managing the big behaviours - how to co-regulate with your child in 8 simple steps
When those big behaviours happen such as tantrums, screaming and shouting, throwing objects, hitting out, it can feel totally overwhelming for a parent witnessing it and often we can feel like the big behaviours have just come out of nowhere or over the smallest thing. It's easy for us to get caught up in the moment and our first instinct is to respond emotionally in this situation until our rational brain kicks in and helps us navigate a way forward.
STEP 1; Find your Inner Calm
When our child is in full fight mode whether in tantrum mode, screaming at us, lashing out - our first response will always be emotional, we can feel like it is a personal attack or we prepare ourselves for the 'battle' we are about to enter and we forget to see the child behind the behaviours. As the adult in this situation we need to rise above the behaviour and find empathy for our child who is merely expressing their emotions using the only tools they currently have. So before we respond we need to take three deep breaths in and out to steady ourselves and remember that it is not an attack but our child trying to share their feelings with us. That we are on the same side and want to help our child navigate their feelings. And that actually it is a HUGE compliment to us that they are sharing their feelings with you because it means they feel safe and loved by you.
STEP 2; Creating a Safe Space
When big behaviours are being displayed we need to make sure our child is safe because safety is always paramount. We may need to remove our child into a safe space or move the objects around them to ensure they wont hurt themselves or others. But one of the key elements to creating a safe space is you- because we are trying to ensure your child feels safe and secure and loved. This is crucial because they need to know your love is unconditional and that you are present for them, that you understand what they are going through. And so your job in that moment is to make yourself available physically and emotionally by sitting in a space near to them as a calming and connected presence.
Sometimes our children will seek further physical connection with us through hitting out or throwing objects and we need to calmly respond to this to ensure everyone's safety in the situation. This needs to be addressed calmly but presently in the moment - you may need to hold their hands or remove objects or hold your own hands up to stop the action whilst stating in a calm but firm voice "I can see you want to hit/bite/throw right now but I wont let you, it's not safe and it hurts".
STEP 3; Recognising and Validating Emotions
As an adult when we are upset all we really need is to be seen, for someone to ask us if we are ok, because as human beings we seek connections with others and through this acknowledgement we feel valued and cared for. When our children are upset connection is the most important tool we can give them and it is so important that we recognise and label the emotion for them to model and enable them to have an emotional vocabulary to explore the language that describes how they are feeling. It is also crucial for them to have their emotions validated, to know we understand and are available to support them. By labelling the emotion and showing understanding we are giving them room to express themselves. Simply and calmly state "I can see you are angry/frustrated/sad right now because I asked you to/you didn't want to/ you couldn't ........ I love you and I am here for you. When you feel ready for a cuddle/story/calm activity I am right here for you. "
STEP 4; Repetition
Because a child is in a purely emotional state when the big behaviours are displayed and these are often instinctual responses a child can often not hear our words or process them. repetition of steps two and three may be needed until they begin to calm and soothe themselves in your presence. Recent scientific research suggests that our brain needs to hear or experience things at least three times before we begin to fully process it in any situation, and in an emotional response this may take longer, but persist because it is giving your child the nourishment they need. A good technique can be to use your voice at a whisper- this has been shown to lower heart rates and help to keep calm and in turn helps your child who will also want to seek that connection and hear what you are saying.
STEP 5; Help your Child Find their Calm
Once their big behaviours begin to calm remind them "I love you and I am here for you, do you feel ready for that cuddle/story/calm activity now?" Let them come to you and choose their comfort. If or when they hug you or if they cry or you can feel their heart rate is accelerated or they look upset offer them the reassurance - "it's ok, I've got you, it's ok to cry/be upset/sad sometimes and it's good to let it all out." Hold them for as long as they need and always let them end the hug. Read a story or do a calm activity or something of their choosing to reconnect with them and re-establish the positive relationship you have so they feel safe and secure.
STEP 6; Revisiting Behaviours & Offering Reasons
Once your child is calm and happy it is important to revisit the behaviours. The reason for this is not to make your child feel bad or judged for what happened but to build ideas and strategies for how it could be done differently next time. It's important that we don't put any of our own emotional labels onto the child because we are trying to help them to self-regulate and not to feel guilty towards others.
Using statements of fact about the situation revisit what happened - "I could see you were so angry/frustrated/sad just now because (state what happened to cause the behaviour). Offer your understanding "I understand why you felt angry/sad/frustrated/that it wasn't fair..." and then follow it through with the reason why the boundary is in place- "it isn't safe to..... because....." or if it was self-frustration use positive reinforcement about what they did well - "you should be proud of yourself for concentrating so hard and you managed to...….new skills take time to learn and lots of practise"
Using these strategies when they are calm helps them to understand why and to have a positive relationship with expressing emotions and knowing how to regulate them. As their experiences and the adults consistent delivery of these explanations grow they are left with more tools to self-regulate their behaviours.
