Sunday, March 26, 2017

Weekend Q&A: When Children Don't Get Their Way


Welcome back to our weekly Q&A!
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. 

After I inquired further on this question, 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 facilitate more flexible thinking and openness to alternative outcomes. These have improved things to an extent, but 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 core issues that I've seen over the years. 

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

Try not to fix the child's smaller disappointments throughout the day. Small let downs are easier to appease, but these are the best times for children to practice new emotional coping skills because they are less charged and usually less escalated.  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 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 almost meaningless to the child.  I suggest paying attention to the 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. 

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 get a 10% rise out of the child's usual 100%. 

She may be accustomed to dominating play or interactions with peers and adults and needs stronger boundaries on a more ongoing basis, in situations big and small. The outcome may not bear much weight in the grand scheme of things, but the child will get to practice being flexible and regulating her emotions on yet an even smaller scale. 

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. Only after the child understands the limits will they 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 the 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. The solution must 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". Identification is different than codependent empathy. 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). 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 the 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, sets 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. 

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 an authority that she will figure this 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.

The most important to remember is not to 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!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Behavior Is A Question

I recently observed this teacher-child interaction in my preschool classroom.
A teacher instructed a child to clean up the toys he had been using, to which he responded by rolling around, watching her and laughing.  As he stuck his hand in a basket of toys and stirred it around loudly in a gesture of intentional non-cooperation, he was visibly entertained by the scene unfolding. I could see that he was as curious as I was about how this would go down. The power game was afoot.
It took every ounce of impulse control not to step in and "help" by enforcing her instructions so she could get due respect as a teacher. What I know from my years in early childhood education is that the best thing we can do is observe.
So, I waited and watched. I knew that this behavior was an offering of information about how this child perceives his relationship with that teacher.
A child's behavior is never "bad". Sometimes, a child's behavior is his only way of communicating to us. If the behavior is problematic for us, it is likely a reflection of a broader problem within the relationship.
Why is he not taking her seriously? He's wondering if she means what she says. He's unsure if he can trust her. He's insecure about the entire situation. And therefore, he continues to push the limits and continues his unresponsiveness just to see if things are the way they seem.
Simply put, his limit-testing behavior is a question. Or several questions.
  • Do you mean what you say?
  • Can I trust you?
  • Can I lean on you?
  • Where does my power end and yours begin?
  • Is my world safe and secure, or am I untethered and out of control?
  • Will you still love me if I don't do what you say?
As I watched this interaction unfold, I knew that this moment could lead the relationship down one of many trajectories.  This could be a defining moment, built on many defining moments before it.  How would the outcome of this situation inform this child of where he stands in the relationship with this teacher, and in the world? What a massive concept for a child to discover through testing. But if not through the safe haven of preschool (or home), then where will he learn these powerful life lessons?
The follow tools will make interactions like this easier:
Offer choices
Children are motivated by independence. Offering choices gives an appropriate amount of power back to the child. "Would you like to put the red ones or the blue ones away first?"  This may or may not work, because ultimately the preference was to not clean up.  One of the choices in the above scenario might be to honor that preference, and you can point out the cause and effect of each available choice. "You can choose to clean up now or in five minutes. If you choose to clean up in five minutes, I'd like you to sit next to this basket of toys until you choose to clean it up." If the child refuses to make a choice, you can let him know that you'll choose for him. "You can clean it up now, or I can clean it up for you. If you choose for me to clean it up, you will not be able to use it again until tomorrow".
Take yourself out of the equation
Once the choices are presented, you are no longer part of the power dynamic.  Had the child known and understood the expectation and the consequences of his choices, he could move forward independently. It is no longer a child vs. adult battle of wills.  Nor would the teacher need to make it her agenda to make him clean up.  We are simply acting as facilitators of the outcome.  We narrate his choices, avoiding language like "I need you to" or "I would like it if".  In this way, we take ourselves out of the equation.
Stay ahead of the behavior
This happened right under our noses but if we had seen it happening we could have put some parameters on how many toys he was allowed to take out in the first place! Or we could have offered a little heads up, such as "I notice you're taking out a lot of toys. Remember, it will take a long time to clean those up!" Personally, I prefer not to interrupt play with my adult cautionary narrative. I like to see the children's process of exploration and creativity unfold organically, and if it means I have to clean up toys myself, I'm okay with that.  However, since she had given him the instruction to clean up, the follow through became necessary.
Be firm, but not unkind
Firmness communicates clearly. Wishy washy doesn't give clear expectations and boundaries. Children need to know what is expected.  The teacher used a quiet voice thinking that this was kind and gentle.  Instead, she should have been firm and clear and use an unquestionably audible volume. This is not to overpower the child, but to be sure everyone is on the same page.
Use clear, simple language
The teacher used a lot of words and repeated herself several times, sending a subtle message that she did not expect the child to follow the directions. Our verbal and nonverbal communication conveys our belief in the child's ability to succeed or fail.  By hovering over him and repeating her instructions, she displayed her lack of trust that he would do what she asked. She was prepared to physically enforce her instructions by helping him, and he knew it.
Take a neutral stance
To reiterate, the adult is simply a narrator in the situation. She is not there to pass judgment on the child or his behavior. Her judgment should feel irrelevant.  She simply points out his choices and their resulting consequences, and offers him the dignity to make a choice for himself. The more she judges, the more invested she becomes, and she is then in the power struggle once more.
Ultimately, the goal is for the adult and child to be in sync, in the harmonious dance of child and caregiver.  Clear boundaries are important to establish consistency and trust. In this example, the actual cleaning up of toys is secondary. Effectively setting limits lets the child know that he is safe and contained within the adult's power so that he may then explore freely within the set parameters. But he will continue to test the limits until they are clear and consistent to him.
Remember that children are doing the best they can with their limited social, emotional, and cognitive resources. Try to understand the question hidden in the problematic behavior.  Closely examine the ways your responses might offer information about the relationship that contribute to the problem rather than the solution.  Continue to build the health of the relationship with each interaction. As the child grows to understand that the adult is a trustworthy, reliable, and powerful pillar, he will want to engage less in testing and more in enjoying life and play.
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Laughter in the Classroom

