When children have feelings that get too big to process, they do one of two things. They either keep it all in or let it all out. Those who tend to keep their anxious feelings buried inside, are those who retreat, withdraw, or avoid. They may bury themselves in reading or schoolwork, isolate and play video games, or clam up and not talk. We call these internalizing behaviors. On the flip side, some children explode. They show their stress through acting out, meltdowns, or displays of anger and frustration. We call these externalizing behaviors.
If you’ve noticed a pattern of these behaviors in your children, it can be tempting to focus on correcting them by yelling, punishing, or using time outs. Sometimes, those corrections seem like they work, but I would bet that if you reflect on times you’ve implemented them, the results are often short lived. That is because children respond to yelling, punishments, and time outs with what I call fear driven obedience. They are afraid of a punishment, and may behave to avoid it, but their feelings of stress don’t go away. They simply shove them deeper inside and learn to not talk about them. Usually, at some point in time, problem behaviors present yet again.
So, today, I’m going to urge you to try a different approach with a different mindset for longer term results. (This doesn’t mean that sometimes, consequences aren’t necessary. However, they shouldn’t be your mainstay. And, it does mean that when consequences are used, they should be natural ones, and I’ll walk you through what that means below). You want your children to learn to handle stress in a healthy way and be able to talk through it. When you want obedience from your children, you want it to be from a heart posture and not out of fear. You want them to trust that you are safe and that they can come to you and share what is on their hearts, feeling loved in the process. So, let’s go after the heart of the matter. I’m going to ask that you shift from focusing on your children’s problem behaviors, to focusing on the underlying heart needs that are driving those behaviors.
Let me walk you through how to do this with the T.R.U.S.T. Technique:
T: Take time with your child and just be present with her. Put your schedule on pause. Your child is crying, upset, angry, and frustrated. She may be melting down, or perhaps retreating. Either way, be present in the moment. Stay away from negative terms like “Stop” or “Calm Down”. (Pause: As an adult, think of how you’d feel if you were very upset and frustrated and your spouse told you to “Stop!”) Your child wants to feel heard. Her behaviors may be very distressing for you, but she feels much worse. She has NO idea how to reign her feelings in.
If she is melting down, do not send her away. She needs to know reassurance, love, and safety. Sending her to her bedroom or a time out chair sends the message that she needs to go away and figure out how to deal with overwhelming feelings on her own. (Pause: Imagine if your spouse told you “Go to your room!” or “You are in time out!” when you felt stressed out.) Measures that send children away from us can echo rejection and teach them that their feelings are overwhelming to us as parents and that we can’t handle them. Just be present, and listen.
If your child is retreating, and she seeks out time to calm down on her own, let her do so. However, if she seems to withdraw and not reconnect with you after a short while, go join her. If that means pulling up a seat in her room or hideout place, that’s good! Again, just be present and listen.
R: Remain in relationship with your child. Sit down by your child, make gentle eye contact, and validate what she feels. You can say things like, “It sounds like you are very angry” or “It sounds like what happened hurt your feelings”. Sometimes, she will respond immediately and tell you how she feels. If she opens up, listen and don’t interrupt. Remain in relationship. In other words, remain a calm, present, and loving parent. When she talks to you, even through intense emotions, count it a privilege to listen. Interpret her intensity as a plea for your help. Imagine her saying, “I want you to hear me because I need your love and I need you to fix this.” It may not feel like that in the moment, but that is what her behavior means when she protests, cries, and sobs with you.
Sometimes, when your child melts down, she will continue despite your initial validation. Let her know you are going to be present in the same room, and you’d love to give her a hug and help whenever she is ready. You can say something like, “I can tell that you are really upset, and I’d love to hug you and help with what you are feeling whenever you are ready” or “Would you like a hug? I’d love to hug you”. You don’t need to sit right by her in the heat of the moment. You can continue doing dishes, putting things away, or cooking nearby. I say this because sitting next to a child and repeatedly asking questions during an explosive reaction can sometimes feed the reaction and lend to the child escalating. Being in the room lets your child know you are safe, present, and not rejecting. You remain in relationship because you are focused on being there, making intermittent eye contact, expressing empathy, and providing a warm response.
