When our kids act out

Before I had a few kids and learned better, I believed extreme emotional reactions from children to be inherently problematic. I assumed, a bit too literally perhaps, that children would model their behaviour on their caregivers and the people they spent significant time with.  I worried about ‘exposure’ to problematic (or so I thought) behaviour and ways.

If you hit them, I thought, they’d learn to hit.

If you treated them badly, I assumed, they’d in turn treat others in this same manner.

And if you raised them compassionately, I believed, they’d be perfectly gentle and compassionate.

Five very different from one another children later, while in a general sense I know that kids will behave as well as they are treated, I now have a much more accepting view of developing children! I am no longer fearful of the ways my children are unfurling, learning, growing, and being their raw selves.

Children aren’t perfect, in the same way that none of us alive are perfect! We, as fallible and feeling and complex human beings, simply could never be so. If we were to become mirrors of the expectations and demands of others, as well as this being a contradictory idea for there are many demands from many places; could we retain our curiosity, our authenticity, and the vulnerability that is so beautiful in all people? Is trying to be ‘perfect’ (ie compliant and obedient) a reasonable goal for anybody? And, is it a worthy one?

In my early parenting days, I didn’t like it if one of my children were screaming, expressing strong anger, acting out physically, or struggling with something to the point where they would melt down or become very distressed. I didn’t like it because it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like it because back then I was fearful. I would make huge, leaping assumptions and future predictions about whatever was going on. I used to think to myself that they ‘shouldn’t’ be doing this or that, and that it was my job to make them stop or to prevent for next time.

These days, I am more relaxed. I have learned to not take the growth of my children and their messiness and emotions, personally. I didn’t mess up as a parent just because my child is acting like a child! Why should I take something that is not about me, and make it about me? Why should I wish to be scared about the future of my beautiful children, simply for acting like children?!

In even progressive parenting spaces, there is a tendency to view expression of big emotion in children, and underdeveloped emotional regulation abilities in children, with alarm.

“How can I stop my child tantrum-ing when I take something away?”

“My child gets so angry! How can I help them to be calm?”

“My child cries when I am busy. How can I help them to be happy without my presence?”

“My toddler refuses to share! I’m worried he will become selfish!”

“My child hit me! I have no idea where she gets it because I have never hit her! I’m worried she will become violent!”

And so on.

When I read or hear things like this, I tend to think along the lines of,

Your kid isn’t allowed to have a bad day?! They aren’t allowed to have emotions? They can’t be angry or sad or frustrated?! They cannot be feeling something relevant to the situation? They cannot do the wrong thing sometimes, for no reason at all? They are expected to navigate things without us, even when we could easily help? They cannot struggle and lean on their safe people when overwhelmed? They cannot be…. human?

Perhaps this sounds harsh and I know we are all learning as parents – however we do seem terrified, as a culture, of our children expressing themselves and having a hard time. We all seem to be rushing, like we’re putting out a spot fire, to quash our kids’ emotional expressions when it’s the ‘negative’ stuff being expressed.

Here are a few of my tips for dealing with aggression or intense emotion from your child, and some ideas for how to support them respectfully and adequately even when you feel challenged by these situations. I believe that these ways honour our childrens’ journeys without quashing the rawness they deserve to always keep; whilst also being realistic about difficulties that can come up while our kids are still learning.

Don’t take it personally. Children are constantly learning. We all went through childhood to get to where we are today, and our children need to have this rite of passage too. It isn’t about you when they are angry, or hitting, or screaming, or being aggressive about something in their world that’s gone wrong. Making it about you can transform an expression and exploration of emotion and a painful experience for them, into something terrifying for you as well (and more terrifying for your child). Holding the space and being there without taking it personally, can be a much calmer way to support your child through this. This calmer way is also great for your child in allowing them to work with that emotion.

Protect yourself and others as needed, gently and kindly. If your child is hitting, you do not have to react angrily, ostracise them, punish them, or withdraw love from them to protect all parties. You can, using your adult strength, block hits or gently move your child away from an escalating situation. I like to use phrases such as “I cannot let you hurt people.”, “I’m sorry you’re upset”, “I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m trying to keep everyone safe”, “How can I help you?”, and “I care about you, I want to help you.”. When I feel pulled toward anger at my child, I do my best to remember that I am the adult in this situation, and I am capable of protecting everyone without abusing my power. I like to remember that if this is difficult for me (which it is), I cannot fairly expect that it will be easy for my children either.

Give supervision appropriate to your child’s abilities, and real-time support.  At various times, children may have difficulty socially, with safety, or with emotional regulation, just as they will be learning in many other ways too. In these times, I recognise my child’s limitations and I accept responsibility for helping them navigate these areas. It may be necessary for me to closely supervise my child, if they are not capable of something yet or if certain situations are too much for them. This is often the very thing my children have required to get through a difficult patch, and my involvement has allowed them to see ideas for handling conflict, problem solving, and pre-empting problems.

Have open and continuing conversations. I aim to keep dialogue open, and rehash situations after the fact and when noone is feeling distressed. This can be a very good way of helping our kids to reflect, and it can be a way to brainstorm different options for a situation (if something went wrong) for the future. My kids will often tell me how they’d prefer I intervene if they hurt a sibling. They understand I need to intervene and they have ideas for how I can handle it and keep everyone safe and happy. It is also great to just talk about strong emotions and tricky situations, explore them, and share stories about them – whether something went wrong or not.

Challenge compliance, and set your child up to succeed. If my child repeatedly cannot meet requests or expectations of mine, it is time to reassess them! It makes sense to me to set my children up to succeed, by thinking about what they need to succeed rather than continuing to enter unworkable situations.

Be available, without conditions. Many parents try to push ‘independence’ or collaboration with others, when we could be the best support for whatever is going on at that time. If you remain unconditionally available to your child you can become an important part of their team and a tool for learning and navigating big feelings. You don’t need to try and make your child deal with something on their own, if they are seeking your support and reaching out to you. We can help them, and this will aid in their development of these skills.

Don’t worry! All children are learning. They don’t have the abilities that adults have. This is okay. It’s a part of childhood. It’s not a prediction of your child’s future, it’s simply indicative of their struggles or development at a point in time.

There are many colourful and messy days with my children! There are many challenges in parenting growing humans with compassion and mindfulness. But there is a lot of joy in this life I have, and the calm that has replaced my old fears is beautiful.




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