Through my many years of working in parent education, and over 20 years raising my own three children, I like to explain that children can be either in or out of balance. When a child is ‘in balance’ they are usually:
- happy with whatever they are doing
- a pleasure to be around
- being kind and gentle with others
- making lots of eye contact
- showing an increased resilience
When kids are ‘out of balance’, we see all the other types of confronting behaviours. They might:
- throw things
- be mean to other children or their siblings
- be very defiant or reactive in nature
In making sense of why children act out, it helps to understand why children can be ‘out of balance’. Dr. Aletha Solter, Swiss American Psychologist, explains childhood stressors:
“There are many sources of stress in children’s lives. Illnesses, injuries, and hospitalization are cause for pain, confusion, and anxiety. Quarrelling, separation, or divorce of a child’s parents can be confusing and terrifying, as can the presence of a parent’s new partner or a stepparent. Stress can result from a move to a new home, starting a new school, or the birth of a sibling.
Added to these major life stresses are all the daily separations, accidents, frustrations, disappointments, and anxieties. In a single morning at kindergarten, a child can have a toy grabbed from him by another child, fall from a swing, be served a snack that he dislikes, spill paint on his new shoes, and have to wait for a late parent after all the other children have left. Even happy occasions can be stressful if they are overstimulating. It is not uncommon for young children to burst into tears during their own birthday party, for example. As if this wasn’t enough stress in a young person’s life, many children also carry the burden of very early experiences of stress or trauma.”
Just as many stressors exist for teens as well. Teen stressors may include:
- worrying about their appearance
- navigating friendships
- unconscious pressures around schooling and the future
These tensions can build easily throughout the day and then unravel at home when a parent asks a simple question or request.
Behind the tantrums
The day-to-day life of a toddler can often bring about feelings of powerlessness and stress, and all those feelings can accumulate in their little bodies. Toddlers will often hold on to these hurts and when a safe time and place presents itself, the built-up tension explodes all at once. When your little one is angry and raging because you gave them the blue cup instead of the red cup, it can be helpful to remember that rage is their body and the nervous system trying to reset. This doesn’t just apply to toddlers, this pattern of behaviour can also be seen in school age kids, teens and even adults. It’s a common experience for people regardless of age. We often build up stresses and pressures, and when we feel powerless or things don’t go our way, those pent-up feelings can come tumbling out.
When children have a build-up of feelings and are on the brink of a tantrum, you may notice that nothing is right. No matter what you do, it isn’t enough, and they continue to whine or be frustrated.
The idea is to increase connection with our children by being mindful and empathic to their needs. Never isolating them or leaving them alone to cry or tantrum. Always looking behind the surface issue and behaviour problems by addressing the underlying needs and feelings. Recognising that primary causes of behavioural problems can include disconnection, unmet needs, a lack of information, stress and unhealed trauma.
What is also helpful to understand is that tears contain the stress hormone cortisol. When we cry, we are literally releasing stress from our bodies. Studies have found that tears actually lower blood pressure and improve emotional wellbeing, provided there’s a loved one close by for support.
The amazing natural healing aspect of the human body is to help the child come back into balance. You may have noticed that after the storm has passed and once they have released all those big feelings, they are in a much better mood. It helps if we let our kids’ tantrum without trying to interrupt the process, so they get to the end of their feelings.
Welcome all the emotions
From a connected parenting perspective, when our little ones are upset, the goal is to welcome the emotions instead of shutting them down. The simple yet often challenging art of listening to the hurts, frustrations and pain. When a child feels safe enough to offload all those feelings of frustration, fear, anger and so on, they are able to move past them quickly. The other bonus of staying calm and holding the space for these big feelings is that it teaches our children what empathy looks like. It also creates new awareness and pathways in their brain that says, ‘I can feel these feelings and let them go’.
Children develop emotional intelligence when we teach them that all their feelings are okay. As they grow and develop, understanding that feelings are welcomed and held, they develop skills to speak and process what they are feeling, instead of shutting down or numbing themselves out, or acting out using violence and aggression. We also model what gentle listening looks like and children then learn what it is to listen with compassion and empathy.
In addition to holding space for big feelings to come and go, parents can also help children to process their stress and trauma. Often simple approaches work best. For instance, play and laughter is a great way to support children through this process, whilst at the same time building stronger connections between child and adult.