“How much more love and affection can I give him? …. Because once you pee on your brother, you’ve gone too far, and we have to fix this now.”
What’s a parent to do when a child acts out in a big way? In a recent post, we evaluated some options: spanking, time-out, sticker charts. Bottom line, they’re unlikely to be effective, because they don’t get to the root of the behavior. We can assume the toddler is showing his baby
brother who’s boss because he’s feeling major jealousy. Punishing him will just reinforce the sibling rivalry, because it convinces him that he really has lost you.
Then, in our last post, we talked about how connecting differently with your child can turn a situation like this around. Instead of punishing, nip this behavior in the bud by focusing on prevention. Refill your
child’s love tank and give her an emotional tune-up on a daily basis, so you
don’t end up in the breakdown lane. Hard, yes–but it works. When you connect with your child in the way she needs, most of the time her behavior improves dramatically.
But what if it doesn’t? “Just how much more love and
attention can I give him?” I call this the leaky cup syndrome. The answer is, if you’re really giving him all the love and attention you can, and it isn’t changing his behavior, it’s because you aren’t healing the feelings driving the behavior.
Your child is showing you that he needs your love–but in a
different form. Why? Because tears and fears don’t just go away. First
we have to let ourselves experience them, after which they dissipate. But when kids are too scared to go near those emotions–or they’ve gotten the message that feelings aren’t okay–they stuff them down in their emotional backpacks.
But the feelings don’t stay put; they bubble up to get healed. Kids try to defend against them by getting controlling, whiny, aggressive, territorial. They might even start marking out their territory like a small mammal.
Any time children act out, it’s because they’re feeling disconnected and driven by emotions they can’t handle. Are you wondering if kids sometimes act out just because they want something? Of course. But that’s a symptom that what they want is more important to them than their relationship with you. Which is a red flag that there’s a disconnect, either ongoing, or right now, caused by big emotions. So “bad” behavior is always a cry for help.
Here’s how to help him.
1. Start daily roughhousing that gets your child laughing. Kids who are aggressive (and peeing on someone is an aggressive act) have fear locked up inside. Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to loosen up that fear: giggling and belly laughs. Try physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response, such as chasing them around the house, bucking bronco rides, or a kids against grownup pillow fight. Laughing also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin, so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection. Daily roughhousing will help your child be happier and more cooperative, and sometimes that’s all children need to work through their unhappiness.
But sometimes, laughter isn’t enough. Your child is still acting provocative. Luckily, all that laughter has loosened up those tears so that your child begins to cry more easily. That’s a GOOD thing; you want him to show them to you, so they’ll heal.
2. Schedule a meltdown. What’s a scheduled meltdown? It’s the same meltdown your child would have had at the supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home, at your convenience, while the baby is asleep, or there’s another adult for back up.
I know, you’d rather he not have a meltdown at all. But tears are nature’s way of healing big emotions. So it’s a huge gift if you can welcome your child’s upsets and help him through the tempest. Your goal is to help your child express what’s going on. Most kids can’t articulate it, of course, and the truth is that words aren’t useful to him at this point; they pull him out of his emotions. Instead, help him show you that upset. How?
3. First, connect so there’s a warm feeling between you. Do a little roughhousing and laughing. Then, set a calm, kind limit. Even “We’ll have to stop soon….I know you wish you could have me to yourself all day” is likely to bring those feelings of need and hurt to the surface.
4. If he gets angry, ratchet up your empathy a notch. Yes, kids get angry when we empathize. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. He’s snapping at you because when you connect with compassion, it moves him back into his heart, where all those feelings are, both good and bad. Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to go behind the anger. “Oh, Sweetie, I see you’re upset…I’m sorry this is so hard.” If you can stay compassionate enough—which is the challenge for most of us—he’ll cry. That’s what’s therapeutic, not the anger.
5. Stay present. Most of us want to run in the other direction when our children get upset. If you can respond to your child’s anger with compassion and a softening of your heart, he’s likely to cry. The more he cries, the better. He needs to show you his fear that you no longer love him, which is locked in his body. He may thrash around and sweat and want to push against something; that all helps his body let go of the fear. Don’t let him hurt you; step back or hold him if necessary. The more you create safety with your compassion, the less likely he’ll get aggressive. Breathe your way through it, and remind yourself that THIS is the help your child was asking for when he acted out.
6. What if he doesn’t cry? Back off, and step up the connection and safety for a few days, using the other preventive maintenance tools like empathy, roughhousing and special tools to increase safety. Then try again. (Here’s a post on that: What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?)
7. What if he yells at you to shut up? Stop talking. Words take your child out of his heart and into his head, and make it harder for him to cry. Don’t ask questions. Don’t give explanations. Don’t expect your child to be able to articulate his feelings. Just help him feel safe enough to cry. Just say “You’re safe…I’m here…Everybody needs to cry sometimes.” There will be plenty of time to teach later.
8. What if yells at you to go away? He doesn’t mean it. He’s trying to regulate the intensity of the emotion. Because he feels safe with you, his feelings come up more intensely in your presence. So he’s trying to send you away so that he won’t feel those unbearable emotions. But he doesn’t really want you to leave, because he needs you to see him safely through. Sure, he’ll calm down if you leave him alone—but that just means he’s stuffed the feelings again and they’ll pop out later. Wouldn’t you rather just help him get through them now? Say “I’ll move back to here…I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. I’ll be right here when you’re ready for a hug.”
9. Honor his grief. Usually after children express
their fears, they collapse into your arms in tears. He might sob like his heart is broken. In a sense it is.
But crying in your arms is his chance to let that grief out, and begin
to heal it. Let him cry as long as he wants. If he stops, make eye
contact. If he has more feelings to get out, your loving gaze will
unlock them. If he’s able to hold your gaze, he’s let out what he needs
10. Once he stops crying, he’ll probably want to cuddle. He might want to change the subject. You can just say “Those were some big feelings. That was hard work. Can I give you a big hug?” If he’s open to it, describe what happened in the form of a story: “You were so mad and sad…You yelled at Mommy and tried to hit me…Mommy said ‘No hitting! Hitting hurts!’ and Mommy held you so you couldn’t hit. Mommy will always keep everyone safe. You were so upset. You cried and cried. Everybody needs to cry sometimes. Then you were done crying, and Mommy hugged you and held you and we snuggled. Then we all felt better.”
You’ll be amazed at how affectionate and cooperative your little guy is
after you “hear and see” his feelings. He may fall asleep, or he may go
on to have a wonderful evening with you. If you’ve ever felt better
after someone you trust has held you through a good cry, you’ll know how healing
this is. Just magnify your adult experience by a factor of one thousand
to understand the intensity for your child.
Yes, it’s a lot of work for you. You’ll have to breathe your way
through it each time, and probably repeat a little mantra to soothe
yourself. This may bring up big feelings from your own childhood, so you may need to find an adult who will let YOU vent and cry safely about all the feelings this brings up in you.
But wait until you see how much closer you and your son feel
to each other. It’s worth every bit of sweat and tears.
Not to mention, your child won’t be peeing on the baby any more. I guarantee it.