I recently realized that there is a part of “parenting lore” that I don’t fully agree with. It has to do with those times when a child is overwhelmed, scared, stressed, crying, screaming, tantruming or otherwise completely dysregulated. I often hear the advice that, “children need these feelings, they need a safe place to express these big feelings, and crying is good, and crying needs space.” And while I don’t disagree with any of that, it runs the risk of abandoning the child. It’s like saying, “go ahead, fall apart, I will let you do it without intervening or trying to handle it for you, you’ll be finished, eventually.” And then leaving them to it. I see the allure. You can keep an emotional distance. You don’t have to get involved in what seems crazy-making. You can keep your equanimity. This feels like a good choice when your child’s dysregulation triggers your own past wounds and trauma because you were abandoned emotionally at this exact age in these exact circumstances at the very moment you needed someone. It’s helpful to notice that.
Maybe next time, you can try something else. When a child sends an SOS, they want someone to find them!
The reason children cry is to call for help.
When a child is overwhelmed, they need help. When they are frightened, they need help. When they are dysregulated, they need help.
I suggest an approach that involves attuned listening.
Attuned listening says, I see you. I hear you. I’m with you. I won’t leave you alone.
When a child becomes completely unglued because a yogurt lid was taken off improperly, for instance (as happened with my grandson), you can come closer, and say, “Wow, this is super important. You are telling me loud and clear that this is a big deal for you. I can see that. I’m glad to know this. The lid wasn’t taken off the way you wanted it (repeating back whatever they are saying or screaming). I can see how frustrating this is. I wonder if we can fix it. I can help you. We can figure this out together.” You might not say all of that, it’s more the mood of the words that I’m sharing here. You can say whatever you notice or hear them tell you. In this attuned listening you “find” the child, wherever they are emotionally and join them there. I never tell a child what they are feeling, I just go find them with my own resonant limbic system – my own feelings. I set aside my grown-up thoughts and reasoned ideas. I give myself over to this little being who is clearly overwhelmed and is calling for help, and I stay with them. And I keep listening and reflecting back to let them know I’m still there. I’m with them. I get it.
There are other strategies as well. If they are so overwhelmed that they can’t speak or hear you or feel you nearby, you can interrupt the distress by bringing attention to something else (distracting). Maybe a little something you see out the window and want to go look at together. Going outside for a bit helps. Some people don’t like distraction because they think it ignores the feelings, but if a child is overwhelmed, distraction can diffuse the situation enough that you and the child can then come back to the incident later, and by then the little child can participate in the solution or at least finish up the emotional cycle.
We so often use our adult thinking and rationale when that isn’t helpful or useful. Better to set all that aside and abide with your child and traverse the landscape they are in, with them, in the present moment, so they know they are not alone.