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Who's in Charge: Your Child's Emotional Upheavals and Upsets

Tips for handling the "Difficult-to-Soothe Child"


Peter, arms crossed as he rocks back and forth in the aisle, holds his ground and refuses to take his seat on the plane. His mother tells him firmly that he must sit down, while settling in her thirsty toddler in the row behind him. A bottleneck of disgruntled passengers look on as Peter stamps his feet and continues his rant about wanting to watch television on the plane. “For the last time, Peter,sit down or else!” threatens his father, who picks Peter up and tries to secure him in his seat. In response, Peter begins a loud wail of protest as he kicks and struggles to free himself from his perceived bondage. His younger sibling begins to cry as his mother begs Peter to stop his tirade and his father informs Peter that he has now lost all his video game privileges. A flight attendant approaches calling out, “is there a problem here?”

It's hard to feel like a good parent when your child is having trouble. Your child acts inappropriately and struggles with their behavior and somehow, you are supposed to set things right. You try to comfort, assist, or redirect your child. If these efforts are ineffective and the misbehavior is prolonged, heightened and, especially, recurrent, you feel pressure to change what is happening and at the same time, feel helpless to do so. If the negative behaviors occur in public and are witnessed by others, you may feel embarrassed by your child, worry what others might think of him or her, or that they are judging you. At some point, you begin to feel desperate. You might be shocked, panicked, angry, upset, fearful, disappointed, or dismayed. Depending on what else is going on in your life, you may also be stressed, tired, preoccupied or, heavens forbid, impatient. And yet, amidst the chaos of your own emotional reactions to your child's behavior, you still must manage the situation, be the problem solver, and simultaneously respond to your child’s needs (and if this weren't enough, deal with a sibling or two that is concurrently vying for your attention). You wish things were easier.

Nonetheless, you try and help your child and search for the right solution to their problems.You try to use discipline and set firmer limits. You attempt to reason and appease. You create reward systems. You punish them. You try everything, but because you don't see the results you seek you are not consistent in your approach. You seek to understand what works and try to be more patient. You inevitably, at times, run out of patience and react poorly to your child, which results in mixed feelings of regret, disappointment, and frustration. You wish your child would just behave better and stop it already. You wonder why they won’t listen to you, follow directions, and learn from their mistakes.

When a child is tantrumming, screaming, bawling, having a fit, or stubbornly fixed and in lock down mode, they are essentially in an emotionally overwhelmed and reactive state that compromises their thinking. Your child's behavior is an attempt to express his or her emotionality in order to release and get rid of the tumultuous and discomforting thoughts and feelings from within. Sometimes their egocentric wish for others to feel as bad as they do causes them to provoke you. At these moments, you too might be experiencing multiple emotions, responding to both your child's behavior and your own upset about it.

Like your child, your ability to problem solve is compromised by the multitude, intensity, and/or range of feelings surging through you. Chances are, there is a negative interaction between the frustration your child evokes in you and your ability to parent effectively. You want to be a calming and organizing influence on your child and teach them how to manage their strong feelings. To do so, you first need to step out of the power struggle in order to regain your composure and think clearly.

One thing that often helps parents to regain their wits when entrenched in a difficult encounter with their child is to consider that the intensity of the emotions they feel at these moments are, in fact, comparable to the child's emotions. In other words, if you are feeling deeply upset, reactive and confused -- so is your child. Take a moment and think about that. If you feel this way and are incapable of managing your monstrous and disorganizing feelings, spoiling your best efforts at remaining calm, imagine how overwhelmed your child must feel. Reassess the situation from your child’s perspective. By focusing on the child's experience and curtailing your own reactions, you are better able to regain your composure, think clearly, and find empathy for your child.

Parents often need to step away from the situation, breath, and think. In some instances, this means literally removing yourself from the action by informing your child you need a minute to think and/or get calm. Stepping away from the situation has the added benefit of not rewarding the behavior with negative attention, which can fuel it further. At other times, it is an internal adjustment made by shifting your attention away from the content of your reactive thoughts and instead noticing the level of intensity in the room. Instead of arguing back and forth and attending to what is being said, look at your child. Can you empathize with how emotionally overwhelmed your child must feel?

Let your child know that you realize how hard a time they are having at this moment and support your interpretation with a brief reflection of what they have said, done, or shown you through their behavior, as best meets their age appropriate needs. If your child is young, contain the child through comfort, distraction, humor, or by separating them from the situation. Use definitive words to label their feelings, clarify their emotions, and organize their affects. This practice will broaden and improve their ability to communicate their frustration with words.

When you are able to tell your child that you see their struggle, label their feelings, and sympathize with their difficulty, it organizes and calms them. Your ability to reflect back to them that you have heard their upset and understand how they feel validates for them your concern for their well being, soothes their upset, and helps them begin to process their feelings more effectively. Moreover, it helps you realign with your child and puts you back in charge of both yourself and the situation at hand. Once your child understands that you are a sympathetic support and wish to help, your child will be better able to respond to redirection.After all, the best lesson you can teach a child who is mismanaging their emotions is how to handle difficult emotions more effectively.

Another helpful tactic in addressing recurrent outbursts is to look for patterns in your child's behavior and address them proactively. Try to understand what triggers or precipitants lend themselves to a pattern of problematic outcomes. What happened first? What else was occurring at the time of the conflict or what other factors preceded the outburst. With young children, consider hunger, sleep, and environmental stimuli as potential contributing circumstances. Make remediation accordingly for future situations and try to take notice of signs early, when things begin to stir up and before they have escalated.

Make plans for how you will handle other siblings at these times and how you and other caregivers will support one another. Review conflicts after they have resolved and when everyone is calm enough to participate in the discussion, when you are all better able to learn from what occurred and remediate past mistakes. Plan together what each person can do or say differently the next time, to seek a different outcome. Listen to your child's point-of-view and rehearse the plan, imagining different possible scenarios and how they will be handled if they do, and do not, go as planned. Make allowances for mistakes and let the child know that should things go wrong, you will continue to work with them to resolve problems better.

If your child is prone to acting out publicly, you will likely be best served by being your child's greatest support and advocate. This means you may need to push past your hurt pride and instead model appropriate and effective behavior by empathizing with your child. Show other people the respect for your child that you would like them to demonstrate to the both of you. Model for them that it is no one's job to judge your child, and maintain your composure by sympathizing with and managing your child’sneeds. When necessary, you can inform other adults who express concern that you are working on the situation and this is how you are handling it. At family gatherings and other social occasions, let others know they can speak to you or another assigned caregiver to express concerns that may arise, but that it is important they let you address your child and not do it themselves.

When you have a plan for coping with your child’s behavior, you’ll feel a lot more in charge of the situation and prepared to parent your child in a purposeful way. Your ability to disengage from the power struggle, argue less, and instead empathize with your child’s needs, will allow you to broaden your toolbox to find ways to help your child calm down and problem solve. Simultaneously, through your words and actions,you will be helping your child improve their ability to manage their emotions and self-sooth as they internalize your lessons over time.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Parenting the Difficult to Soothe child: when things go wrong.

Robin Luband, Psy.D., received her master’s degree in developmental psychology

and doctorate in clinical psychology. She is a child psychologist practicing in

White Plains, NY. For more on Dr. Luband visit:

For anyone wanting more information about parenting "difficult' children, handling sibling conflicts, and how to set limits and appropriate goals, a series of 3 workshops on Resolutions and Responsibilities: a series of three workshops to help parents beat the winter blues:

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show, which can be purchased fromBarnes & Noble, Indie Bound, andAmazon.