotional maturity, that, simply put, are not realistic.
So, what are realistic expectations?
Here’s what’s real:
- Four-year-olds can still be emotionally triggered in a heartbeat. They can go from ecstatic to miserable with one unkind word said to them, or someone telling them they can’t play outside now, or someone won’t share with them, or their baby sister just tore up their picture, or whatever. They do not handle hurt or disappointment or frustration very well.
- Four-year-olds still have profound dependency needs and often go through a new stage of “clinginess” and separation anxiety.
- Four-year-olds have a depth of love and emotional need for closeness with their parents that is intense. When they feel pushed away or their need for closeness feels threatened, they will say things like “I hate you”, or “You’re the worst mommy in the world”. When they feel secure and at peace, they may tell you they want to marry you. This doesn’t make sense to us, but it does to them.
- Four-year-olds have the beginnings of a self-concept. That means they are forming an internal picture of who they are. They desperately want to be seen as lovable, loved, capable, competent, smart, strong, fast – all the good stuff. They are constantly wanting to show off what they can do. They want and need to feel good about who they are.
2. “Sally is very emotional and tempestuous.”
What does that tell us?
- Every child has an inborn temperament.
- Some are by nature easier going, some more intense.
- Some adapt to change easily, some have a difficult time with it.
- Some take things in stride while some react strongly to events, situations, how things feel physically.
- Some can move through challenges easily, and some get “stuck” and get thrown off course by events or situations. (listen to my podcast: Is your kid normal? Understanding Temperament Traits in Your Child)
- Some can handle frustration well, and some feel the world is crumbling around them when they get frustrated.
Sally is a child who is more intense, reacts more strongly to events, has a harder time with change, challenges, and frustration.
When a child is “more” of all those things and is in a triggered situation, what happens?
“She was lying on the floor and screaming because Patricia would not share her mermaid doll.”
So let’s put these together:
- Sally is 4.5 years old. Feelings can turn on a dime!
- Sally is by nature intense and reacts strongly to events and frustration. Her feelings can turn on a dime.
- Sally just experienced a very triggering situation. She was excluded from playing with the mermaid doll. She probably felt a combination of hurt, humiliation, insult, excluded, demeaned, and powerless to change the situation. She was totally frustrated.
- Overwhelmed by the intensity of all these feelings she reacted full on – full body, full voice, and threw herself on the ground and screamed.
Her aunt was not happy about this situation – who would be?
Her first inner reaction was: “What I felt like saying was: Be quiet or I will call your parents to pick you up!”
BUT – she was able to stop herself, and remember what she had read in my blog post about being there for a child in emotional distress.
She remembered that a child who is having trouble controlling and regulating her behaviour needs CONNECTION to their adult, not threats and shaming.
She stayed steady, calm, very much WITH Sally, not against her. And most importantly, she acknowledged what Sally was feeling: “You must be very frustrated.”
And then what happened with that calm acknowledgement?
“She stopped screaming and agreed that she was very frustrated. Magic!!!”
What a great ending to the story. But, was it really “Magic”?
Yes and no.
No, it wasn’t magic because reacting to children with compassion and connection and understanding is always the most effective way to parent.
And yes, it was magical because compassion, connection and understanding are the secret sauce, the spice, the sweetness, the joy and the magic of human interaction and parenting.
So when confronted with situations like the one we just looked at, before you react from a place of anger (or if you already did, apologize and start over) consider the following:
- How old is the child and what is developmentally “normal” for that age. What is their emotional capacity and maturity level? How do children their age react to frustration, disappointment, or hurt feelings?
- How would you describe the child’s temperament? More easygoing or more intense?
- What feelings is the child experiencing in the moment?
- How can you show that you are there to help them with those feelings?
- How can you verbalize what those feelings are for them, so they will gain the skills to handle those feelings eventually.
Do difficult situations always turn around so quickly? No.
Sometimes you have to really hang in there for what seems like ages until a child calms down.
But when you stay the course and support your child through difficult emotional times, they learn to develop the skills to eventually get themselves out of emotional darkness.
They develop “resilience” and a strong sense of their capacity to handle all the many difficulties and frustrations they will inevitably have to deal with in their lives. They also develop compassion and empathy for others, because that is what you have modeled for them.
And working with your child to help them develop emotional intelligence… that’s your Parenting Magic formula!
(photo credit: Kevin L. Moore)