For years, my son was a tad-bit on the moody side. It was almost as if his moods were always simmering, and you never knew when the pot would escalate to a rapid boil!
This is the same child who threw an all-out tantrum because we asked him to stop whining. A classic blame-thrower, he insisted: “Dad yelled at me! And besides, my throat is just scratchy.” Hmmm, sounded like whining on this end.
But things are MUCH better now that my husband and I learned how to manage our son’s emotional intensity with more finesse.
We began to apply a new approach to our interactions with our son when we realized that positivity, humor and patience were effective ways to get the kind of results from our son that we were looking for. After all, punishments and idle threats hadn’t done much to change his behaviors.
I knew we had turned a corner one particular school morning.
My spouse was in the kitchen, making school lunches. My son was throwing himself on the couch in protest over what my husband was making. I was upstairs, listening. I offered a tag, and my husband wisely took it. He continued to make lunch. I took a deep breath.
From the 2nd story banister, I spoke calmly. “Do you have a different way to ask that, please? If you ask Dad nicely for something else for lunch, that might help. But I don’t think screaming is going to get you what you want. What do you think?”
He paused and deflected – forget the lunch, now he could yell at me for yelling at him! He was triggered. What was I thinking? I was trying to reason with a 9 year old before 7 a.m.!
I took a different tact. I calmly (still) directed him to start the morning over by going back to his room. You would have thought I’d stabbed him with a rusty spoon. I tried hard to keep the anger out of my voice as I started counting—clearly and firmly.
“Five!” He rolled on his back.
“Four!” He flailed on the floor.
“Three!” He was on his side.
I stayed resolute, and calm.
“Two!” He scrambled onto the floor and ran to the stairs.
“One!” He ran for his room.
“GOOD JOB!” I say clearly, loud enough for him to hear. He screamed back, threatening to stay in his room all day. I closed his door, quietly. I disengaged.
Now, in retrospect, I might do a few things differently. But on the whole – 10 points for mommy! I stayed calm, clear and direct. I didn’t take on his upset as my own.
A surprisingly few minutes later, my son slid down the stairs—on his stomach, like a snake. I wanted to yell at him to get up and walk on two feet into the kitchen! But my response was going to set the tone for the rest of the morning, and I didn’t want to start the tantrum over again. I had a choice -- more crying, whining and screaming; or vitamins, a little protein, and off to school with a smile!
He was in one of his moods, and he didn’t know how to handle it. It was up to his Dad and me to teach him how.
Instead of yelling, I joked about the snake slithering into the kitchen, and warned my husband to be careful. My husband joined the game.
The morning’s energy shifted for good.
By holding my temper in check, following through on a clearly communicated expectation (that is, counting loud enough to cover the din of his yelling), and reinforcing the positive (“good job”), I prevented an escalation that would not have served anyone.
When one person changes her approach to conflict in a family, the cascading impact can be dramatic – for positive or negative. As a parent, it’s hard to ignore a child’s rude behavior. But our initial instinct to react in kind only worsens matters. On the other hand, holding a basic standard of respect and refusing to engage in ugliness sets the stage for better communication moving forward. Conflict won’t escalate if you don’t take the bait. Respect breeds respect.
When I identified the slithering snake that was my son, he graciously played his part, tongue darting and tail swishing. Was I copping out? Should I have called him on his behavior? Not at that moment, that’s for sure. We needed an end to the conflict so that we could all start the day off on a positive note. Things needed to be de-escalated.
We did have a conversation, later that day, when tempers were calm and there was no emotional charge in the air. We focused on the lesson, not on the mistake, and playfully taught our little snake about having respect and gratitude when someone is making your lunch! At that time, he was actually able to hear the lesson. And while I can’t say he has never thrown a tantrum again, I can say that, step by step, he’s learning the life lessons of respect and gratitude. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to teach him more than anything!
If you are struggling with preventing or managing emotionally intense behaviors in your home – meltdowns, impulsive interruptions, moody mouths, etc. – visit AmpItDown.com for a complimentary webinar on how to get a handle on intense emotions and hear how we’ve taught other parents to dodge the land-mines and minimize meltdowns in their families.