How to Connect with Emotional Children

Playing for the Same Team: Connecting with Children when their Emotions are High

Our nightly routine consists of the same elements, sometimes in a different order depending on our afternoon/evening activities. Most evenings we will have time after dinner to go down to the basement to play before going up to start out bedtime routine. However, this night we finished dinner and it was time to go upstairs.

Keener: “We have time for the basement?”

Me: “Unfortunately, we don’t. It’s time to go up to take a bath.”

Keener: “But I want to go downstairs!”

Oh dear…

That moment when you don’t have the energy. It’s been a full day and the last thing that feels feasible is a battle.  I’ve been reading a book, The Whole Brain Child, and I decided to try a new tactic.  The gist of chapter 2 describes the right brain as the emotional side and the left brain as the logical side.  (Oh, and that the brain doesn’t fully develop until your mid 20’s which really adds to the challenges of raising toddlers… and teenagers!)

Toddlers spend a large amount of time in their right, emotional brain. Everything is a disaster and their logical left brain isn’t developed enough to instinctually counter and convince them otherwise.  Not getting to push the elevator button, receiving a broken graham cracker, wanting to wear only red underwear –- all right brain strong, no logic at all.  The book recommended meeting them at their right brain. I decided to try it:

Keener: “But I want to go downstairs!”

Me: “You know what, Bud, I want to go downstairs too.  I’m really bummed that we don’t have time to go down tonight because it is so fun to play downstairs.  Should we make sure to make time to play downstairs tomorrow?”

Keener: “Yea. We don’t have time tonight.”

I almost fell over.  By acting as if we are on the same team, we avoided a battle that neither of us had the energy to fight. This was a major “tada” moment for me.  Why do we need to be against each other? Of course there are some times when we need to be strict and come down hard on our kids. However, when they are full steam emotional brain ahead, matching them only with logic is often a waste of breath.  I met him with emotion and understanding and in return I felt positive, optimistic and level headed. What could have turned into a classic battle — “Keener, I said it’s time for bed. We aren’t going down there. Please go upstairs now” — was instead a nonevent.  

What to say:

–      I agree, I wanted to ____, too

–      I’m upset about it too

–      It is really frustrating. I was hoping we could ____ as well

What you want is for them to follow your direction which you know is not their first choice.  By matching them right brain for right brain, you are validating their emotionally charged response first.  This will hopefully provide the opportunity to follow up with a little bit of logic without having them melt down. The stress, anxiety and turmoil will hopefully be replaced with positive energy and a sense of playing for the same team.

Other situations where this has worked:

  • “I want to climb in the car!” I do too! Climbing in the car is really fun. I wish we weren’t in such a rush.  Next time, you can climb in the car.
  • “I don’t want to leave the playground!” I don’t either! The playground is a really awesome place to run and climb.  Would you like to come back? Let’s make a plan to come back on another nice day.
  • “I want to stay at Mimi’s house!” I want to stay too! I wish we had more time.  Mimi’s house has great toys. Unfortunately, it’s dark outside and time to go home.
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8 thoughts on “How to Connect with Emotional Children

  1. Katie

    This worked for me tonight to get Eric to go up to bed without a fight! I met him where he was emotionally and then we made a plan to do the activity he wanted to do tomorrow before dinner 🙂 It was like magic. Thanks Jen!!

  2. Deborah

    Jenny, these are excellent; go you! I signed up to receive your posts. Your writing and ideas are truly great. They are helpful for the grandparents too (so I hear!)

    Given that you have ample time on your hands, these blogs would be an awesome book; just saying.

    What are your thoughts using sign? I have found it very helpful–“all done”, “more”, “help” for general starters.

    Oh, one more thing my mother said to me which I thought was wise: “Never try to make a happy baby happier.”
    Looking forward to more of your wisdom.

    1. steinhoffjk

      Hi Deborah! I love that saying from you mom – so true! I did use the signs you mentioned for Keener and I found it to be incredibly helpful. I find so much of their frustration is based on the fact that they can’t communicate and signing more, all done, etc. helps bridge that communication gap. Grace appears to be an earlier communicator so I haven’t focused on it as much with her. As always, it depends on the kid. Looking forward to sharing more next week!

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