When my child sees red, he sees RED. Fellow parents of strong-willed kiddos know what I am talking about, because, chances are, you’ve seen the downstairs brain hijack, too. They want what they want and they have no qualms about locking horns with you to get it. And when they are met with a boundary or an answer that pushes against what they desire, they down-spiral into full-on attack mode - hitting, kicking, yelling, spitting, and even destroying their path like a little tornado.
The first time this happened in our home, I just stood there dumbfounded wondering, “What the hell is this? What do I do here? … Wow, I didn’t know he could kick that high.”
All humans have needs, wants, and desires, and not having something you want is one of the most difficult human experiences. What makes being a child so challenging is that they are born into the world fully able to want and not at all able to regulate those wants. That’s because the part of the brain responsible for regulating these desires is just coming online around age three and isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.
Because children are wired to process one pure thought and emotion at a time, when they feel something, it is felt fully and deeply with little to no filter. As our children get older, their emotions become more complex, layered with primary emotions that appear as anger. But under that anger is usually another emotion such as jealousy, disappointment, or frustration.
Often, as parents, we have one of two knee-jerk reactions:
- To shut down the desire
- Expect immediate regulation
Neither of these is very effective. Here’s why:
When we communicate to our children that their wanting is bad, these patterns stay with them long into adulthood. Children who fail to receive support and guidance in navigating their big feelings, hurts, and disappointments can internalize that they are wrong for desiring, and may even feel unworthy of receiving.
And when we set goals for our children to stay regulated, our children feel these unspoken goals, which can further fuel the fire. It’s common for parents to feel so confronted that they develop the desire to shut down the behavior, but when we attempt to control our child’s emotional states, we become puppets on a string. This is disempowering to both us and our children.
Meltdowns are not the enemy. In fact, when we shift our lens to see them as natural, necessary, and developmental, they become opportunities to nurture emotional intelligence. Emotions that are acknowledged and validated become integrated and come up and out like a train going through a station. As caregivers, we are able to validate our child’s emotional experience while also setting boundaries around the behavior. There is nothing permissive about allowing a child to feel while setting loving limits.
Parenting is an embodied experience so there isn’t one right or wrong answer. It is about using the data you’ve collected and doing what is best for you and your child at the moment. Yet, in doing what I do with coaching others, I have noticed certain trends that help parents manage their triggers alongside their child’s behaviors.
1. Take time for self-care
When we find ourselves overwhelmed with our child’s emotions, our body may be communicating to us that it needs a break. When was the last time you were alone - without your child - doing something just for you? This could be five minutes sipping tea, peeing without company, going for a car ride, doing a yoga class, or spending a weekend with your partner.
2. Understand your triggers
Do you find that when your child feels deeply it brings up unpleasant energy within you? Take a moment to reflect on what you are feeling and thinking when your child is melting down. And then ask yourself, “Where did I learn this? Who in my life showed me this?” Many of us feel uncomfortable or even triggered by our child’s emotional states because those parts of us were shut down long ago when our attachments told us it wasn’t allowed to feel, want, and desire.
3. Cancel your goals
Sounds crazy, right?! Yet if you find yourself setting goals that your child doesn’t meltdown or that they don’t behave strongly, I encourage you to cancel them. While your goals are valid, they focus on how your child shows up in the world and, while we can guide it, we can’t control it. So instead, set a new goal that focuses on how you will show up in the face of your child’s emotions and behaviors so that you can lead your child when they are seeking guidance.
4. Set boundaries
Children are allowed to want something and become upset when they don’t get their way. And (I emphasize the and) we are allowed to manage the behaviors. In this way, it helps to look at feelings and behaviors as two separate parts of your child. There’s the way they feel and there’s what they do. Parents can set boundaries around the behaviors that result from their feelings without using shame or fear tactics.
When setting boundaries, it is useful to communicate to our children what we are willing to do, rather than telling them what they can’t do.
So, let’s say that your child wants the blue shovel that his sister has. He wants to dig in the dirt and help you plant flowers but there’s only one small shovel. The impulse of wanting takes over and he snatches it from her hand. He doesn’t want to give it back. He won’t give it back. How do you set the boundary without making the wanting wrong?
Validation may look like this: “You wanted the shovel to help mom plant flowers. And it is hard to wait when you want it now, isn’t it?”
