Has your child ever gone through a difficult stage - where they have become angry, aggressive, and totally unreasonable for weeks on end..? Most young kids can be stubborn, uncooperative and have frequent meltdowns - but these difficult stages are on another whole level!
My neighbour recently told me how his 5 year-old daughter was coming home from school and having a tantrum almost every day.
“I can’t work it out,” he said. “She never used to have any tantrums. What’s going on?”
“Well, what’s changed in her life this year?” I asked.
He thought for a moment and said, “Well I guess she started school. That must have been harder for her than I realised.”
And that’s the thing. We can forget that starting a new phase in life is huge for our kids and just get annoyed at their bad behaviour.
So what’s going on and how can we do to make it easier for them - and for us?
In a nutshell, these difficult phases are usually due to a big life change or a developmental leap that is stressing your child's emotional and physical system. Here are some examples:
1. Your 1.5 to 2.5 year old has learnt to walk and now he’s trying to speak and connect to the world, but the words don't come and he's totally frustrated. In the absence of words he lashes out, hits, throws, bites or screeches. When he finally learns to speak this difficult phase ends.
2. Your 3 to 4 year old is starting at daycare or kinder for the first time. It's all new and overwhelming and she doesn't want to be left there to struggle with all these new emotions alone. Once she gets used to the place and feels confident she settles down.
3. Your 5 year old has just started school and it's totally different to daycare or kinder and he's overwhelmed with all the new rules, teachers and having to make new friends. And it's exhausting having to do this 5 days a week. This difficult phase ends when he gets used to school.
There are loads of other big changes - like moving house, changing schools, a new baby arriving, parental separation and more - that can also cause a difficult phase. Sometimes the cause is obvious, other times it's not.
So what is happening here to cause the difficult phase? Here's the process of what’s happening in your child’s brain and body:
1. All the new people and interactions put a lot of strain on your young child's fledgling mental and emotional abilities and his/her brain struggles to know how to handle the emotions triggered by it all.
2. Often they are on their own without a parent to help them feel confident or guide them to respond appropriately - so they feel lost and unable to cope.
3. This stress and the big emotions keep flooding their brain and it's totally overwhelming: the primitive emotional part of their brain takes over and the rational, self-controlled part of the brain loses power. They are experiencing a fight or flight stress response.
4. To cope with the brain’s perception of ‘threat’ they lash out in irrational self-preservation leading to hitting, biting, aggression, rudeness etc.
5. But for them this doesn't feel good as, not only are their emotions overwhelming and unpleasant (fear, confusion, loneliness etc.), but they're also likely to get bad responses from people like teachers, other kids and their parents. So an unhappy kid gets lots of anger, criticism and rejection from others, which compounds their problem.
6. Add to this the physical strain of the new stage eg. starting daycare or school.
Can you see how a difficult phase can get quite sticky?!
To understand your child’s anger, a rule of thumb is that anger always covers up a deeper, more vulnerable emotion – usually hurt or fear. So when your child gets really angry, look for what might be underneath it.
So what can mindful parenting offer us in helping our child through this difficult phase (as quickly as possible!)?
Overall we need to:
Not get angry or punish them - this will only exacerbate their own aggression or unhappiness.
Help them understand what they are feeling by teaching them emotional intelligence.
Teach them calmly about what behaviours are no good eg. hitting, biting.
Keep being there for them by connecting and showing love despite the bad behaviour.
Here is a process you can use the next time your child has a 'difficult stage' meltdown and hits, bites, is rough or rude:
Step 1 - Remove him from the situation if possible and then calm him down by sitting with him and holding him (if he’ll let you).
Step 2 - State what you saw: “You seem angry and upset. I saw you hit Jenny and hurt her. Were you very angry?” Get him talking - hopefully he can recognise what happened. State that “It's not ok to hit people. You hurt Jenny.”
Step 3 – Try to get him talking about it. Ask “ Why were you angry?” The reason he will give for why he lashed out is only usually a trigger for the underlying emotion driven by the bigger challenge in his life. E.g. “ Jenny wouldn't give me a turn on the swing - it's not fair.”
Step 4 - Empathise with the emotions to validate his feelings: “It's hard when you feel hurt by someone isn't it?” Just keep talking to him and connecting and listening. Whenever possible state what emotion he is expressing - it helps give him language for it and recognise what he’s feeling,
Step 6 - As you listen and connect eventually he may let out his big emotions and have a big cry. This is great - it means he has let down his guard and released all those pent-up emotions. He may also start to talk about the deeper issue that's bothering him eg he feels scared or lonely at the new kinder or school. You can prompt very gently about this if it comes naturally but don't force him to talk about it. At another time you can try to talk about it gently - just keep naming his emotions.
(You may have noticed I used "he" in this example - not because it's only boys who have 'difficult stages' - far from it! But often boys don't get the emotional support that girls get due to our cultural assumptions about how boys should behave - ie that they should 'toughen up' and pull themselves together. In fact, boys may need more emotional support and empathy than girls, to counter the pressures from the world to ignore their emotions.)
Supporting your child like this will gradually help him or her to recognise and cope with the big emotions, which shifts his or her brain from fight/flight response to a more ‘mindful’ and calmer reaction. And each time you empathise with your child instead of getting angry about their behaviour, you’ll build a deep bond of trust with your child. They will then come to you with their feelings rather than lashing out.