From Naughty To Nice, How Do We Control Our Children’s Outbursts?

As tempers flare from being stuck inside, the answer is actually quite simple.

My eight-year-old daughter is the sweetest, most affectionate child you could ever meet, but she also explodes without warning. My eldest daughter can appear calm, cool and collected type but will retaliate like a silent ninja when adults are not looking. During these long days in each other’s pockets — because the world is in isolation over a virus — the chance of conflict is much higher.

I’ve been reflecting on how I avoid getting sucked into the vortex of their conflict. My eldest stores up resentment and then inflicts a campaign of annoyance, taunting her little sister with words. Eventually, my eight-yer-old’s head explodes, resulting in her hitting, or clawing, or punching.

If her grandparents were here, they’d tell her ‘Be nice!’ I hate the word nice. What is it to be nice? Or naughty. How much do you hear adults using that word around kids? Yet adults can behave in far worse ways.

Do we help our children regulate their emotions when we see their behaviour through a single lens?

To my mind, naughty behaviour is a build-up of things that have not matched her needs? I see it in the same way I see my daughter’s mass of curly hair. Circumstances created those knots and she needs help to smooth them out. The same can be said for naughty behaviour. Circumstances created knots in her emotions, and she needs a loving adult to help smooth them out. It’s not her fault. Disappointments and hurts have piled up inside her and become too much. It’s not our fault that we were not raised in a way that prevented us from learning self-regulation.

Like her hair, she’s a knotty mess. Telling her to be nice is the least helpful response.

Last month she arrived home after school in precisely this state. Had she received the right amount of healthy attention to help her thrive, had her sister or playmates at school treated her with loving kindness, been gentle with their touch, kind with their words, then she’d likely arrive home in a joyful state. But she demanded candy, refused to hang up her school jacket or put her shoes away. She cried when denied television and blamed her sister for things that didn’t occur. She was stuck in a state. Her perceptions warping her experience. If use an tense voice, tell her not to throw toys, yell at her for hitting her sister, it only escalates into more anger.

What happens if, instead of trying to control their outbursts, we control our reaction?

But show her the kind of attention that I want when I’ve come home in a bad mood. Just like her, it takes me a little while to shift out of anger or resentment. So I approached her with a gentle voice. If I’m tense myself I take time to breath deeply and change my state. ‘Sweetheart are you okay because I can see you are not feeling good in yourself. Is there anything I can do to help?’

Her sweet little face contorts into fury as she hisses at me, ‘get out of my room’. So I return in 5 minutes, offering a hug. It usually takes just two attempts (three if someone at school physically hurt her). Eventually, she’s ready to let love in.

We have these moments as adults, only with a lot more containment. When you arrive home and to a pile of dirty dishes, and your partner has been home all day. There’s nothing clean to make yourself a meal. On a good day, you’d probably be gentle with your mindset. You might ask him/her how their day was and if they were intending on loading the dishwasher. But instead, you might go into silent mode, or seethe before lashing out.

What he came up to you with a soft voice asking, ‘Are you okay because it’s not like you to get upset with me before even saying hello.’ What if he offered to listen to your day so you could offload and gave you a hug? How quickly would the steam diffuse?

Kids get told off a lot. We often react to their immediate behaviour and ignore that it’s a sign to what’s been building inside them.

My daughter will come home and want to treat herself to ice cream. ‘Not before dinner’ can easily lead to self destruction if she’s full of knots. I’m much quicker now to pick up on the nuances in her behaviour.

I used to do a lot more yelling when my fuse became short because of tiredness. I didn’t grow up with a healthy understanding of emotions, nor was I shown how to regulate them. I stuffed them away and distracted myself. My emotions never felt safe. Over the years, I learned to manage my emotions in healthy ways with the help of mindful attention and self-care.

Only when I was able to regulate my own emotions could I help my children learn to transition out of theirs. They would have emotional outbursts and my go-to response, while I was learning self-manage, was to offer a hug. I learned not to react to what came up for me. They’d receive comfort and care and I would tackle my feelings through journaling. Some days, if their outbursts really triggered me, I would take myself to my room. Deep breathing is helpful in changing my state. Some days were just hard.

Perhaps there are many ways to control a child’s outburst, but for me, the answer was in learning to manage how I react. When I could see their behaviour as a symptom of how they felt on the inside, it helped me to respond with compassion and love. Hugging them or listening to their day can help to diffuse the build-up.

Writing about creativity and relationships; two aspects of Life that most affect our happiness.

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