When Children Don't Get Their Way

This week, a mom writes:

Here's our top issue right now: How to offer help or coping mechanisms when dealing with feelings of frustration when things are hard or don't go the way you want. 

On further inquiry, I understood that the parent was referring to the child's ability to manage feelings when things don't go exactly the way she wants. This applied to situations as seemingly trivial as when a pet chicken ate from the ground when the child wanted it to eat from her hand.  Big emotions ensue when she tries unsuccessfully to get her way. They have applied new tactics to improve the child's flexible thinking. These only worked to an extent, and the parents ultimately want to know how to help their daughter figure out what to do with her strong emotions as she continues to learn more mature coping skills.

Many parents struggle with this, so it's the perfect topic for a Q&A post!

I want to note here that the ideas expressed here are simply a collection of the most common problems and solutions that I've seen when working with individual families. This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies and does not take into consideration every possible case. After working with dozens of families over the years, however, I have seen recurring patterns. These are the insights and/or suggestions that I would make, based on some of the most common expressions of this issue of children overreacting when things don't go their way. 

Less emotionally charged moments are great opportunities to practice emotional coping skills.

Try to notice all the times when you fix the child's smaller disappointments throughout the day. The small, seemingly meaningless, but highly repetitive moments undermine the child's development of coping strategies. The almost unnoticeable moments are the best times for children to practice new emotional coping skills because they are less emotionally charged.  Children need to experience small disappointments in order to learn how to handle larger ones. I'm not suggesting that you let your child walk around in a perpetual state of frustration.  I am saying that children need experiences that allow them to be disappointed (or frustrated) so that when larger, more meaningful situations arise, they have some foundational skills for how to deal.

In this situation, the daughter seems to be reacting with extreme emotions for what seem to the parents like minor disappointments. This may indicate a need to practice not getting her way in very small micro-situations...situations that may even feel meaningless to the child.  Again, pay attention to these less noticeable times when the child gets her way.  I'm referring to the smallest, most trivial moments.

How small? 

The child wants a different thing for breakfast because she decides she doesn't like the pancakes?  

No! That's too big. Let's break it down further. 

The child wants to pour her own syrup so the parents let her with their help? No! That's still too big. 

I'm talking about the microscopic, undetectable-to-the-naked-eye moments. The child wants the syrup on the table but the parents want it back in the fridge (with the promise to get it out if they need more). Yes. This is the scale that I'm talking about. The child knows she will ultimately have it if she wants it, but they are tweaking the situation just a bit by having the syrup in the fridge. 

This small, seemingly insignificant outcome of a typical, unseen micro-battle allows the following to happen:

Slight yet felt shift in power - the power balance must shift toward the parent so that ultimately the child knows they can rely on the parent's strength rather than being caught up in the dance of trying to figure out if the adults mean what they say

Deepening of trust - the child will rebound from that micro-discomfort of not having the syrup on the table when they see that, in fact, we can get it back out if they need more

Gentle practice of child's developing coping mechanism - the coping mechanism is how to regulate when the usual thing (winning the micro-battle) doesn't go the way it usually does, so that when it's a bigger, more meaningful situation, the neural circuitry has already built a pathway for accepting and coping.

Practice with the small stuff. The drop of syrup that dripped on her fork so she wants a new fork. Just have her lick it off instead of getting a new fork. This level of triviality is where we get to practice. Or if that's still too big, break it down further. Maybe it's having the child wait an extra second before getting the fork so you can finish pouring everyone's syrup. Whatever it is, it's gotta be something that will only cause mild discomfort for the child. If you go with the big situations, the emotional escalation will be too big to handle or learn anything from in that moment. 

Set boundaries around behaviors while still allowing feelings and emotional expression.

While we don't want to punish feelings, it's okay to set limits on the behaviors around those feelings. Listen, validate the feelings, be present and supportive. Don't allow unsafe, harmful acting out.  I personally go as far as to differentiate crying from screaming, because while crying is normal and necessary sometimes, screaming requires a whole different level of tolerance from others nearby.  Screaming is often used as a tool to manipulate the situation rather than an emotional outlet. This isn't always the case, and the adult can differentiate the child's motive. It is only after the child understands the limits around acceptable behavior that they will find ways to express the feeling without using extreme behaviors.

A child’s big feelings does not dismiss her responsibility in trying to manage her own behavior.  Part of learning to cope is figuring this out. Parents can't do that for the child. We can offer words, space, our presence, but ultimately the adult isn't going to fix the feeling in any lasting way.

