Emotional Reactions Need Emotional Connection

This post originally appeared on the Marion & Polk Early Learning Hub website here.

Here’s a scenario that I’m sure every parent of a two or three year old has seen at least once: your child has just finished shouting your name for the 10th time in a row as loudly as they can while you are trying to finish your conversation with your spouse/friend/neighbor/whoever.  Your anger has been boiling and as you say the last word to that person you turn your head hastily towards your child and look them right in the eye ready to unload the “how many times have I asked you to wait until I am done talking” speech in your loudest and most assertive parent voice.  Usually what happens next is a temper tantrum, tears, little fists flying and a timeout as you slink down into your chair disappointed and feeling defeated.

I admit that all too often I go straight to my angry, assertive dad voice and respond in frustration when my son exhibits behavior that I don’t think is acceptable.  However, the more situations I’ve faced like this the more I’ve noticed a much better response from my son when I speak calmly and rationally with him rather than yelling at him.  Unfortunately in practice, especially in the scenario I laid out, it is really difficult to meet this type of behavior with a calm and patient response, and of course it always makes me feel really great about myself when I raise my voice to a three year old who simply doesn’t have the mental capability to control all his impulses and his desire for attention yet.

One thing I try to remember is that the way that I interact with my children, every day, right now, impacts them for the rest of their life.  When they are faced with tough scenarios or circumstances that call on them to respond in a situation that is stressful or frustrating, they will revert to a response that they have seen or felt before.  They’ll draw back to what their brain has stored away as an appropriate response to this situation.  If they see from me, a response that is always angry, harsh and aggressive, they will react the same way.  But, if they see me react calmly, rationally, and peacefully they are more likely to respond that way as well.  

I’ve gained a lot of great insight on how to handle this from the book “The Whole-Brained Child” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.  One of the things that is so easy to forget is that kids are not fully formed adults with the mental capacity to respond like we feel an adult should.  They are still learning and figuring out so much about their world.  When something doesn’t go their way, kids react like the world has just ended, because to them…it has.  A child’s brain is dominated by emotional responses.  They have to learn and develop the more logical and rational parts of their brain to help them balance everything out.  As an adult, I cannot expect my three year old to respond perfectly to my requests every single time.  He knows exactly what he wants to do and when he wants to do it.  If his expectations are not met it is totally understandable (understandable, not acceptable) for him to lash out or react to this in a way that I may view as inappropriate.  What helps him learn how to better react in the future is my response to his reaction.

If I meet his irrational temper-tantrum with yelling and harsh punishment, I can expect his tantrum to escalate or for him to completely shut down and start sobbing.  However, if I meet his irrational, emotional response with a tender, connecting response like “I see that you’re having a really hard time right now, can you tell me what’s going on?” he will be more likely to use words to express what his bothering him.  Once I’ve got him to express his issue and what he is feeling, I can meet him where he is at and see if we can work to a resolution together.  “So I hear that you don’t like it when you want to ask Daddy a question and he doesn’t answer right away.  That makes you upset right?  I’m sorry that makes you upset and I really want to hear your question and give you an answer, but did you see that I was talking with someone else?” Once I’ve met his emotional need to speak with me and made him feel heard, then I can come back with a logical response and make sure he understands that I still need him to have better behavior next time.

I by no means want him to think it is ok for him to throw temper tantrums and yell to try and interrupt me while I’m talking to someone, but if I react to his yelling and screaming by yelling and screaming…I’m only reinforcing that it’s ok to yell and scream when you don’t get what you want. I need to meet his emotional need first, then let him know what behavior I want him to change and ask him to think of a more appropriate way to express himself next time.

This is fatherhood…

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