Viewing entries tagged
non-verbal communication

Magic Wand? Yeah, right. (Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do when your child is upset.)

One day my seven-year-old became furious with me because I told him he couldn’t invite a friend over to play.  He stormed off to his room and slammed the door.  About a minute later, I heard the door open, then slam again.  I went up to check on him, and taped to the outside of his door, I saw the picture you see here.  (You can see from the drawing below that he regularly uses his artistic talents to communicate his feelings about his parents.) I went into his room and saw what I knew I’d see:  a big child-sized lump under the covers on his bed. I sat next to the lump and put my hand on what I assumed was a shoulder, and suddenly the lump moved away from me, towards the wall.  From beneath the covers, he cried out, “Get away from me!”

Often at times like this I can become childish and drop down to my child’s level.  I’ve even been known to say things like, “Fine!  If you won’t let me cut that toenail that’s hurting, you can stay in pain all week!”  (Sometimes I'll throw in a "See if I care!" for good measure.)

But this particular day, I maintained control and handled myself pretty well.  I first tried to acknowledge his feelings: “I know that makes you mad that Ryan can’t come over today.”

His response?  “Yes, and I hate you!”

I stayed calm and said, “Sweetie, I know this is frustrating, but there’s just not time to have Ryan over.  We’re meeting your grandparents for dinner in just a little while.”

After that, he returned to the familiar refrain as he curled tighter and moved as far away from me as possible:  “I said get away from me!”

I reminded him of our rule about talking with each other respectfully, then I went through a series of responses, the ones I regularly talk to parents about.  I comforted; I tried to use nonverbal connection like touch and tone of voice before I tried to problem-solve; I empathized; I tried again to explain.  I even offered an incentive to talk:  a playdate the next day.  But at that moment, he refused to calm down or let me help him in any way.

The point of this story is a reality that people rarely talk about:  Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do as a parent to fix it in that moment.  We can work to stay calm and loving, and fully present in the situation, but we may not be able to make things better right away.  Sometimes we have to just let our kids work through the moment themselves.

This doesn’t mean that we’d leave a child crying alone in his or her room for a long time.  And it doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying different strategies when our child needs our help.  In my case, I ended up sending my husband into my son’s room, and the change of dynamics helped him begin to calm some, so that later he and I could come back together and talk about what happened.  But for a few minutes, all I could do was to say, “I’m here if you need me,” then leave him in his room, shut the door with the anti-mom sign on it, and let him ride it out the way he needed to in his own timing and in his own way.

I’m writing about this because I’m someone who’s a parenting expert and a pediatric psychotherapist who works with deeply troubled children.  People come to me for advice on how to handle problems with their kids.  And I want to make it clear that for me, like you, there are times when there just isn’t a magic wand  we can wave to magically transport our kids to peace and happiness.

Sometimes the best we can do is to communicate our love, be available if they do want us close, and then talk about the situation when they’re ready.

And lucky for me, a few days later, it was his dad who got the next note.


Taboo Subjects: Are There Topics You Should Avoid with Your Kids?

Sometimes we aren’t sure if and when we should talk to our kids about something. For many parents, subjects related to sexuality, race, and other uncomfortable topics can fall into this category. I was talking to someone the other day who said she’d never want to talk to her kids about masturbation. This post isn’t at all about the particular topic of masturbation—it’s about an important parenting issue.

Setting boundaries AND connecting emotionally

One thing that isn’t on the notes that we discussed is the importance of boundaries and consequences. It’s important for us to remember that connecting emotionally with our kids, joining with them, and looking at the underlying needs/emotions beyond the surface behavior doesn’t at all mean we should be indulgent. As an example, I think it would be weak and indulgent to respond to a child who’s crying and tantruming in public because he doesn’t want to leave somewhere by asking, “Are you upset? Why are you upset? It’s OK. We can talk when you’re ready.” And leave them crying and being upset, and not making them leave–giving them control over the situation. It doesn’t feel good to them or to you to allow their emotional states to dictate what is happening. A more appropriate response would be something like, “I can see that you are upset. Do you want to tell me about it? Ok, well, we can talk when you are ready, but right now we need to get in the car. You can either come right now on your own or I’ll help you get in the car. “ These are subtle distinctions, but important ones.

Sometimes they don’t know why they are upset—they just feel it. What’s important is that we let them feel that we care about how they are feeling, but also that we provide some limit and structure to the situation. For an older child, when she is losing it at bedtime, we can say something like “I know it can be hard sometimes and you can go ahead and let your feelings out. I’ll be here for you if you need me, and I can just listen if you want to talk or I can just sit here with you. In 5 minutes we’re going to turn off the light so you can get to sleep, but I can be here for you however would feel best to you for the next 5 minutes.” Our non-verbal tone of voice, body posture, facial expression matter a lot in how we come across.

I saw a mom at the park this afternoon who had a son who was about 5 or so. He was being a bully on the play structure and the mom didn’t intervene (saying she didn’t want to solve his problems) until another mom let her know that he wasn’t letting the other kids go down the slide, etc. The mom reprimanded him at which time he started calling her stupid and throwing sand. She told him they had to leave and gathered their things and kept trying to get him to leave, but never enforced it. They were still there when I left.

A way this mom could’ve been both attuned to his emotional state AND enforce boundaries would be to tell him that the way he was acting wasn’t OK and that they were going to leave (it might be OK to give him a second chance with a clear warning about what would happen with any future infractions depending on the situation and severity). When he started calling her stupid and throwing things, she could say “I can see you are really angry and disappointed about leaving the park. We can’t stay at the park because you didn’t make good choices, so we are leaving now. You can either walk yourself to the car or I will take you to the car. It’s your choice.” And then make it happen.

When we tell them “I know you’re having a hard time” or “I can see you are really upset” or whatever we say to connect with them emotionally and to let them feel felt, we also MUST expect behavior to meet our expectations, give consequences. We do want to offer emotional connection, but we never want to indulge their behavior. Again, it doesn’t even feel good to them to allow their emotional states to drive the situation.

Emotionally responsive parenting is at the heart of optimal development, but emotionally responsive parenting isn’t at all about being indulgent.