Last week we uncovered some of the lies we believe about tantrums. We realized that tantrums have a developmental purpose! That our kids' thinking and rational brains go offline during tantrums, and despite what you may believe about their sinister intentions, our kids inability to listen is physiological. Not to mention that their ear canals actually restrict when they are in a state of big emotions (forgot to mention that last week, didn't I?) but the areas of their brains that they need to process what they hear is unavailable to them. To sum it up: "Kids do better when they can" (Dr. Ross Greene).
So the big question remains... how can we help our kids be *able* to do "better"?
The main premise of last week's tantrum blog was that our kids go into a state of fight/flight/freeze when they are overwhelmed and it is NOT their choice. This is caused by a nervous system shift due to an unconscious perceived threat. Their brain is sending them signals "THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!! YOU ARE IN DANGER!!!" They are flooded with stress hormones and adrenaline that prepare their little bodies to kick it into high-gear to protect themselves. They either 1) fight the danger, 2) flee the danger or 3) freeze and play dead. Now look, we know that there isn't a saber tooth tiger about to lunge at our small child, but their bodies and primal parts of theirs brains are acting as if there is. The reason for this is because our children (especially the littlest humans among us) have to fully rely on bigger, kind and wise humans who they are attached to for survival. They need us to be completely in love them in order to protect them. They cannot provide for their basic physical needs themselves, so they rely on emotional attachment to get their needs met. A breach in that emotional safety *IS* a breach in their physical safety to their little nervous systems. Their brains don't see the difference. Hear me when I say this (er- type this... :/ ) Your child's emotional needs are just as important as their physical ones.
Dismissing their actions as "over-dramatic", saying things "oh, you're fine" or reminding them to be grateful only serves to further the sense of disconnect (they don't feel understood) and pushes them deeper into a their state of threat.
I know you're thinking: "I'm not threatening my child!!" "I would never do anything to make them feel unsafe!" ...but the reality is that this happens on an unconscious level. And we aren't always the original source of threat, but we can quickly add to that feeling of danger when our limbic system communicates to theirs that we are agitated. Our wide eyes and tight jaw or loud voice are all unconscious signals to our children that we ourselves are in a state of nervous system arousal. This can either tell them that we are the threat, or a threat is near (and we are getting ready to fight). Both of these things create more of a fight/flight/freeze response in our kiddos.
SOOOOOO..... what can we do about this?
Create safety. Safety is the secret sauce to tackling tantrums like a pro. Safety is what makes the difference. Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson use the "4 S's" as a model to talk about what our children need from us in order to feel secure in their relationship with us. Safe, Seen, Soothed and Secure. That security is the ultimate sense of continued safety. When they are secure they know that we have their backs 100% of the time and nothing they can throw at us is going to cause us to falter. They can fully trust us. And believe, me they will test that security. They will "push our buttons", not just because they are bored, but they want to test the limits to our love. Will we abandon them? Or are we big enough to hold off their pain and stress with compassion and love even when it comes out in ways that we don't like?
That's the long-game of course. In the short term, what can you can do when your child is freaking out because you said it's time to leave the park...
#1 Remind yourself that this is NOT an emergency. This is an opportunity. Children CANNOT self-soothe on their own. They learn to regulate their emotions through being soothed by their attachment figure over and over again. It's something that is learned through modeling and practice. Those big emotions your kid is exploding with right now are an opportunity to wire your child's brain for safety. You can only do this if you yourself feel safe. Quiet all the noise in your head about what this tantrum means about you as a mom. Imagine yourself turning down that dial if you have to. Take 5 slow deep breathes (5 breaths is what it takes to start to shift your nervous system back to normal and the more you practice it, the more effective it is). Get yourself out of fight/flight/freeze *BEFORE* attempting to help your child.
#2 Create a safe place for them to feel their big feelings! Once they know that it is safe to feel disappointed and angry (because you won't leave them or threaten them) they can feel those big feelings and then the feelings start to dissipate. (It actually only takes about 90 seconds for those feeling to come and go, just like a big wave). Remind yourself (and your kiddo!) that the storm will pass. It's safe to feel those big feelings and they won't over take you or him. Hug your kiddo. Look at them with loving eyes. Get down on their level. Let them know that you are there for them!
#3 Help the mad melt to sad. Accepting futility is hard! Deborah McNamara has this wonderful model of seeing our kids go from mad to sad. I can't go into it at length today, but know that your warm, empathetic presence has the power for those angry yells to melt into sad tears. When this happens know that the intensity of the emotion is passing. And understand that the skill of accepting futility is one that will your child for their whole life.
Sometimes you don't have the time to go sit with your child through their big feelings. That's okay. Empathize with them: "this is tough right now, buddy. You're feeling really upset that we have to leave the park today. I get it." And then do what needs to be done until you can get somewhere where you can work through the big feelings, even if that means the surf-board carry to the car while he is wailing. (#beenthere!) Remember that being with your child through those big feelings is absolutely the most important thing you will do that day.
Ultimately, you cannot control or stop your child from having big feelings. BUT you can reassure them with everything you've got that at every step of the way you have got their back. You are there for them. You see them and they are never too much for you.
If you are struggling with tantrums and want some support, please reach out! I would love to chat with you about ways that you can give your kid the secret safety sauce they need to thrive. Your first parent coaching session is absolutely FREE! You can book it here: Discovery Session - Own Your Parenting (ownyourbreastfeedingstory.com)
Next week we will break down some really practical in-the-moment tools for creating safety and soothing your kiddos.