When Children Act Out ~ Reflecting Our Emotions
[Portions reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
Your sweet little four-year-old has suddenly started throwing his food at the table every. single. night. You’ve tried giving him smaller portions of food, letting him help plan the meals, letting him help cook the meals. You’ve tried asking him to stop, demanding that he stop, pleading with him to stop. You’ve tried rewards, sticker charts, and offering desserts. You’ve put him in time-out, yelled at him, even threatened to spank him, which you’ve never, ever done before. But still he throws food at the table.
Then it happens. You’re sitting down for dinner and ask your spouse how the job hunt went that day. A little motion catches your eye and you glance at your four-year-old just in time to see a meatball fly across the table from a small, sauce-covered hand. But something else catches your attention, too, and instead of focusing on the flying meatball, this time you focus on your child.
In the split second before your little guy launched his food volley, you’d seen the fear, almost panic, in his eyes. Your mind races. Why, if he was so afraid of being spanked, would he go right ahead and throw his food? What in the world would make him do the very thing that might bring about the terrible consequence he seemed to be in a panic over?
You hear a deep sigh from your other side. Your spouse seems to be trying to control his urge to retaliate against the little food-fighter across the table from him. Teeth gritted tightly, he grabs a napkin, scoops up the meatball next to his plate, and resumes the conversation.
“Nothing. No one’s hiring. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Before you get a chance to respond, a meatball whizzes past your ear and lands smack in the middle of your husband’s plate, splashing marinara sauce all over his shirt. He comes out of his seat with a roar and glares at the little guy who is glaring right back at him, now seemingly unafraid, almost taunting his father to make the next move.
But this time your husband sees something different. He sees the little quivering chin and the small clenched hands and realizes something else is going on. Quietly, he rounds the table and scoops his little fighter into a tight hug, irrespective of the marinara now coating both of their shirts. He doesn’t say a word, just sinks into the chair with his son wrapped in his arms and holds him close against his heart.
As you see your angry, defiant son suddenly melt into his father and bury his face in his daddy’s neck with body-wracking sobs, your own anger melts away. Soon, a small, tear-stained face peeks out and your heart breaks when your son looks back and forth between you and your husband, and his little voice croaks out, “What are we gonna do? Where will we live? Are we gonna starve?” before dissolving in sobs against his daddy’s chest again.
That’s when you realize dinner conversations have revolved around your husband’s job loss and job search for months. Conversations from the past weeks run through your head, and you remember discussing getting a job outside the home to supplement the income from your own home-based business and putting your son into daycare. You remember your husband talking about selling your house, about where you would move, about saving on groceries and other bills. You cringe as you recall mentioning a friend who lost everything, including his home and marriage, when he lost his job.
What had your little preschooler been thinking all this time? What terror must he have felt imagining losing his home, not having enough food to eat, and even his mommy and daddy divorcing? The panic you’d seen in his eyes suddenly made all-too-much sense. He had no way of articulating his fears, the fears he’d felt and heard from you and your husband, but that neither of you had thought to discuss directly with him so that you could offer reassurance and comfort and answer his questions.
You’re so, so thankful that you hadn’t gone as far as actually hitting your son for the first time ever in an attempt to control him, and you vow to yourself that you will never threaten or try to coerce or manipulate your child again, just as you wouldn’t your husband. You commit to finding better ways to communicate with your son, to remain in-tune with him, to focus on the need behind the behavior instead of just trying to control the behavior, to connect with him, and to equip him with better ways of communicating his needs.
As your husband looks up, his eyes wet with tears and his little man still clasped close to his heart, you meet his gaze and see the same realization, the same commitment, the same resolve. Life will still throw you curveballs, but from here on out you’ll handle them together, all together.
Not every action by our children is a sign of trauma or deep, unresolved issues. But every behavior is communication. Behaviors can communicate simple needs such as hunger or the need for sleep. They can communicate unmet needs such as the need to be heard or the need to reconnect. They can communicate stress or discomfort over changes in routine or sickness. Or they can communicate big emotions our children need help processing.
But they can also be a reflection of and a reaction to our big emotions, our illnesses, our unmet needs, our stresses and anxieties, our emotional baggage. Just as children learn best by imitation, making it important to always be aware of the examples we set, their tendency to tune-in to our emotions and upsets makes it vital for us to stay in-tune with them so that we can alleviate their anxieties and answer their questions and ease their fears.
It’s important to be open with them in age-appropriate language about ongoing family issues or health problems or other stresses, but remember that children are not equipped to handle adult stresses and emotions, so be careful to avoid dumping your emotional baggage on them. If you’ve got traumas from your past or are dealing with any kind of emotional or mental instability, you need to work through those issues on your own or seek help so that they don’t negatively impact our relationship with our children.
Simply reacting to our children’s behavior rather than responding to the need motivating the behavior not only leaves us in the dark as to what our children are thinking and feeling, but also misses an opportunity to address the root of the behavior. When we pause, breathe through our own visceral reactions, and focus on our child instead of our child’s actions, we can better discern the need behind the behavior and meet that need, thus eliminating the behavior itself with no need for correction and opening the door to guiding our children to better ways of expressing themselves in the future. The end result is not only the resolution of the present issue, but also strengthening of the parent/child relationship and giving our children the reassurance that they aren’t alone in dealing with their stresses and questions and fears and can always come to us, their ‘safe haven’ in times of need.
If you’ve been parenting from a place of emotional neediness or stress, working through your own emotional baggage to a place of peace will help you to bring that peace into your parent/child relationship. It can be very difficult to step out of a reactionary cycle with your children, though. One pitfall many parents face when trying to move away from a punishment-based or reactionary parenting style is going too far in the opposite direction and failing to set firm, reasonable limits. Children need boundaries to feel safe and in control. If you’re having trouble balancing the desire to parent gently and peacefully with the need to guide our children to stay within reasonable boundaries, here are some tools that may help:
*Also published in The Natural Parent Magazine
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.