I wrote this post two months ago, in the midst of our move across the country from Iowa to California. I didn’t finish it at the time, but I offer it today for all parents and care givers who are struggling with intense children.
My oldest daughter is incredible. She is passionate. She is persistent. She is capable, curious, and creative. But, post-move-across-the-country, those attributes have expounded to a frustrating level:
- Her passion becomes fiery. These lizards NEED to come in the car – they’ll DIE if we keep them home here in the sun. MOMMY, YOU’LL KILL THEM!!!
- Her persistence prevents her from softening to the needs of others. She is HOLDING my LIZARDS! I was PLANNING to PLAY with THEM!!!
- Her capability, curiosity, and creativity lack their normally regulated boundaries. But mom, I wanted to know what would happen when I cut that toy open. I needed the marbles from inside to FEED MY LIZARDS!
She is emotionally out of balance. It is what I call “spinning,” — lacking her normal self-regulatory tools to re-order her emotions. In short, her body and spirit are out-of-control.
We had a particularly rough nap time the other day. Nearly six-years-old, she doesn’t nap most days, but we have been staying up late, and her “spinning” is exacerbated by fatigue. I was laying down next to her in order to help her settle down to fall asleep. As she lay there next to me, squirming, silly, I thought to myself – Why is she doing this? I’m supposed to have some grasp on the early development of children, and I can’t figure this out!
Finally, I said to her, “If you don’t nap today, I don’t think you will have the energy to go to Daddy’s party tonight.” Mostly, I thought I was stating a limit (you must have sleep in order to have energy for the evening), but I know it came out as a threat to her autonomy.
She responded, “Do you want me at Daddy’s party?”
I don’t know why it took me so long to see it. (I give myself some wiggle room, too – I am also adjusting to living in a new place and out of my own routine.) Moving across the country, uprooted from all recognizable points of stability, she is looking for something to be constant. She is floundering. And she is in full fight-or-flight mode, trying to protect herself from the fear and hurt of change.
- She, like all out-of-control children, is unsure. Will you leave me? What if I am mean? What if I am difficult? What if I defy every request you make of me?
- She, like all out-of-control children, is scared. The emotions are too big for her little body, and she needs help managing those strong feelings.
- She, like all out-of-control children, is searching. She needs a tether to hold her firmly in the midst of her emotional chaos.
Our most helpful responses must affirm our connection while providing the safety found in steady and consistent limits.
The problem is that her emotional instability triggers my emotions, and I am tempted to clamp down hard: yell, threaten, coerce, and otherwise FORCE ORDER AND CALM! When our children are out of control, we try to do anything in our power to regain control.
But, as you might expect (and as I fully realize when my own emotions are at their resting state) helping a child regulate their emotions by modeling un-regulated emotions is counterproductive. As she loses control, I grow louder and louder – less in control of myself. I am telling her with my actions, “Here is what you do with strong feelings: just get louder and more frantic to stay in control of the situation,” which is exactly the opposite of what I’d like her to do.
When I punish her, I confirm her worst fears – there is a breaking point. There is a moment when her actions can be so egregious that I will no longer tolerate her presence. And, as you can expect, that is the opposite of helpful.
One of the great myths of parenting is that we can control our children. The only person I can control is myself. I do have the ability to influence my children, but that influence comes through trust. When I punish, I call that trust into question.
Back to the nap story.
To my daughter’s concern for whether or not she was wanted at the party, I responded, “Yes, dear one, I want you to be with me.” Then, she did a very uncharacteristic and surprising thing. She turned her back to me, and snuggled right up against my body. She is not a snuggler, but I could tell she was looking for connection. I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. I kissed her head, and she drifted off to sleep.
Seven Ways to Help
1. Communicate trust in their ability, empowering them with reminders that they are capable of finding their agency again. “You feel so strongly. I won’t let you bring your lizards in the car. You can squeeze my hands tightly to show me how angry you are.” (or throw a pillow, or kick a box, or go to your room and scream loudly, or pound nails into a stump of wood…whatever tools your children have to unload their emotional intensity.) Remind them of the tools they know how to use, and give them safe ways to unload their emotional energy.
2. Find ways to be physically close. Offer lots of hugs, hold hands while out for a walk, plan lots of snuggling before bedtime.
3. Play together. Children work through their fears and anxieties in play. Offer props that symbolize the triggers so children can manipulate their fears through play. We added moving boxes and suitcases to the dramatic play area so our children could pretend to move back to Iowa, or prepare for our upcoming around-the-world adventures.
4. Teach out of the moment. The moment when a child is spinning is the last moment to teach new self-regulatory skills. Teaching when a child is calm is far more effective.
5. Look for ways to give children power. My daughter loves to do her own hair, and – while tempted to “fix” the ponytail of my 5-year-old, it is far more powerful for her to find joy in doing her own hair than for me to undermine her agency by doing it for her.
6. Time is everything. Expect everything to take longer. Allow for longer times for transition. As much as possible, minimize your daily agenda so you don’t have to rush children from one activity to the next.
7. Get help for yourself. In the middle of intense moments, we need help from our community to think strategically about our children’s difficult behaviors.
Are your children intense? Have you found successful strategies for managing the intensity?