ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN
I’m worried about my oldest son. He has always been a sensitive, sweet kid. When things are going his way, he is happy and sunshiny. The problem is, he completely loses it when things don’t go his way. I thought that he would out-grow this problem, but he is 7 now and his meltdowns seem to be getting worse. He shouts at everyone around him when he doesn’t get his way and he is starting to get physical. We’re always on edge at home, dreading the next explosion. He has already lost friends because of his temper, and I’m worried about the future.
What can I do?
Walking on Eggshells on Woodland
Dear Walking on Eggshells,
I understand how hard it is to live with an unpredictable ‘powder keg’ that explodes whenever it’s not happy. No matter how hard you may try to prevent him from blowing up, there is no way you can keep the peace all the time. Nor should you.
As you’ve guessed, it’s part of the job of every growing-up-child to learn to deal reasonably well with reasonable disappointments and frustrations. Some kids seem to learn how to do this easily, and other children learn more slowly and with greater effort. Yet, all children can learn how to deal with life’s ups and downs, especially if they are given good support and encouragement at home.
If your son is one of those children who finds it hard to deal with everyday frustrations and disappointments, then you will probably need to develop your own patience and resilience to teach him better ways to deal with things. You’ll need this because it may take a while, and quite some effort, for your volatile son to develop the ability to roll with life’s problems, instead of reacting angrily to them.
Perhaps you have already noticed how your son’s emotional upsets can make you upset, and when you react to him emotionally, then your son reacts more angrily, and so on and so forth… The opposite will also be true. You can help your son by responding more calmly to his emotional distress. Your efforts to stay as cool, calm, and collected as you possibly can will help steady your son so that he can regain his own equilibrium.
I know we aren’t robots or machines, and you can’t just turn your emotional dial from “upset” to “calm.” Children cannot do this either. What we human beings do to help ourselves feel better after an upset is more complex.
For instance, if you are upset and angry after a phone call at work, what do you do? You might shrug, shake your shoulders, or stand up and stretch, taking some deep breaths. Perhaps you go get a drink of water or a cup of coffee. People usually start with physical movement to help themselves “shake off” unhappy feelings, and physically relax a bit. This then helps us begin to shift our thinking from a rigid “I can’t stand this” to a more resilient alternative, something along the lines of, “I don’t like this, but I guess I can deal with it.”
These are the same “help yourself feel better” skills your son can learn, as well. When he sees you going through the motions and saying the words that you use to help yourself feel more relaxed and optimistic, he will learn that it is possible for him to do this as well.
Here are some other ideas about how you can help your little boy learn more patience, optimism, and emotional self-regulation.
Encourage your son to improve his skills by noticing when he exhibits even the smallest amount of patience or resiliency. Describe what you see by saying something appreciative. “The wings you were building for your Lego airplane didn’t go the way you wanted them to, so you changed your plane into a truck. That’s what I call “being flexible.” What parents pay attention to is what grows stronger in their children. So pay attention to even the smallest bits of resilience you see in your son.
Talk out loud, when you can, to let your son hear what it sounds like when a person talks themselves out of a temper and into a more positive attitude. “I’m so mad the repair person isn’t here on time! I really want to blow my cool because this ruins my day! Oh, well, take a deep breath… I guess maybe the day isn’t completely ruined…there must be something good I can find in this situation. I’m glad I can spend some time playing with you…
Improvement will happen gradually, so notice and appreciate the small gains your son is making. “Gosh, last week when your I-Pad time was up, you cried for 30 minutes. Today, you cried for just 20 minutes! I can see that you are really getting better at this ‘calming yourself down’ business. Your hard work is really paying off.”
Do not show your son that you are intimidated when he uses hurtful words or is physically hurtful. It can be very scary for a young child to see their parent is afraid of them, which will add to the upset. Move away, leave the room, if you have to, so that he cannot hurt you and you will not hurt him.
And finally, share your optimism with your son. “I know it’s hard to help yourself feel better when you are feeling bad. But, I’ve seen you do this before, lots of times. And I believe you can get better and better at this. I’m not going to give up on you!”