Do you act different when your child is throwing a fit than when he is happy and excited? Avoid the mistake of judging your child’s emotions.
Do you love your kids unconditionally?
I thought I did. After all, I love mine regardless of the choices they’ll make and celebrate who they are, in spite of their differences and similarities with me. And I say this not lightly, but truthfully: I would give my life for them.
Isn’t that unconditional love?
I thought so. But then I realized my kids may not see it that way.
And it all started with the movie Frozen…
Like any silly parent who thought her kid wouldn’t fall for Frozen-mania, I told my then-four-year-old, “Here’s the DVD of Frozen. Let’s watch it!”
And we did. But we also enforce a 30-minute limit on screen time on most days. And so, before Elsa could belt “Let It Go,” I pressed stop and smiled at my son. “Did you like it?”
“I want to watch more!” he bellowed.
“We can’t. We already watched 30 minutes of it. We’ll watch some more tomorrow.”
And the conversation kept bouncing between those two lines of “I want to watch more!” and “No, you can’t” before culminating in a tantrum—his and mine.
I felt furious.
Didn’t I prep him about the 30-minute rule? Didn’t I give him a heads up, both at 10 minutes and at 5 minutes? Why does he take something fun—and ruin it? Why can’t he appreciate that he even got to watch a movie at all?
In a fit of rage, I carried him, plopped him in his room and closed the door on him. Twice.
I ignored him, all his cries and everything. I then tried distracting him, which worked for six seconds before he roared up again.
And you know what calmed him down? Himself. I wasn’t even there for him, but the little guy managed to pull up a stool next to me in the kitchen and began cooking with me.
My heart crumbled. Because all that yelling and putting him in “time out” and ignoring him? The message I gave was: I withhold my love when you act that way.
It seems reasonable at times to react that way. We don’t want to “reward” bad behavior with hugs and kisses.
But emotions don’t always feel good, and the ones that don’t can be scary and overwhelming to kids. They don’t like feeling bad. They can’t process these emotions, so they sometimes believe they’re bad because of it.
We tell our kids all is fine when they feel happy, but the minute they feel terrible, then game over. They think, “Mom smothers me with kisses when I feel happy or excited, but yells or ignores me when I feel sad or scared.”
We have to give our love unconditionally through all emotions—happy or sad, silly or angry.
This isn’t to say poor behavior is okay. If you have a 30-minute screen time rule, then your child has to abide by the rule, tantrum or not. He still need boundaries.
As Dr. Laura Markham writes in her stellar book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting (affiliate link):
“…[A]ll parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions. Effective parenting is almost impossible until the positive connection with your child has been re-established, so think of this as preventive maintenance, before there’s a problem.”
You can address his emotions without giving in or rewarding poor behavior, all while connecting with him through all his emotions.
How can you discipline your child without judging his emotions?
First, as we learned, don’t withhold your love when he’s upset or sad, only to pay him attention once he’s happy. Emotions simply are—some feel good while others don’t, but they don’t define who we are. They’re a state of being. Let him know you’re on his side through all his emotions.
Instead, show empathy for these emotions and relate what he must be feeling: “Looks like you’re upset because you want to watch more of the movie. Maybe you’re not sure whether you’ll get to watch the rest the next day.”
This doesn’t mean that he “gets away with it.” You’ll still want to hold fast to your rules, honor the impulse, and redirect him to a similar but more appropriate activity. You can also explain why he can’t do what he wants to do, so he understands you’re not being “mean” about it.
Avoid trying to cheer him up right away. Tickling and making him laugh may not always be appropriate when he’s feeling down. Don’t distract him either—doing so diminishes his feelings and makes it seem like he should avoid them.
In fact, let him cry. I used to assume my job as a parent was to stop my kids from shedding tears and cheer them up quickly. Now, I treat crying as a therapeutic act. Crying—like laughing—is one of the best ways to release overwhelming feelings.
Think instead about helping him transition to a better state of being. He shouldn’t be “stuck” feeling bad, but transition in his own way to feeling better. And the best way is being present for him. A few minutes of 100% devoted attention can make up for an hour’s worth of meltdowns.
Down the line, once he’s out of his slump or meltdown, discuss the emotions he felt. Explain that it happens to all of us, and that they come and go. Just as we have good days, we also have bad ones. Describe emotions as behaviors or states of being, not as his character (e.g. He feels bad; he isn’t a bad boy).
How do we know when your child needs you the most? Meltdowns, ignoring us, feeling in a slump are cues that something is off. See those moments as opportunities, not hassles, to connecting with him.
After all, we need to be there for our kids and stand in their corner—even when they’re throwing a fit about Frozen.
Get more parenting tips:
- Unique Ways to Meet the Emotional Needs of Your Child
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
- How to Comfort a Child Who Misses a Parent
- 4 Things to Remember When You Get Angry at Your Child
- Why You Shouldn’t Say “It’s Okay” when It’s Not
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