Boundary setting may look like this: “You can have the shovel when your sister is finished. You can give it back to her or, if that feels hard, I can help you.”
And then you can stick to the boundary of helping him hand it back to his sister while holding space for his feelings.
5. Stay listening
Now, here’s where it gets tricky for us parents whose children are passionate life warriors. If your child is anything like mine, he doesn’t pause and thank me for my guidance. He goes deep into his brainstem where his behaviors communicate strongly to me that he’s unhappy about not getting the shovel. Before I know it, my son is charging me like a bull and boxing like Tyson.
While my child is allowed to feel his big feelings, I will not let them happen at the expense of his, my, or another’s safety. When your child is in his red, reactive brain here are some tools to try:
- Get eye level or below. When my son was about two, it was uber helpful to lay on the floor while he was melting. I stayed quiet and verbalized safety with my body, not my words. He felt safe and transitioned from seeing red to entering his emotional brain where I could talk and validate his experience.
- For some children, you can get low and communicate with your words, “You are safe. I am here. We will get through this together.” Then, model breathing or a calming strategy.
- Children who are coming at you guns a-blazin’ may require limits. You may say something like, “I won’t let you hit me. I will keep us both safe.” And then with little to no words reinforce that. This is not a time to offer calming strategies or ask questions because it’s likely that your child will further escalate. Instead, create a safe distance between you and your child, offer a bear hug or weighted blanket, or, you may choose to bring your child to a space where they can move away from others to regulate. I sometimes have to do this with my son when he is going after my toddler. The difference between this and a time-out is that I am staying with my child and letting his emotional expression move through his body while keeping myself and his brother safe. He is a good kid having a hard time and feeling unpleasant feelings. I know that, and I want him to know that too.
Differentiating Between Needs
When our children are having a hard time, it is helpful for us to recognize the unmet needs that are driving the behavior. Is the need physiological, emotional, and/or sensory?
Physiological needs include being hungry, feeling tired, and being off routine. These three are big derailers that can dysregulate our children quickly. Satiating those desires within them will help regulate your child’s system.
If your child is experiencing sensory or emotional overwhelm, or is seeking control or attention, parents can meet these needs by offering tools. Here are some ideas:
When our children experience those powerful red brain emotions, we sometimes want to put a stop to their need to hit, kick, spit or destroy. And while setting loving limits is necessary, we can also reframe behaviors to make their desired outlets safe.
- The child who wants to bite: Offer carrots, wooden toys, or chewelry jewelry.
- The child who wants to hit or kick: Redirect to a stuffed animal or pillow, invite them to a crash pad, or get them in nature where they can hit a stick against a tree or kick the grass.
- The child who wants to spit: Go outside to spit on a rock, make it a game and take turns spitting to hit Cheerios that you tossed in the toilet, or redirect to spitting in a cup or the bathtub. Believe it or not, spitting can be regulating and is part of healthy oral motor development ... just not when they are spitting on you.
- The child who wants to destroy: Encourage them to snap dry noodles, tear paper, pop bubble wrap by stomping on it with their feet, or make sand by smashing graham crackers with a kid-safe hammer. Best of all, get them outside and turn them loose to use their imaginations - building/destroying again and again with water, mud, sticks, piles of leaves, rocks, etc in nature.
- The child who wants control: Invite them to be the leader of chores or tasks, ask for their opinion or help, offer choices, and encourage them to do age-appropriate tasks independently.
- The child who wants attention: Dedicate 10 to 15 minutes each day of child-led play. Another tool for the kiddo who seeks attention is to teach them how to ask for attention. One way to do this is to show them that, if they touch your elbow when you are talking, without even saying a word, you will turn to address them when you have a break in your conversation. Make the first time a short, five-second wait, and as they have success using this strategy, lengthen the wait time to teach them impulse control. For more ideas on nurturing daily social-emotional skills, check out our daily activity calendar.
Using a Time-In with children is like an umbrella with spokes to each of these skills, allowing us to validate our child’s experience while also teaching them social-emotional skills of noticing, naming, and managing feelings and behaviors. The Time-In ToolKit is designed to guide parents and children during these hard moments to transform them into connection opportunities.
When children are given the tools to harness the gift (yes, gift!) of their strong-willed nature, their brains become wired for love, empathy, compassion, and connection. The world has so many strong-willed children. What it needs more of are strong-willed adults. Let’s not squash it out of our children. Let’s help them channel it.