There is a reason so many of us enjoy stand up comedy, funny sitcoms and movies, and being with our hilarious friends.  Humor brings pleasure! Humor engages several parts of the brain (including pleasure centers), lighting up more parts of the brain than any other function used in the classroom. When we tune in to humor, we become more deeply engaged in the task at hand, promoting better learning and retention of information.

The brain circuitry that responds to humor in the adult brain is already present in school-aged children, whose brains gain complexity as their cognitive skills develop.  It is rumored that the average child laughs 300-500 times a day, while adults laugh just 15 times on average per day.  Whether or not the difference is so extreme, it suggests that children need laughter!

Humor is a universal human activity. Philosophers and scholars have spent centuries seeking to understand its origins.  V.S. Ramachandran's false alarm theory suggests an evolutionary significance of humor.  For our ancestors, threats to survival were very real and immediate, and a laugh signals to others, "Don't waste your time on this. False Alarm! We're not in harm's way".

Today, we can capitalize on the benefits of humor in the classroom and in the home. Here are a few of humor's benefits to children (and adults!).

Relieve stress
Humor helps us cope with disappointment and allows us to reframe negative events.  Laughter leads to lowered blood pressure and a relaxed body, and reduces the production of stress hormones by firing up and then cooling down the stress response system.  In the classroom setting, kids experience a range of emotions and feelings. Children have conflicts with one another, they feel frustration and disappointment, and even, at times, sadness. Humor can lighten the tension and allow us to bounce back with ease.

Put mistakes into perspective
Some children are sensitive and take it hard when they make mistakes or have to be corrected about their behavior. When adults find humor in our own goof-ups, we show children that mistakes aren't the end of the world. To err is human, so why not try to find a little humor in our errors and move on?

Connect at a human level
The positive correlation between humor and liking corroborates extensive research suggesting laughter strengthens interpersonal relationships.  There is something priceless about finding people who will laugh with us. My closest friends bring out my own sense of humor and laughter. Think about it - how often do you laugh uncontrollably while alone versus with others? Laughter is often surrounded by people.

Facilitate creative thinking
Humor uses divergent thinking and thinking outside the box - two essential cognitive functions of creativity. Incongruity theory describes humor that replaces logic and familiarity with the unexpected. Humor often plays on our mental and physiological anticipation of a predicted outcome - but something else happens instead.  This kind of humor promotes flexibility in thinking and reasoning, a skill that teachers want to build in students.

