Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Are you exhausted by the emotionally intense behaviors of the children you love? First, I want to say. you are not alone. As a family therapist for children impacted by trauma, I've witnessed the fatigue and frustration that comes with parenting a child who feels out of control. The fact that you are reading this article means you are looking for support and guidance, and that means you are committed to finding a way to help your children. If you are beating yourself up about your parenting, you are probably already doing a better job than you think! Kids need you to show up more than anything!
As parents, grandparents, and caregivers we need skills. We need to keep trying something, anything, until we find what calms an explosive child. Do not give up!
We are going to dive into some skills you can implement the next time your child loses control of their emotions. It starts with emotional regulation for both the caregiver and the child. When a parent is attuned to the child and regulated within their body, they can help the child cope with stress through co-regulation. Co-regulation is how children learn in tandem with a safe and nurturing adult to manage their big emotions. If a child was impacted by abuse and neglect, he or she may not have a working model in their mind for how to self-soothe and regulate their emotions. This is where you come in.
As the adult it is your job to provide a stable and loving environment for the child balanced out with firm and positive discipline. This can be very difficult to maintain if you are also coping with your own trauma, exhaustion, or other mental health issues. This is why it is so imperative that caregivers and teachers take care of their emotional well-being. Nobody can pour from an empty cup. Self-care is a buzz word during this pandemic, but what it really means is that we must practice the skills to regulate our own emotions in order to raise or work with children impacted by trauma and loss effectively.
When a child is in a state of rage, it can help to remember that children never choose a meltdown, the same way we wouldn't want to have a fit in front of our boss or parents. Explosive behaviors of a child can trigger the parents fear center in their brain and we often react with frustration instead of responding with care. Often when we are afraid, we express anger. When two people are in a state of fear and anger, it is impossible to learn and connect. The need for connection and trust lives at the core of our being. It is what we all need, even though we may be afraid.
Helping a child with explosive behaviors doesn't involve fear or shame-inducing punishments and discipline because that will only trigger additional outbursts. Explosive reactions are a signal that the child's brain is "offline." In this state, children cannot hear you and make meaning of the lesson you are trying to teach about right and wrong. This may sound absurd to you. You may believe children need to learn their lesson in the moment or else they will become unruly, troublesome adults. I know this feeling all too well. It's the way we were raised in a culture that used rewards and consequences as means to gain compliance in groups of children.
With the new research on how to help children cope after trauma, many caregivers feel stuck and don't know what to do. Most people prior to this generation were raised with rewards and consequences, but today, this isn't working for the many children impacted by trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACES). We have to do something different, and change is HARD. Our brain relies on past experiences to save energy and make automated decisions, especially when under stress. The research shows that punishments and rewards are useless for about 50% of children today.
But there is hope! It takes a paradigm shift from rewards and consequences to understanding the physiology of anxiety and trauma in the body. To help children with extreme behaviors reclaim their calm, I came up with a step-by-step approach!
FROM CHAOS TO CALM IN SEVEN STEPS
Observe when the behavior typically happens and see if you can predict the trigger/cause. Doing so will help you prepare ahead of time.
Observe the first signals of agitation/anxiety in a child. Early signs of distress will look like fast or repetitive speech, self-soothing behavior such as fidgeting, walking in circles, rocking, jumping, or any intense energy/movement. You will feel it coming in your own body if you pay close attention.
When you recognize the anxiety, get yourself centered. Remind yourself the child is struggling right now, and they need you to stay calm. Staying calm is the quickest way to quiet a child's anxiety, even though it might feel like forever.
Put a space in time between your realization and your reaction. Use affirmations or take a minute break to visualize you positively handling their anxiety. Imagine how much better you will feel when you stay calm amid chaos. No guilt.
Next, determine if they need help settling down, or help safely expressing their biological need to move. Calm the body before calming the brain. Anxiety triggers us into mobilization. Telling a child to sit or calm down won't work. Time out won't work. Find a safe way to let their body move. Trampolines, pillow fighting, jumping on a bed are some ideas. You are not rewarding "bad behavior," you are helping your child regulate their emotions and get their brain back "online" and into a receptive learning place before you try to connect on a logical level.
After some energy is expelled, check-in with them and ask if their body feels complete with the activity. If so, offer soothing play activities that engage the senses. Arts and crafts they haven't used before will get their attention. Going outside to do chalk, swing, or look up at the clouds. Ask them what their body needs to feel better before offering suggestions. Having the child choose the soothing activity will build their emotional intelligence.
Connect and try to talk to them once their body is calm. This is not about giving into negative behavior. Once the child's body is less anxious and soothed, they will be better equipped to hear the lesson you want to share with them and learn from their choices.
With these steps, you still keep your boundaries and firmly say NO without losing your chill.
We may never handle each explosion perfectly, but if we can increase the number of times we do get it right, there can be a significant shift in your family or classroom's emotional climate.
To learn more about increasing the emotional health of children and families, please join my Facebook group, Emotiminds. It is a virtual classroom for emotional enrichment activities and support. We would love to have your perspective and learn together.
Beth Tyson, MA is a psychotherapist, children’s book author, and trauma-responsive care specialist. She has several years of experience as a clinician and a co-instructor in the graduate program for counseling psychology at Eastern University. While working as a trauma therapist, she earned her certificate in adoption from Rutgers University. Beth is a CASA volunteer and a Voices for Children Coalition partner, advocating for youth in the child welfare system.