You pick your three-year-old up thirty minutes early from daycare to take her to a matinee as a special treat. Normally your child loves to be picked up early (and, at times, even begs you do so), but today she immediately starts crying and runs the other way when she sees you. Even as you explain that you are taking her to see the latest Disney movie that she has been wanting to see, she becomes defiant, refusing to put her coat on and screams that she doesn’t want to go. As a parent you are confused, hurt, and possibly even a bit embarrassed at her reaction, especially because you are trying to do something fun and spend a special afternoon with your daughter. Your gut reaction (or is it just mine?) might be to tell your child that she will not be going to the movie after all, but rather go straight home to take a nap!
As difficult as it may be for us in a moment of frustration such as this, it is important that we take a deep breath or two (maybe three or four depending on the level of frustration we are feeling!), and remember that our child is trying to tell us something. She is communicating in the only way she can in her moment of overwhelming frustration. After we calm our own frustration, it will be easier for us to help her (or us) figure out what she is upset about. At this moment, we could take her hands in ours and do some deep breathing with her. Reflect to her what we see (e.g., “I see that you are upset/angry/sad right now.”) and offer a suggestion as to what we guess may be the issue (e.g., Maybe you don’t want to go to the movie?”).
Your confusion will likely increase before the issue becomes clearer, as your child insists she does want to see the movie. You give some encouragement, with “Great. Let’s get your coat on so we can go.” She again refuses and sits defiantly on the floor. You ask the daycare worker standing nearby how your daughter’s day has been. The worker, looking as confused as you feel, reports that your daughter has had a great day, and has just had a snack after finishing her hour long nap. You ask your daughter if she is feeling sick or if she is hurt somewhere. She shakes her head. Your confusion grows, as tears continue to roll down your daughter’s cheeks.
Continuing to reflect your observations is important to help give your child language for what they are experiencing. We can say things such as: “You have tears running down your cheeks, which tell me that you are upset and probably feeling sad. When I feel sad my heart hurts, does your heart hurt?” When our child nods, we can then say something such as, “I wonder what is making your heart hurt?”
As your child looks at you in confusion, you look up and see the lead teacher enter the classroom. When the teacher sees your child’s tears, he comes over to the two of you, giving you the “how can I help?” look. You explain that you came to get your daughter early to spend a fun day at the movies, but she seems upset by this. The teacher bends down to your child’s level and asks, “Are you sad because you are afraid you will miss your turn to choose the story today?” You breathe a sigh of relief when your child nods. You suggest to your child that the two of you will wait until after story time before you go. Your child smiles and goes to the shelf to choose the afternoon story.
It is unlikely that every parent has had this exact experience (or that our experiences can all be solved that easily), however, I am betting most of us have had similar experiences. Our child “acts out” for “no reason,” which can be frustrating, not only for us, but for them as well. We must remember that children’s actions, whether positive or negative, are their way of communicating, often because they do not yet have the language to describe their experiences. The child described above, with recurrent reflection of her feelings and experiences by caring adults, will learn to communicate with words given appropriate time and patience. It is important for us, as adults, to remember that when we are feeling frustrated by our child’s behavior, likely our child is feeling the same, or even more so. As parents, teachers, and caregivers we must learn to “listen” with our hearts and help give the child the language they need to recognize and communicate what they are experiencing in a way that is more readily understood by others.
Leona Brown-Insley, MA, LLPC serves children, adolescents and adults. She engages in person-centered therapy utilizing evidence based techniques such as TF-CBT, CBT, and DBT. Leona specializes in working with clients with anxiety and who have experienced trauma, helping them process their experiences and learn healthy coping methods such as mindfulness and expressive techniques.