The story featured below is from Ranjana, mother of two children. She had recently attended a Positive Discipline class where the topic was setting limits. In class, we spent a lot of time talking about how hard it is to allow and accept our children’s big emotions, especially when they are screaming, tantruming, or crying incessantly.
It’s uncomfortable (for everyone) when children are upset. So, sometimes we just give in to our child’s demands so that we don’t have to deal with a tantrum. Or, when the tantrum happens, we tell our child to “stop crying!” Other times, we try to rescue, fix, or talk our children out of their big feelings: “It’s OK — here, you can have this ice cream to help you feel better;” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion. There’s no reason to be so upset.”
While it’s natural and makes sense to want to help make a child feel better, many times the best (or only) thing to do is let children feel what they feel.
“Allow feelings; limit behavior,” is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Laura Markham. The point is that feelings are always OK. But behavior is not always OK. Behavior is different from emotion. When we try to stop children from feeling what they feel, we usually make it worse and/or convey that it’s not OK to experience anger, upset, sadness or other big emotions. (Read a summary of research behind these assertions here.)
Having the capacity to tolerate big emotions — to allow and accept them, even though it feels so very uncomfortable — is a skill that can be developed, and can work wonders. (Read a short article about tolerating big emotions here or listen to a portion of an interview I did with Kelly Pfeiffer of ThinkItThroughParenting here – from the 3 min to 19 min mark in interview.)
Here’s how Ranjana did it… (the story that follows is hers, and I love it, so asked her to write it up so I could share it with you.)
My ten year old was having one of her meltdowns. She had been home from school for a few hours and had refused an afterschool snack and dinner because it didn’t sound so appetizing. She was probably tired and hungry and we all know this brings on her “hanger”.
She slammed into our spare room, lay on our futon and covered herself completely under a blanket. Any attempt to talk to or reason with her were met with kicking and crying and whining noises coming from the blanket. My husband and I both tried to talk with her. She was not having any of it. Same result for every question. We asked, “do you want a snack? You must be hungry and you know that can make you fussy.” We asked why she was mad, what we could do, if she wanted to listen to music since she said that helps her get her lid back down. I asked if she wanted to punch pillows instead of kicking under the blanket at air. Nothing worked. She was furious and incapable of dialogue.
Finally, I just stopped. I went to get a deck of cards and brought them into the spare room. I just started playing a game of solitaire that she hadn’t seen before. I didn’t talk at all. Finally, her head came out from under the blanket and she started watching the game, trying to figure out how it worked. About 5 minutes later, she asked me “what are you doing?” So I told her how the game worked. Then she started giving me moves to make as I continued playing. Eventually, I asked her if she wanted a glass of water before I started my next game. “Yes”, she said. “And maybe a little cheese stick and some crackers?” I asked. “Okay” she said.
So I disappeared into the kitchen and brought back a snack. I even added some things like cut-up apple and peanut butter. She moved off the couch and sat on the floor eating the snack and we decided to play gin together next instead of me playing solitaire.
Afterwards, she told me she didn’t know why she got that way and she couldn’t stop it. And she didn’t like it. But it was good what I did and good I kept others away from her. Phew.
This was my big lesson in just letting her go through her emotions while being there so she knows that she’s not alone and I still love her company even when she’s not being such good company! It worked for both of us and was so much less frustrating than feeling like a failure while trying to solve or stop her feelings. Instead, I just let her have them and they resolved much more quickly than they have done in the past when we try to talk her out of them.
How to put these tools (and more) into practice
We’ll practice these tools and learn many more at any of the upcoming Positive Discipline series specifically for parents of children ages 2 – 6: Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Preschoolers. Sign up here to be informed when our next series starts.
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