Many times as parents we get so caught up in trying to get our children to do what we want them to do at the exact moment we want them to do it, that we lose sight of the individual that is the child. Consider, for example, a child who has a meltdown because you refuse to give her a cookie 30 minutes before dinner. You, as the parent, see only your perspective which might include some of the following points:
- If she has a cookie, she won’t be hungry for her dinner
- You have spent a long time preparing dinner and want it to be eaten and appreciated
- You are concerned about how much sugar, fat, sweets she consumes in a day
- You are trying to cook dinner and she is getting underfoot
- She should know that she can’t have a cookie a half an hour before dinner
- She’s just trying to get attention because you are involved in something else
However, your child has a perspective as well, and I doubt it includes anything concerning her fat and sugar intake!
There are three things you can do to get a better understanding of your child and lessen the intensity of his tantrums, and ironically they are based on a fundamental principle we all learned in kindergarten. They are:
- Share his emotion
- Share his attention
- Share his intention
Let’s take a closer look at these.
Share the emotion
Sharing your child’s emotion does not mean that you flop on the floor and throw a tantrum alongside him. Although that would probably get him to stop! What it means is that you respond to the child’s emotion on an equal level. For example, if your child stomps his foot and yells “Give me a COOKIE!” you would respond by creating a scowl on your face and saying something like, “Wow, you are really angry about that!” Your tone and emphasis would match that of your child. In other words, you are jumping into the emotion with your child and going on this emotional journey right alongside him.
As parents, our natural reaction is to try to change our child’s strong emotions, and we usually use logic and reason, spoken in a calm voice, to do so. But this leaves the child feeling like she hasn’t been heard or understood. She doesn’t understand logic or reason, especially when she’s emotional. All she understands is that mom or dad is trying to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do (or not letting her do something she wants). And often that will cause the child to escalate her emotional reaction.
But when you jump into the emotion with him—when you share the emotional response with the child—he then feels a sense of security and understanding. Strong emotions can be scary for kids, and they aren’t born equipped with the tools to regulate them. Part of our job as parents is to provide those. Think about how you respond to a baby. When the baby smiles and coos, you smile and coo; when she begins to cry, you might frown and lower your voice; when the baby laughs, you make silly faces. These are all ways parents “jump into the emotions” with their babies. As children get older and they experience this sharing of emotions, it provides them with a sense of safety. They are able to share the emotion with the parents and witness the parents’ ability to effectively regulate and manage this strong feeling. That’s why when we get out of control, or “lose it,” with our kids, it can be harmful in more ways than one.
Keep in mind that sharing the emotion is not the same as understanding the emotion. When we understand only the emotion, i.e., “I get that you are feeling very angry right now,” or “I understand that you are very scared” (usually followed by “but you need to…”), we are failing to understand the child. Understanding the emotion is authoritarian and condescending and teaches that emotions are to be dismissed or changed to fit into cultural norms. Sharing the emotion is empathetic and compassionate and teaches that emotions are okay and can be acceptably managed.
Coming Up Next…
So, first is Share the Emotion. And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes just allowing the child to feel what he feels and teaching him how to express it in a healthy way is enough to mend the relationship and facilitate better communication. But when it’s not, then you need to take steps two and three, which are Share the Attention and Share the Intention. I will cover those in my next blog post.