STEP 7; Offering Alternative Solutions
Talk about different emotions and how we all have them and offer safe ways to express them - "when we feel angry it is not safe to throw/kick/bite because we might hurt ourselves/others. Next time you feel like this you could have a cuddle with someone, stamp your feet to music, listen to calm music, read your favourite book, go to your snuggle basket, shake your glitter jar etc.
Our aim is that over time our child will be able to choose more positive ways to express their emotions through the tools and support we give them. Using stories and small world play with our children can be a good way to explore different emotions and ways to express them. Often our children will offer the characters ways to behave and we can use these as our lead to support our own child during their big behaviours.
STEP 8; Consistency in Approach
Once the Big behaviour has passed and you have gently revisited it after the event move on with your day and do not revisit it again. Because these behaviours are instinctual and emotion driven children will often forget them soon after the event, and so should we. Treat each new episode as a fresh experience repeating the steps as though they have never been done before. reflect on what you have learnt about your child and yourself each time, celebrate your triumphs and be kind to yourselves when they haven't gone so well - we are all human. But know with every step you take to connect with your child in these big behaviour moments, the more they will seek to connect with you, and over time you will find yourselves and your children in a much happier and connected space.
why setting boundaries IS the key to positive parenting relationships with our children
This week as I have been listening to different parents discussing behaviours and parenting approaches with their children I have been reflecting a lot on the importance of the consistent and fair approach to delivering boundaries in our homes.
Before I even had children of my own I was listening to psychologist, Dr. Pamela Stephenson, being interviewed and they asked her what advice she would have for any parents listening and her reply has stayed with me throughout time –'Be your child’s parent first and foremost and not their friend'. Most recently I read Janet Lansbury’s reflection on boundaries and her comment that setting boundaries tells our children that “we can see them and that we love them” really resonated with me and this is why...
When our children arrive in this chaotic and confusing world all they have to make them feel safe and secure is us- their parents. We instantly become the people who hold the key to love, discovery and understanding. They attune to us emotionally, they respond to our physical closeness and contact and we instantly become their first and most enduring teacher throughout life – and with that comes a huge amount of responsibility.
As our children grow and have more contact with the world around them they use us as their reference point to find out if a behaviour, idea or concept is correct and they follow our responses with avid attention to form their own responses and behaviours. When we find them challenging us it is often an impulsive behaviour they are building a concept around or an emotional response as their rational brain has yet to develop. They have no control over the behaviour or response displayed and are relying on us as their co-regulators to help them to resolve their emotions and find a positive way forward.
As parents when we approach boundaries we need to be clear about the reasons we make them - firstly to make sure they are reasonable and not bending rules to suit our own preferences and secondly to ensure that we know the reasons why the boundaries are in place so as our children get older we are able to help them see why the boundary is set. The ultimate desirable outcome for our children is that they understand the difference between right or wrong and are able to make safe judgements for themselves about the choices they make. Boundaries are there to keep ourselves, others and our environment safe and our relationship between them trustworthy and respectful. If we follow these guidelines for ourselves when we make our house rules then we can deliver them authentically and without reproach. They also have to be boundaries that we can live by because we have to be the ones to set the example and believe me they learn through our actions and not our words and take great joy in pointing out any of our indiscretions!
Finding our inner calm
The joy of parenting is that where we can often turn a blind eye to other peoples children's disregard for our boundaries, or even find it cute or funny, when it is our own we immediately feel the emotional connection and this can make it very difficult for us to find our calm place before we respond. But the truth of it is that it's our inner calm that makes boundaries effective. Our children have to allowed to make mistakes because that is how they learn, and if we meet them with love and compassion then they can connect with us and feel safe to try again. We, as adults, are able to rationalise and respond in an appropriate way that makes all the difference to a child's ability to cope with the situation and be guided by us to try it differently. Rather than feeling we are heading into a battle field we need to take three deep breaths, remind ourselves it is not personal, that we are on the same side as our child, that it is healthy for them to express themselves and that they are testing us because we are the person they feel the safest with - it's a huge compliment if we look at it from this side!
Delivering boundaries consistently
As parents this can sometimes feel difficult particularly as our children can seem like very skilled negotiators at times, or may respond to our boundaries with extreme emotion that can feel challenging to navigate when we ourselves may feel tired, stressed or under the weather. We need to remind ourselves that our boundaries are in place for a reason and that they are immoveable- the bare essentials that we cannot negotiate around. We also need to remind ourselves that these boundaries show our children that we love them and care for them. Boundaries are so important to build a strong connection with our children because they create a structure of understanding from which our children can navigate and interact with the rest of the world. Imagine trying to do this if the rules change all the time - how can you make sense of anything? Imagine how frightening that is for a child who already knows so little about how the world works and is trying to find their way? When our boundaries move and some days its a firm 'No' and other days it's a 'Maybe' and other days a definite 'Yes' children can't manage our expectations or understand our reasons, for them it is very black and white, and when we move these boundaries they feel unsafe and out of control and this is where we see behaviours escalating or boundaries being tested and pushed - they want to hear us state our boundaires so they can feel safe and secure again.
