Rethinking Your Initial Reaction

Why did you hit your brother? It doesn’t matter who ties your shoes. Why are you so upset? You’re making no sense.

Our first reaction as parents is often based in logic. We try as hard as we can to explain to our crying, emotional child that a broken graham cracker just isn’t a big deal, or that we have to leave a playdate because it’s time for dinner. We launch into explanation first.

The problem with this approach? It often doesn’t work. Even worse, we can leave our children feeling like we don’t understand them or care about their feelings.  It leaves us frustrated and our children are still upset — no one wins.

I have touched on this theme in my post, How to Connect with Emotional Children, which highlighted the importance of first connecting emotionally with your child instead of jumping straight to logic.  The Whole Brain Child shares this view: “When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs.”

I think of these situations like a puzzle. When a child is emotionally driven, the pieces of the puzzle are scattered across the floor. When we jump to logical explanations too quickly, we often exacerbate the problem, scattering the pieces even more. By appealing to their emotional needs first, we help our children identify how to put the pieces back together.

So how do we stay sane and help our emotional child? In my experience, I have found switching the order and redirecting to be the secret. Leading with emotion helps children feel heard and understood. According to the book, “In terms of development, very young children are right-hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years. They haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment.”

So instead of saying, You love school! Why are you crying? Stop crying! when Keener tells me one morning that he doesn’t want to go to school, I try to lead with emotion. Sometimes I don’t want to go places either. Some days feel harder than others. I often find that a brief phrase or two helps him relax and gets him back on the road to sanity — and more importantly, get in the car without a fight.

Here are some tips to help you lead with emotion:

  1. Listen. Really hear what they are saying.
  2. Tell them you heard what they said. I heard you say you were upset.
  3. Let them know it’s OK to feel that way. I understand not getting your way makes you mad. I sometimes feel mad too when I don’t get what I want.

You can also try incorporating non-verbal body language to connect emotionally with your child. Nonverbal language can be just as important as the words we say. I have offered many upset students a hug, and more often than not, they took me up on one. By making ourselves physically receptive and nurturing — even when a child has misbehaved — it presents another way to connect with the child and validate his or her feelings.

Here are some tips to help you physically connect with an upset child:

  1. Kneel down to be on the child’s level. Being above them may feel threatening.
  2. Relax your own body in order to be a comforting source for your child.
  3. Make an empathetic facial expression while resisting the urge to talk and letting them express their feelings.
  4. Offer a hug in a nurturing tone of voice.

To have any hope of imposing our logic on them, we must first connect with them. Only then can we successfully explain where things went wrong and how to make things right next time.

Once you have emotionally connected with your child, it’s important to then redirect in order to integrate the right and left brain and help put the puzzle pieces back together. Redirecting is using logical explanations and planning to help your child understand the current situation in a rational manner. Here is some example language of re-directing with a logical explanation and a plan to resolve the issue at hand:

  • You wore your red pants yesterday and they are still dirty. Why don’t you help mama with the laundry this afternoon so you can wear them again tomorrow?
  • You already had one granola bar today. To grow big and strong, you need to eat lots of different foods. Let’s put this one right here on the shelf for tomorrow and find a different snack to eat right now.
  • We can’t find your blue shoes. It’s time to get in the car so right now you must wear your brown ones. Next time you take your shoes off, let’s leave them in a special spot so you always know where they are. Where do you think that special spot should be?

A final note: It is important to always evaluate your child’s emotional state prior to re-directing. Sometimes your child’s feelings may be so intense that some additional time must pass before any logic can be introduced. If it is getting close to meal time or nap time, consider waiting until after the meal or after the nap before launching into left-brain logic mode.

A friend shared this quote after attending a mindfulness retreat:

“We are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”

– Louis Cozolino

Next time your child melts down, meet him where he is. The book says to be their lifeguard — first go save them, then lecture them about swimming out too far.

Of course this strategy will not solve every emotional situation. Another strategy the book suggests is using stories to help calm emotions — stay tuned.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Your Initial Reaction

  1. Laura

    I just LOVE your blog. Like, seriously the best blog I read (and I read wayyyy too many). Your advice is so practical and concrete and I just am so thankful I “found” you. I love the dialogue examples of what exactly to say in a tense situation. Maybe it’s the former teacher in me, as well, but your parenting style just clicks with me. I appreciate the advice and tips. My only wish is that you blogged everyday! 😉

    1. steinhoffjk

      Wow — thanks Laura! I’m so glad that you found me as well. Thank you for the feedback. I will make sure to keep including the dialogue examples of what to say. And I will also try to blog more! 🙂 Have a great weekend!

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