First, if the child has been emotionally invalidated frequently by other caregivers or cherished peers, this behavior might become a way to passively share emotions or cry out for help, or even attempt to take back some semblance of control. Watch out for common invalidating comments. Take steps to remind the adult that your child is learning and respect is required. Briefly but firmly reassure the child when invalidation occurs. Some examples of emotional invalidation:
Oh, you're ok! Stop crying about it.
Hey! There's no reason to be angry about that, quit it.
Oh, you're being a scaredy cat. That's not scary at all.
Why are you crying over such a silly thing? Don't be a baby.
I don't care if that makes you angry. That doesn't matter.
I can't stand when you cry like that. Knock it off already.
Your brother isn't scared of the dark. Why don't you be like him?
Besides directly hurting the child, invalidating situations deprive the child of an opportunity to practice emotional processing and emotional regulation. It's a loss of skill development. Try whenever possible to defend your child from invalidation.
Second, if the child is experiencing any language difficulties or delays, or other circumstances and conditions that interfere with easy verbal communication such as hearing difficulties, autism, hyperactivity, etc, then this stage can persist because it is simply easier to communicate physically. Or it might be impossible from the child's perspective to communicate in ways society deems appropriate. In these cases, removing the obstacle when possible and working on coping skills can help create a bridge from the physical outbursts to safer expression.
When your child only expresses negative emotions in your presence
Many parents report that their children do not act out at school, daycare, the other parent's home, in front of peers, etc. But, seemingly the moment they get home, suddenly the children are throwing things, screaming, spitting, wetting their pants...why the sudden change?
If your child only expresses negative emotions in your presence, or in specific areas such as only at home, this is a sign that she feels safest with you. It's not a bad sign. It doesn't mean she's taking advantage of you or that you're too soft on her. On the contrary, it means she has big emotions boiling up inside her and she only trusts you to see them.
Think about it. If you're really stressed out about something you feel is perhaps slightly embarrassing (read: invalidating or shamed by others) you probably keep it hidden. You don't cry your eyes out at work. You don't curse and go on about someone who hurt you at the playground. You wait until you're home and with a safe person to finally let go of your feelings. Children do this, too. And if your child is doing this frequently, it could be a sign that he feels shamed, judged, or invalidated. Remember this when you are facing frustrating behavior, so that you can respond in a way that builds the trust while developing the communication skills.
When your child begins to use emotional outbursts to exert control
Children who feel stifled emotionally can feel powerless. This can cause intense feelings of resentment and anxiety. The child is stuck experiencing what feels like a very large crisis, but the adults around him ignore it or punish him if he lets them know about it. He's new to the world and has very few skills for handling it, so he's lost in himself and lost to others.
As he begins to act out, he comes to find that certain ways of expressing his emotion not only feel good, letting off steam and relieving that anxiety inside him, but might also cause a reaction in others. If it feels good and gets him what he wants, it must be a good idea to keep using it!
Suddenly, you have a child who spits on you when she's angry or pees her pants when she's rejected. Who throws toys at children at the park when she feels left out or pretends to choke on food she doesn't like.
Emotions don't just melt away. They will find their way out, and in children who haven't developed healthy emotional skills, they will come out in ways we dislike. Ways that might hurt others or cause negative reactions. Ways that tempt us to rain down punishment and consequences.
If your child is falling back on crude emotional expression to get your attention, it's a sign that she needs your help, not punishment at this time. No, I'm not saying to condone the behavior or to go all wishy-washy. I'm warning against hyper focusing on the negative behavior to the point that skill-building is squeezed out. Even if the child is punished enough to be convinced to stop the emotional outburst, she still needs to learn healthy ways to process and express her emotions. The need is still there. Start processing with her.
Great. So how is this done?
Let's use a real life example of a 3 year old who is fully potty trained and does not wet her pants at preschool or with her father. But, she frequently wets her pants when with her mother. Not only does this warn us that she feels safe in her mother's presence and that she has some big emotions building up inside her, but the child has also begun to use the emotional outbursts to cause reactions in others.
For example, when the mother walked away from the 3 year old to care for the baby, the 3 year old wet her pants.
At this point, a lot of different approaches could be taken ranging from shaming and punishment to completely ignoring it and remaining emotionless while cleaning up the mess. These are merely superficial responses, however, and do nothing to encourage her to develop emotional skills.
Let's say the mother has just come back from caring for the baby and the 3 year old is sitting on the floor with wet pants and with an angry and slightly rejected expression on her face. What does the mom do for her?
She gets down on one knee, moving close to her, making eye contact and making physical contact such as by touching her arm gently. While keeping physical and eye contact, she begins assessing the situation.
Hey. I see that you peed in your pants. You must be feeling pretty embarrassed right now. Can you use your words to tell me why you peed your pants? Pause for response. You were feeling angry because I left you to help the baby, huh. It made your heart hurt? Pause for response.
You know, it's okay to feel angry. That's a strong feeling, but it doesn't make you a bad person. Everyone feels angry sometimes. When I feel angry, it makes my stomach squeeze. What does it feel like for you? Pause for response.
Next time when you feel angry, I want you to use your words to tell me. Say, "I'm angry!" Let's try it right now. Ready? Tell me! Pause for response. Remember, instead of peeing your pants, it's okay to tell me that you're angry. I'll always listen to you.
And if you begin to recognize individual triggers, briefly remind her before they happen:
I'm going to focus on caring for your sister right now. Remember, if you feel alone, come grab my hand and tell me instead of peeing your pants.
I'm going to leave the room to make dinner. If you feel scared inside, come and get me, ok? Remember to keep your pants dry.
Tonight, we're going to be very busy with the baby at the park. If you start to feel angry, be sure to tell me with your big girl words! I will listen.
Remember to keep it as simple or long as needed, pausing when needed and following cues to go where the conversation leads you. As children begin to realize how much connection they can make with words, lots of thoughts might tumble out in little situations like this. Try to listen intently and to provide a safe place for those emotions to come out.
|My 3 year old son tends to kick impulsively when he's upset. |
For him, it's easier to kick than to explain things verbally.
In time, slowly and with reminders, he's learning to pause and
to express how he feels without kicking.