A child’s big feelings does not dismiss her responsibility in trying to manage her own behavior.  Part of learning to cope is figuring this out. Parents can't do that for the child. We can offer words, space, our presence, but ultimately the adult isn't going to fix the feeling in any lasting way. t with the goal to get this focused attention from the adult. Give them that attention throughout the day so they don't have to resort to escalating behaviors to gain affection.

Ultimately, the solution to feelings must eventually come from within the child. Once the child understands that the parent will not try to fix the feelings, she can then move forward and find her own way.

Empathize, but don't be overtaken by the child's emotions.

Sometimes it may feel appropriate to relate to the child with a story about when you’ve had similar feelings and how you coped. "It's hard when that happens. I lost my favorite stuffed animal once, too". Simple identification and relating is sufficient. Don't feel the feeling with the child or for the child, because she needs you to be strong and to see that just because she's having feelings doesn't mean the world is falling apart around her (which is basically what's happening when the parents' emotional stability crumbles). There is a time and place for empathy. But not when feelings and behaviors are off the charts. The child needs understanding and empathy but not enmeshment.

Allow her to work through it. She may want to talk to you about it, or you may offer some ways to process it. But ultimately, feeling let down for things not going the way she wanted is the only way she can learn to cope with these feelings in the future.

Prepare your child so she can anticipate problems and adapt her expectations.

It may help to prepare your child ahead of time if you anticipate where things may go awry. Giving her a little heads up lets her know that you're not going to try to prevent an upset, but you're giving her time to process it.  

Avoid placating feelings.

One of the more damaging strategies I've seen that is pretty common is when parents pacify children by disregarding their emotions.   Avoid statements that undermine a child's experience, such as, "You're okay" or, "Don't cry".  Understand that your role is to be present, but not to fix or get the child to be okay with the situation. 

It may also be tempting to try and ignore the problem or spin the situation to make it look like the child is getting her way. This includes consolation prizes, which first take away a learning opportunity, and second, set up an expectation that disappointment invariably leads the parents to offer some sort of appeasement.  

Inasmuch as it doesn't undermine or sidestep the child's authentic experience, feelings, or perception of the problem, use humor to help her move on. Sometimes humor allows us to step out of the moment just long enough to see it from a different perspective.

Using universal statements like "Life is hard" or "Life is just unfair sometimes" victimizes the child and may create a negative, hopeless worldview. It also communicates, ”Your problem is not unique, life is just hard, so get used to it". This does not respect the child's real, true authentic experience. Instead, focus on the situation at hand: "That didn't seem fair to you" or "You didn't like that you didn't get a turn".

Communicate trust in the child's ability to succeed.

Maintain the position that you trust your child to get through this. You don't have to be harsh or firm about it, but when you speak, speak with authority, e.g. "This looks rough for you, but you'll figure it out."

One of my most successful tools for helping children build new emotional or social skills is to acknowledge when they successfully navigate what would normally be a challenge.  Point out when the child is being flexible, when she's moving on, when she's expressing herself verbally rather than with an outburst, when she seems to be applying some emotional coping skills for herself. Point out these things so that she, too, can witness herself successfully walking through big feelings.  

Also, point out when characters in stories (or people in real life!) successfully cope with disappointment. This offers the child yet another way to conceptualize how to process emotions.

Physical outlets may calm the body and the nerves.

Physical outlets are effective for calming or venting. Deep breathing can calm the body and mind within a few seconds. Walking and moving the two sides of the body in conjunction can help the brain process information and feelings. Some children need deep pressure or to use larger muscles (pushing, pulling, carrying, punching pillows, kicking balls).  Movement can be a useful tool, but if you find that these are the only way to calm your child, I will suggest seeking the guidance of an early childhood specialist who can help you and your child build internal coping mechanisms that can help circumvent such frequent major upsets. 

Keep your cool.

It's hard to stay calm, but just do your best to not get too rattled by this. Your child will figure this out. You can trust that. You don't have to do this for her. Just be there and set appropriate boundaries so she can see where her own emotional uncertainty ends. It's not rocking everyone's world, just her own. And that's a safe feeling for a child, to know that she is contained, that her big feelings aren't rippling outward, endlessly causing everyone else's core to shake. She's being held by your firm parameters, your unyielding presence, and your trust in her to get through this.

I hope this helps, and thanks for the question!

Stephanie Antoni


Today at Preschool

Originally published on Beansprouts Preschool Blog

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