Again, try to stay away from comments like “When you calm down, you can come here” or “I will talk to you when you stop screaming”. They have more of a negative tone than saying “I love you and am right here when you feel ready”. The latter is welcoming your child to receive a nurturing response.
After you’ve hugged your child, whether or not she has talked with you, use this time to say, “I love hugging you. When you come to me and use your words, I can better understand how to help.” If she still is not calm, try a redirection. This might mean going outside to throw a ball, having a snack, or playing a game.
Children whose parents consistently handle their externalizing behaviors in this manner respond with a decrease in meltdown frequency and intensity over time. Similarly, children’s internalizing behaviors are reduced dramatically when parents are consistently present and loving. This approach focuses on strengthening the bond between a parent a child, helping the child to learn that a parent is safe and can help when emotions are too big to handle alone.
U: Understand the need that is driving the behavior. Now, it is time to ask yourself, “What is it that my child was needing? What was taking place in her heart that was causing her behavior?”
Let’s look at the most common statements that kids of all ages have shared with me over the years about the feelings that drive their meltdowns or avoidance: “I was hungry”, “I wanted my mom to spend more time with me”, “I really wanted something I couldn’t have”, “I had a really hard day at school and I feel horrible”, “My brother always gets more of my parents’ time than I do”, “Kids are mean to me at school and I hate it”, “I feel exhausted and burned out and can’t take any more demands”, “I mess up all the time”, and “I am always a disappointment to my parents and to myself”.
You see, children’s needs are usually quite simple. They like to have their tummies full, to know they are loved and special, to know they are approved of, to know that parents value time with them and want more of it, to know that everyone messes up, that sometimes a “no” is a “no” because parents know best, and that sometimes the demands and pressures of life really do feel like too much.
So, I urge you to hear your child’s feelings and identify what her heart’s need is and respond to it.
S: Strengthen and Affirm. Tell your child something that will strengthen her on the inside and then affirm your desire to help by asking what you can do to make the situation better.
You can say things like, “I want you to know I love you just as much as I love your sister, and I understand you sometimes feel like I pay more attention to her. How about I take turns spending one on one time with each of you so that you each have mom to yourselves sometimes?” or “I know school can seem long and you always try really hard. I miss you when you are away from me, too. How can I help to make things easier on you?” or “I know you put your best effort forward all day and you are exhausted. How can I help to make your load lighter? Can I be here for you to talk with?”
Your child is going to feel closer to you as you lift her up and affirm that you are there to help.
T: Teach. We all want to teach our children the tools it takes to navigate their emotions. Think of the life lessons your parents taught you. The most valuable lessons we learned from our parents were when they took time to love us, and share what was on their hearts.
If you’ve followed me this far through the T.R.U.S.T. sequence, you’ve taken time and loved on your child. If you have something you’d like her to know, some piece of advice or wisdom you want her to remember the next time stress creeps up, now is the time to share it. Keep it short, simple, and to the point. Hold her close, and say what you want her to know. She will remember it!
And, if you feel a consequence is necessary to help your child learn to make better choices in the future, make sure the consequence is a natural one and that you talk through it without shaming your child. A natural consequence means that it is related to the situation. For instance, a natural consequence to disobeying screen time rules, is to take away the screen. If a child repeatedly takes a toy away from a sibling, she loses the privilege of playing with the toy for a short period. If a teen keeps getting on his phone when he shouldn’t be, the phone gets taken away for a while. If a child is aggressive with a sibling, he is told to take a break from playtime, cool down (parent can help child to talk and learn cool down skills), and return when ready to play calmly.
What you want to avoid is consequences that are shaming, rejecting, or that are unrelated to a behavior (i.e. a child doesn’t abide by screen time rules, so he loses playtime outside, or a child misbehaves and so is spanked, or a child doesn’t listen to directions so is placed in a time out chair). Such measures are not helpful and can also be confusing for a child.
I hope that this technique is helpful to you! Just remember…when we seek after our children’s hearts, we make long term change and build stronger relationships.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”-Jeremiah 31:3