It’s been too silent and you know there’s gotta be something wrong. Your household is never this peaceful unless everyone is fast asleep. As soon as you enter the kids’ room, your 3-yr.-old lets loose with a flood of tears that brightens his cherub-like face and a wail that assails your senses. Your 5-yr.-old son, Jordan, is sprawled on the rug, his arms encircling a wide array of toys. He’s imploring you to take his side, “Randy is trying to take them. Their mine! I had them first!” And then, there’s Randy, who manages to whine through his tearful fit, “he hit me!”
Normally, your first instinct is to blame Jordan, because you think he should know better than to hit. He’s been told repeatedly to “use his words.” As the older brother, he knows that’s what he’s supposed to do. Why is it that, as soon as you turn your back, he reverts to this aggressive behavior? Fortunately, you remember to take a deep breathe. You stop and get clear about the whole situation. Then you remember. You were not in the room. You realize that you actually don’t know what happened. It’s all conjecture! You then try to imagine how your older son might have perceived it. You think about what he knows about behaving himself when faced with an irrational, grabby 3-year-old. What exactly are the limits of his self-control in face of his presumed knowledge of “correct” behavior? You tell yourself, quite logically, that 5-year-old Jordan does not really get why his little brother is always into his toys. It’s quite possible that he’s frustrated. Maybe he’s trying to set them up in a way that, to him, looks awesome. Who knows what story he’s telling about those toys in his head? And then, suddenly, the Little Monster is swooping in to demolish everything. You bet he’s mad! And frustrated.
One of the most basic strategies to help a child get control over their feelings is for the adult to name that feeling. Even if you’re not entirely spot on, you can do your best to approximate what you think your child might be experiencing internally. To Randy, the one who got hit, you might say, “oh, that hurt when you got hit and you were sad you couldn’t play. You really want to play with Jordan and he didn’t let you. Those toys are not for grabbing. You can ask for them when he’s done playing with them.”
Then, you might continue with your older child: “Jordan, I see how mad you must be at Randy. He messed up what you were trying to do. It’s so frustrating. He’s not for hitting. You can tell him how mad your are and you can let him know that right now you’re playing with those toys and you don’t want him to take them.”
Of course, Randy will insist, “but I want them,” and he’ll try to grab as many as he can in his little hands. Jordan will then be all over him again. You’re the referee here. Wanting to prevent bloodshed, you go into the “ring” to physically separate them. Again, you let Jordan know that you totally get it––he’s mad at his brother for ruining what he did, but he may not hit his brother. You also tell Jordan he can say he’s mad to Randy and he can tell Randy that he didn’t want him messing up his set up. You can give Jordan another strategy to deal with the situation: perhaps he can ask his brother to wait a few minutes and play with them another time. Jordan simply isn’t mature enough to problem solve this on his own, especially in the heat of the moment when his upper-level thinking skills are off line. Literally, he’s in his lower brain, the emotional limbic part, that has no connection to the part that can reason and “work things out.”
When you name the emotions, or at least attempt to approximate what you think your kids might be feeling, it has the effect of connecting to your child and this will calm them down. Author and neuropsychiatrist, Daniel J. Siegel, describes this fundamental parenting strategy as “name it to tame it.” (The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel, D. J., and Bryson, T. P., Bantam Books, 2011). By helping your children in this way, you are giving them the tools to learn to become aware of their emotions, and eventually, have self control.
When you acknowledge Randy’s sadness at not getting to play with what his big brother is playing with, you are helping him to understand what’s going on emotionally. This can calm him enough to tame those big, out-of-control emotions, and it can help him reframe the experience so that he could eventually negotiate to have a turn with the toys. And, when you let Jordan know that you understand how mad he is at his brother, you’re giving him a chance to cool down and get out of his lower brain, which operates on the basis of fight or flight. You’re helping him soothe the limbic area of his brain so he can use his “higher” brain or cerebral cortex––the part that uses logical thinking. With the “name it to tame it” approach, your son will eventually learn how to use this part of his brain to think about how his actions could affect other people.
So you haven’t yelled at either of your kids, yet. You haven’t taken one side or another. You’ve simply helped each of them connect with the emotional turmoil they’re feeling, and helped them to slow down enough to calm the storm. As a parent, you need to deconstruct what’s going on in your children’s minds so you can respond appropriately to each situation and each child. That way you can teach them the skills they need to become more aware of their emotions and how to express them appropriately so others can understand. You’ll be giving them access to social skills they need to become happy and successful adults. Welcome to the mindset of Parenting Made Ridiculously Simple!
–– To Your Joyful and Effective Parenting!