How a Few Small Changes Made a World of Difference
When we found out we were pregnant with baby number four, I wasn’t too worried. After all, I was pretty certain I had this parenting thing in the bag.
As an educator, small business owner (coaching youth) and mom of 3 kids under 6, we were pretty much experts.
A good tip when it comes to parenting … NEVER be lulled into a false sense of parental “victory”. Oh, and never say “I would never…” or “My kids would never …”.
Needless to say, we were in for a big helping of humble pie.
When it came to our “parenting strategy” we stuck to the status quo. We did what we knew from our own childhoods and what we had seen modelled for us.
Verbal reprimands (i.e. mom yelling louder and louder), timeouts, incentive charts and other such things were our main “behavior management” tools.
They weren’t always effective (let’s be serious, some days I was shrieking at the kids to stop shrieking) but we used them. So, when our fourth came along, we followed suit.
As an infant, as with the other kids, we wanted her to “self soothe” and fall asleep on her own (all things we felt we should be doing). We let her cry it out. She hung in a stroller or jolly jumper so we could get all the other things done that we needed to. She was, we told ourselves, learning how to “be okay” without us holding or coddling her all the time.
Unfortunately she did not seem “okay” and the “self-soothing” was not happening.
This went on for months.
I became exhausted and overwhelmed. As time went on, she only escalated in her “demands”. She would scream in the car, in stores, in church, in her high chair. By 2 years old we were already employing a “count to 3 then you get a timeout” strategy, but it felt futile.
She would laugh or yell and run out of the timeout. She would throw things or bang on her door. We would take things away and put her in more timeouts. We sought counsel from those around us and time and again we were told to stay tough, hold the line and keep enforcing. We were the parents after all, and this is how parents get control. Still, it always felt really, really awful, especially because it rarely worked.
Most days, I cried at much as she did and the other kids seemed just as frustrated and exhausted.
I would make jokes that she really “gave us a run for our money” or that she was just super confident and kept us humble as parents.
By age 4 (about a year ago) she would yell and scream and sometimes hit us or throw things directly at us when she’d have a “fit”. We were both working full time and although her behavior at the day-home seemed lovely, our interactions at home were quickly getting worse. Our isolation (or timeout) tactic became a constant go-to. Anything and everything could lead to a fit.
We were at our wits end. I sometimes wondered if she was punishing me for working full time. My husband wondered if she was manipulating us to get what she wanted (which seemed to be anything she wasn’t supposed to have). I felt any control and ability to get a grip on her behavior slipping away.
Then we got an unexpected break that started us down a path that has completely changed our relationship with ALL of our kids and forever altered our parenting strategy.
I went to a Teacher’s Convention and heard multiple psychologists and educators speak, specifically about “emotional regulation”. It’s a technical and complicated process involving neurology, physiology and psychology but at the core, it’s the ability we (as humans) possess that allows us to calm down and return to a rational, problem-solving brain.
Then, the kicker: We do not come into this world innately knowing how to do this.
In fact, the only way we learn to do this is from a loving, comforting adult who models it for us. This was the missing piece. This was the light bulb moment for me.
You see, when we get emotionally “dysregulated” (kids and adults) we lose access to our rational, “front brain” and we rely on what some affectionately call our “lizard” brain. It’s the “fight, flight or freeze” brain that is simply in reactive, animal mode. In our house, we now call this our “freak out brain”.
Lots of things can set this off, especially for young kids: Fear, loss of control, pain, disappointment, anger, embarrassment, loneliness.
In order to “regulate” and regain control of our problem solving brain, our kids need safety and comfort and a strong example of calming down in a loving, present adult.
This is exactly the opposite of what we were doing with all of the punitive, isolation methods (while we were simultaneously “losing it” too). Unfortunately, our hesitations to change were strong, as somewhere along the way we came to believe that comforting or loving or showing affection during these fits was somehow “enabling” or “condoning” them. Time-outs and punitive measures were needed to “teach” the lesson and the desired behavior.
Unfortunately, when kids (or adults for that matter) are emotionally dysregulated they cannot access the higher “thinking” brain and are therefore unable to “learn” anything in these moments anyways.
Learning this was a game changer.
We were using timeouts and isolation and removal of items (such as toys or games from her room) as a means to “teach her” to behave differently but the following understanding led to massive changes in our approach:
When young kids are emotionally dysregulated, as parents (even if the behaviour they are exhibiting seems unacceptable) they FIRST and FOREMOST need a loving and caring adult to give them space for their big feelings, validate their experiences and emotions and model/narrate for them the process of calming down. Only then can we begin to have discussions or “teachable” moments about behavior and future expectations.
At this point, we did a complete 180. We admitted that quite possibly we had NO IDEA what we were doing and that we needed a new strategy. We threw all our old ideas about “punishment” and “control” out the window, and we started drawing close instead and really paying attention.
When she would start to “lose it” or “freak out” or “throw a fit” we started saying things like:
- “We love you and cannot let you hit (kick, bite throw, etc…), but we won’t leave you here alone either.”
- “We know you are having some really big feelings right now, and that can be scary and frustrating, but we are right here with you.”
- “I know you’re so upset right now because of _______________. Mom and Dad get upset too sometimes when ___________. We love you and are so proud of how you’re able to tell us how sad/mad/angry … you are.”
Eventually, she started telling us things like, “I’m just having a tough day” and at that point we could have a discussion about what happened.
It felt like a miracle.
As time has passed and we have watched this unfold, it has changed how all of us deal with our “big feelings”. I recently heard the advice that “small children don’t have tantrums, they have feelings”. I would have shut that person down until recently, but it’s starting to make sense.
More recently we’ve begun to notice that when one of the kids is off or looking like they are heading for a meltdown, it often means one of us (as parents) is off, or emotionally detached or unavailable. A re-engagement and a little bit of extra attention or “emotional accessibility” often dissolves the tension and re-routes the behaviour.
Our home is still loud and most days are chock full of emotion, but since making some of these shifts our ability to cope and navigate these challenges has infinitely improved.
Stay brave my fellow parents and caregivers, you are doing some of the most important work there is!
Author: Jacquie Ganton, Teacher, Teen Coach, and mother of four
September 22, 2018