The words we use make a difference
When we are delivering boundaries or reinstating them we have to remember to offer them in a calm but firm manner so that our meaning is felt but in a non-judgemental or responsive way. They are neutral and fair because they are there to keep the child safe. We have to be careful to address the action and not label the child - telling them they are naughty or wrong can be very damaging to their self-esteem and more often than not the behaviour has been an impulse or an attempt to understand something. Try and pre-empt situations by offering the boundaries in an activity before you start it, then gently remind them as it happens "Remember I can't let you climb on the table. It's not safe and you could hurt yourself." Use eye contact, at their level and use the first person to directly connect with them. Always offer a reason for your boundary that makes sense and focuses on safety and wellbeing. Label their emotion so they know you can see them - "I can see you are angry and want to throw the bricks. I can't let you do that, it's not safe and could hurt someone." offer a safe alternative wherever possible "you could throw the soft balls in the tub instead". Offer positive specific praise that focuses on desirable behaviours and characteristics when they don't expect it to reaffirm safe and positive choices - "You really listened well when I asked you to stop. Now we can cross the road safely together"- focus on the skills rather than the end result - "you must be proud of yourself, you really tried hard to put your shoes on. Well done for asking for help. We can practise again tomorrow." When you use these techniques you are building a positive internal monologue and language to express themselves with, and are building strong neural pathways for developing their own understanding of making choices to keep themselves and others safe.
Weathering the storm
As our child lies down on the floor to kick and scream, or bursts into tears and runs upstairs to sob into their pillows, as they lash out or sink their teeth in it can be extremely hard to hold onto our resolve and not make allowances around an unpopular decision that has been made- but we have to find that strength in ourselves and know that once the storm has passed a rainbow of realisation will appear. If we consistently deliver the same response then our child learns over time that this is how it works and so there is little point in displaying unwanted behaviours because it will not change the outcome, it becomes part of how life works and they accept this in good trust of the loving grown up in their lives.
If our response changes depending on our child's reaction then this is what they learn and each time you deliver the boundary they will kick or scream a little harder in the knowledge that eventually it will change your response. To put it in Laymen's terms, if you walk into a room and stamp your foot and the light comes on the next time you walk into that room the first thing you will do is stamp your foot, if it doesn't work you may stamp a little harder until it does and if it doesn't you may comply and press the switch, but each time you enter the room you are always going to try stamping your foot first to get the result you want.
The balance to avoid power struggles
Have you ever heard the saying 'pick your battles' - this is something that holds so much truth in the delivery of boundaries. Boundaries should only be held around the really important areas in life, the core values for your family and to keep everyone safe - there are plenty of smaller boundaries where you can give children the room to make their own choices and practise their negotiation skills - problem solving and the opportunity to learn from mistakes are important life lessons too. The point of boundaries are to keep your child safe and to create core values but we have to find the balance so our children also have the opportunity to feel empowered, to test out their understanding of the world and to make their own choices as capable human beings. It's also important that they see us as adults who make mistakes too, who can say sorry when we are wrong and who need help sometimes - this teaches them empathy and co-operation based on mutual respect and trust. Using 'playful parenting' strategies are a really fun way to instil this - things like putting our shoes on the wrong feet, getting words wrong in a favourite story book, tidying objects up in the wrong places, trying to brush their teeth with a hairbrush - they offer our children the chance to correct and guide us in a positive interaction full of humour and love.
To teach, not to punish...
And finally, consequences for breaking rules are important but we have to remember the motive behind them - to discipline means to teach and not to punish. To have authentic relationships with our children where they trust and respect us and feel safe to express themselves and learn from us has to come from a place of unconditional love, understanding and empathy. When we use strategies like the naughty step and reward charts or taking away a toy or activity they love, or methods that have no end result such as counting to three we are placing conditions on our children, laying blame at their feet for their mistakes, and teaching them that they are only worthy of love when they behave in a desirable way, that they must obey. To help our child understand boundaries and positive choices we have to offer direct consequences that relate to the behaviour and they have to be realistic consequences that you are willing to carry through, for example "if we continue to throw the bricks then they have to go away as it's not safe", "if we don't put our shoes and coat on now then we can't play outside", "if we don't go up to bed now we will only have time for one story, not two". If we use punishment methods or offer consequences we don't really want to carry through then our children don't feel safe and secure with us and it compromises our relationship and connection with them.
Be kind to yourself and learn to say sorry
We are all human beings, our first response to any situation will always be emotional before our rational brain kicks in, and we will all make mistakes along the way. The important thing is to be kind to ourselves, to know we are always trying to be and do the best thing we can for our children, and to learn from our mistakes and celebrate our triumphs. Saying sorry to our child when we haven't done the best job we could have is a huge learning curve for our children too - it teaches them empathy, compassion and how to say sorry authentically. They learn from our actions, and the beautiful thing about children - their love is unconditional, they live in the moment and in their eyes we are truly wonderfully perfect.