It is 8:20am, you need to leave the house by 8:30 with your 3-year-old (Jimmy) and 1-year-old (Vanessa). The plan = drop kids at daycare and get to work by 9am.
You are pleased that you have managed to get this far through the morning without getting angry with Jimmy (he doesn’t listen unless you raise your voice and on work mornings he seems to go slower than ever + Vanessa is waking at night and you are perpetually exhausted!) but now you can feel the tension rising because you have asked him to brush his teeth 3 times and he is still sitting at the table, sucking on his spoon.
You need to do a quick nappy change for Vanessa and get some shoes on her. You pop her on the floor and go to grab the nappy bag, letting Jimmy know, in an even but slightly raised voice, that you are leaving in 5 minutes and he needs to brush his teeth and put his shoes on.
You hear Vanessa start to screech, and when you get back to the living room, Jimmy is lying on her and laughing. Vanessa is really crying now. You pull Jimmy away and he starts screaming at you; you start yelling that it is not okay for him to hurt his sister and Jimmy is now in full meltdown mode.
It is time to leave, you are furious, Jimmy is having a major tantrum and screaming that he hates you and Vanessa is crying but not seriously hurt – What to do?
The 5 step gentle action plan
1. Put your body between the 2 kids so that no-one can get hurt.
When a small person is in meltdown mode, use your body gently as a boundary to send a clear message that you are not going to let them hit, kick, etc.
“It is okay to be cross but I can’t let you hit.”
2. You need to calm yourself down before doing anything else.
If you try to deal with this situation now, without taking a moment, you will do all the things that you end up feeling guilty about later (yelling, unreasonable consequences, saying things you don’t mean). So turn your body away from Jimmy or close your eyes and count 3 really deep breaths. Notice where in your body you are holding the anger right now (jaw, shoulders, fists) and focus on physically relaxing that part of your body.
3. Comfort the hurt child while validating the feelings of the other child.
While comforting Vanessa, say to Jimmy,
“I can hear you are really upset, it is not okay to hurt your sister.” (validating his feelings while confirming the behaviour is not okay).
“I know you need me to listen, but right now we need to get in the car.” (letting him know you want to listen to his feelings and what the expectation is).Continue with these phrases while you get Vanessa’s nappy changed and shoes on.
Continue with these phrases while you get Vanessa’s nappy changed and shoes on.
Continue to breathe deeply and stay as calm as you can.
Tantrums, Meltdowns, angry outbursts and crying are the way that small children release and express their big emotions.
When our small children have a tantrum after misbehaving, they are not trying to manipulate us or change the subject, they just have big feelings they are struggling to express because, (a), they are little and still learning to regulate their emotions and/or, (b), they have a build up of stored feelings that come pouring out with the current ones.
When we shift to seeing tantrums and meltdowns in this way, it makes it easier for us to understand and have empathy for our little people.
4. Sit beside your child, validate feelings and share the expectation.
Once Vanessa has calmed down and is ready to go, sit beside Jimmy and say,
”I can hear you have some big feelings there mate and that can be really hard (validating, empathising), now we need to get in the car. Can you walk there or do I need to carry you?” (giving an option can help the child feel more in control).
If Jimmy is trying to talk to you, let him know that you can listen once you are driving.
It is at this point you decide who to put in the car first, If Jimmy is ready to move, take him to the car and get him strapped in, if he is still resisting try,”I’m going to strap your sister in and then it will be your turn, I’ll be back in a minute” (setting the expectation).
If Jimmy is still not ready to move when you get back, let him know you are going to pick him up and take him to the car and do that. “Once you are strapped into the car and we are driving, I can listen to you”.
5. Listen to your child and discuss the situation in a way that they can learn from.
Once everyone is strapped into their seats (don’t forget Jimmy’s shoes!), you can listen and talk about the situation. If Jimmy is still overwhelmed by his emotions, there is no point trying to reason with him, just continue to listen to and validate his feelings, e.g, “I hear you saying it wasn’t fair”, while maintaining the original boundary, “It is not okay to hurt your sister.”
If Jimmy has calmed down enough for a conversation, open with, “So what was going on back there love, why were you lying on your sister?” (Giving the benefit of the doubt and listening to their side of the story can elicit interesting information about what a child is thinking or feeling when they misbehave).
Questions that support the teaching of empathy and encourage thinking about alternative choices can also be helpful here –
- “How did you feel when your sister began to cry?”
- “Vanessa sounded upset, how do you think she felt when you were lying on her?”
- “Next time ………. happens, what could you try instead?”
- “If you begin to feel ……………, what could you try that isn’t hurting?”
Always remember that disciplining our kids is about teaching them. Supporting them to make better choices in the future, because they have the knowledge and skills they need to do so.
So during this mini-intervention with your kids, you are;
- Role modelling how to calmly manage your angry feelings.
- Letting your children know that hurting others is not acceptable in your family and will not be allowed.
- Teaching your children that ALL of their feelings are valid and that it is okay to express them.
- Letting your child know that you will listen to their side of the story
- Helping them on the path to learning empathy.
- Supporting the learning of more positive choices.
That is an awful lot of good learning and you don’t have to feel any guilt associated with the methods you used to handle the situation. Woo hoo!
Grab my 10 step checklist below to becoming the parent you truly want to be – Cool, Calm and Connected with your kids!