When Your Child Is Misbehaving: Time to Invite a Meltdown?
A child who acts out needs connection to help her empty her emotional backpack.
Posted Sep 25, 2018
"Dr. Laura...You wrote: 'Sometimes kids just need to cry... Set a reasonable limit and welcome his meltdown.' Are you saying that I should just say No and let my son cry, and things will get better? That's what my parents did, and I spent hours in my room crying. It wasn't good for me, and it made me so angry at them." - Shelly
Shelly makes a good point. To be sure, we all need a good cry sometimes. And kids, with their immature frontal cortex, need to cry more often than adults, to heal all those feelings that are making them act out. But that's only healing if they have a compassionate witness—the safe haven of a parent. Leaving your child to cry alone just traumatizes her, and gives her the message that she's all alone with those scary feelings, just when she needs us most.
So when a child is acting out, remember that she's "acting out" feelings she can't express verbally. That's a signal that she has a full emotional backpack that needs emptying. She just needs you to connect with her to help her feel safe enough.
How? You summon up all your compassion, and set a reasonable, kind limit, to give your child something to rail against. How do you know when to do this?
Whenever your child looks right at you and breaks the rules. (He's trying to start a fight with you instead of feeling all those upsets inside him.)
Whenever your child is extremely demanding, rigid, and impossible to satisfy.
When your child is making you or others miserable, it's a red flag that he's miserable inside and needs your help with his big feelings. That's your cue to step in. He's signaling that he needs you to hold him emotionally, and maybe literally. And he'll keep acting out until you help him.
If you punish your child for misbehaving, you're not helping her learn to manage the emotions that are fueling her misbehavior. Even "mild" punishments like timeouts isolate her and disconnect her from you just when she needs you most. But that doesn't mean you don't set limits as necessary. In fact, a limit—set empathically so she feels safe—may be just what she needs to trigger the release of her upset feelings. Crying in the safety of your loving presence restores your child to a state of well-being and connection. Once she feels good again, she'll "act good"—because our kids naturally want to connect happily with the adults they love.
How do you set limits that help your child?
1. Be kind but firm. "Toys are not for throwing." Usually, you'll need to intervene physically to enforce the limit because kids in an upset state can't control themselves. Your child needs to know it's a firm limit. If he senses you waffling, he'll keep fighting to change the limit rather than grieving and moving on.
2. Connect and empathize. "You're mad that I said it's bedtime... It's hard to stop playing." Feeling understood defuses the angry energy and puts your child in touch with the more vulnerable feelings that always hide behind anger—sadness, hurt, fear, disappointment, powerlessness. If you set the limit harshly, your child just stays in anger and can't get to those underlying feelings he needs to surface.
3. Welcome the tears. Instead of shutting down your child's emotions, welcome them. Remember that you're helping your child heal. Once she feels safe enough to accept her emotions and let them move through her, they'll begin to evaporate. It's your loving, attentive presence that allows her to feel all these scary emotions and move past them. Hold her if she'll let you, but if she's too angry, just stay close. Be her witness. Don't say enough to engage; just reassure: "I love you...You're safe...Everybody feels upset sometimes...It's good to get all your mads and sads out...I'm right here with a big hug when you're ready."
4. Remember that overreacting is his way of working through past hurts. You've given your child a tremendous gift: access to the feelings that were making him act out. You may think he's over-reacting, but this is about old hurts, not the current situation. Who knows what hurts he has stored up that he needs to get off his chest?
5. If she gets stuck in rage, create more safety. Rage only begins to dissipate when it feels heard, so start by acknowledging:
- "You must be so upset about this."
- "I'm listening. Tell me more."
- "I'm sorry this is so hard."
- "I didn't understand how important this was to you."
- "No wonder you're upset."
- "It sounds like you think ..... That must be so hurtful for you....I'm so sorry if I contributed to your thinking that."
- "I hear how angry you are. You must have been so hurt (or afraid) when...I'm so sorry that..."
Behind rage, there's always fear and hurt. If your child is yelling, see if you can help her feel safer so she can get to the deeper upset that's fueling her rage. You do that by softening yourself so you can offer even more compassion.
Have you noticed what's hard about this? When your child is angry, it's natural to feel scared or angry yourself. But your child picks up those feelings and stays stuck in rage. If you can slow your breathing and remember that it isn't an emergency, your child will feel safe enough to let go of the rage and feel the upsets that are driving it.
6. What if he can't cry? As the emotional backpack empties and all those emotions bubble up to be felt, your child is likely to resist. There's a reason those feelings got stuffed to begin with—they hurt! So children will often try to defend against them by lashing out. If you take a deep breath and stay compassionate, the tears won't be far behind. Just communicate safety and love: "I'm sorry this is so hard...I'm right here...You're safe."
7. If she runs away, stay as close as you can. If she yells at you to leave, say "I hear you...I will step back to here...I won't leave you all alone with these scary feelings...I'm right here with a hug when you're ready." Don't get in their face, but stay close enough for your presence to reassure. Later, kids usually say they did not want us to leave, even when they screamed that they hated the parent. If your child tries to distract herself (asks to nurse, or find Daddy, or watch TV) just say, "We can do that soon, but first we will sit here for a few minutes...I'm sorry it's hard... It will feel better soon, I promise. You're safe... I'm here."
8. Reconnect. After kids have a meltdown, they're ready to reconnect with you. Don't insist they talk about their emotions. They probably don't know why they were so upset, and feeling analyzed will make them feel less safe about trusting you with their inner lives. Just scoop him up, hug him, tell him he did some hard work, and reassure him that everyone needs to cry sometimes and that you love him no matter what.
You'll see that after a good cry your child is happier, more affectionate, more cooperative. It was so hard to keep all those emotions stuffed. That would make anyone edgy! (Most of us can think of times when we felt much better after a good cry and some deep understanding from someone we love.)
Is this "manipulating" your child into crying? No. Those tears and fears were already bubbling up to get healed and they would have exploded soon—probably at a time when you were trying to move your child through the schedule and couldn't make time for a meltdown. You made sure your child got what they needed by:
- Accepting the emotions instead of distracting or punishing.
- Making space for your child to show you those tears and fears at a time when you could really pay loving attention.
Should you always set limits when kids give you a hard time? No.
- Be sure that what you're asking is age-appropriate. You can't ask a two-year-old to sit quietly in a restaurant in the name of setting limits; it's better just to remove her.
- Be sure you're not creating the situation with your own impatience. Kids are acutely sensitive to disconnections from us and always respond by acting out; in those cases, a big hug is the first thing to try to restore everyone's sanity.
- Offer help. Sometimes your child can pull himself together if you just offer assistance with whatever's frustrating him.
But if you've done all that and your child still seems hellbent on trouble, he's asking for your help. Give him the heaven of your loving attention, and you'll get your little angel back.