Helping Children Manage Big Feelings

Natural Consequences – Part 3

When we see our little one inflict harm on someone else or create a mess of epic proportions, it can be infuriating. I find it similar to road rage — when I am in the moment, it’s powerful, overwhelming, and can totally impair my thinking. However, meeting their extreme behavior with an extreme reaction doesn’t make me feel good either. It is also critical to remember that you are actively modeling ‘what to do when you are upset’ in this moment for your child. You need to lead by example. So, when you watch your son hit your daughter, throw something with the intention of hitting someone, or see your child empty dirt from an indoor plant onto the floor, what should you do?

  1. First and foremost, make sure that behavior stops immediately. Verbally, be clear and direct — stop hitting your sister — with urgency in your voice. If your child is hitting, kicking, or biting another person, do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone is safe. Physically stop your child if verbally telling them is not enough.
  2. Stay as calm as possible and let them know you are not pleased with their behavior. Say, What you just did was hurtful and makes me very angry/frustrated/sad. Then take a deep breath yourself. You will not do your best thinking in a frenzied state. This is where we run the highest risk of saying things that are not only unhelpful, but potentially harmful. One phrase I frequently resort to is, Mommy is really upset right now but instead of using my hands, I’m using my words and taking a deep breath first.
  3. Consider the frequency. Does he hit his brother often? Is this the first time? Have daycare/babysitter/teachers been telling me this is an ongoing problem? If it doesn’t happen frequently, we have to remember our children are small and learning. We won’t “allow” the behavior, but we also don’t need to act as if they just stabbed someone. **If this is pattern behavior, I would take a different approach. If a child is resorting to being physical with others often, s/he needs to be explicitly taught coping skills at a time when s/he is calm (please let me know if you would like more information on this – happy to dive deeper!)
  4. In order to keep everyone safe, consider removing your child from the environment. In this type of situation, this would be the natural consequence just as cleaning up a mess would be (see picture above!). Let’s go over here and make sure your body is safe enough to be around your friends. I don’t use the words “time out.” I would rather teach Keener that in order for him to be around his friends, his body needs to be safe. If he can’t be safe, he can’t be around this friends.
  5. Explain to your child why what they did was not safe and the impact of their behavior: Hitting your sister is not safe. It hurts her and makes her cry. She will not want to play with you if you use unsafe hands with her.
  6. Appeal to their empathy: Do you like when your friends hit you?
  7. Give them options for what they can do with the offending body part. Hands are for hugging, high 5s, building, and coloring. There are lots of things we can do with our hands.
  8. Have them make sure the child they hurt is ok. Have them ask, Are you ok? and apologize for hurting them, I’m sorry I hurt you.
  9. Give them options for how they could try handling the situation in an appropriate way: When you were angry at Sam, you could have said, ‘Can I please have a turn with the train?’ or you could say, ‘I’m feeling angry, I need some space,’ and walk away to find another toy. Which of those are you going to try right now?
  10. *If the child is calm and capable of hearing you, say, Any time you are feeling angry, you can use your words and ask for a turn, walk away and get some space, or ask mama for help solving a problem. If your child is not in a clear headspace, wait to have this conversation until later and some time has passed.

I would encourage you to think about what language might work for you before you are faced with your child throwing a toy so that you can set yourself up to succeed the next moment you are tested. And remember — we want to teach our children transferable skills. By identifying how your child felt leading up to the incident, you can teach your child strategies to deal with many different situations that might elicit those same feelings in the future. We can’t shield our children from feeling angry, sad, or frustrated, but we can teach them how to manage those big emotions in an appropriate way.

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