Humanizes and neutralizes the child-teacher relationship
Even in the most egalitarian classrooms, the teacher is typically viewed as an authority. I believe this is as it should be - children derive a sense of trust and security from the adult's unyielding presence.  However, we want children to feel comfortable, open, and honest with us even within this power dynamic. Humor promotes an easy, friendly atmosphere that sets a relaxed tone that welcomes open and honest sharing.

The humor in bodily functions
Bodily noises are funny to children. It's a natural part of childhood. Sadly, yet understandably, this type of humor is often shunned by teachers. We can trust that most children will, over time, internalize social etiquette, and learn not to laugh about flatulence in social or professional settings. However, if you don't welcome this type of humor, create rules around it that don't shame the child for being a kid. Because let's face it - farts are funny.

Humor is different than cheap entertainment
While slapstick humor or extreme silliness by adults can be quite entertaining, it can also be obnoxious, intrusive and overbearing.  In early childhood education settings, we want to offer children experiences that engage their participation and interaction.  Appropriate classroom humor is not one-sided, but rather, it connects people and invites participation.

About tickling
Some may be tempted to elicit laughter by tickling. While some see tickling as an important form of nonverbal communication, conflicting opinions fear it can be abusive and disrespectful.  Any game with children, tickling included, should stop immediately if the child shows any discomfort. There are many sources to offer guidelines on how to keep tickling games respectful and how to replace tickling with more beneficial forms of physical play.  Tickling should not replace meaningful physical and social bonding: hugs, hand holding, high fives, saying "I love you", active listening, doing activities together, being present for the child.

Keep it real
Teachers and parents must use humor mindfully. Children need space for authentic experiences.  We must never assume that kids are only "okay" if they are laughing and smiling and visibly enjoying themselves. Humor should not be a way to sidestep normal and necessary childhood experiences of emotions like disappointment, grief, frustration, nor should it be used to manipulate children into feeling a certain way or controlling behavior.  Laughter is one of many important experiences of childhood.

Here are some ways you can facilitate humor in your classroom:
  • Change words to familiar songs or stories.
  • Create rhymes and play on words. 
  • Laugh at children's jokes. Sometimes I even comment, "Hey, you made a joke!"
  • Allow silliness to unfold (it will come up during singing, dancing, storytelling, make believe play, and any time children are socializing). This may require giving up some control of your classroom!
  • Find age appropriate jokes. The knock knock joke will always keep them thinking, participating, laughing, most likely, creating their own knock knock jokes! 
  • Use objects in unexpected ways.  This also allows children to use their imagination and think creatively.
  • Have one or two humorous books in the reading corner. (You may consider taking these out before rest time.)

Adults need to laugh, too -- here's my favorite funny video:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Weekend Q&A: Emotional outbursts at home

Welcome to my first Weekend Q&A, where I address real-life concerns submitted by real people. Since my blog is new and I am still establishing my “routine,” this first Q&A sesh comes via an unearthed email exchange from my archives.

After responding to this question, I realized that there were simply too many topics involved to thoroughly address each of them at length. Instead, I’ll work to provide a general summary of the issues and redirect to pieces that discuss them at greater length as I build up a larger body of blog posts.

Let me know if you have a question you’d like to see addressed in future articles or any additional advice that you have for addressing this specific issue.


A few months back, I heard from a mom who was looking for an appropriate way to address her four-year-old daughter’s emotional outbursts. 

She explained:

“I have such a hard time with this. I have this need to correct, probably where she gets her bossiness from. I would really love some support in learning how to phrase things. The calm voice/body, gentle touch, etc. are my go to phrases, but I am seeing that it is leading to a downward spiral and there are a lot of really intense meltdowns. I don't know how to get her out of them when she is in the moment, except to let her go through them, cry a lot and really hard.

I have to take a break a lot of the time. They often happen in the living room/common space, and what we have been saying is that we can see that she is having a really hard time/feeling strong emotions, etc, and that it is ok, and we can do that in a safe space in her room or the play room, but that the living room is a space for peace and love. Maybe that is making her feel like we can't handle her, or like she can't be close to us? 

I don't know, but it is wearing me down. I'd love help.”


My perception of this particular mom is that she is not controlling at all, but rather patient, attentive, loving, and present. Her daughter, like all children, needs a venue for emotional expression. However, this space can be designated with strong, clear boundaries to protect the rest of the family’s mental health.

It’s natural to want to quiet down upset kids because we associate crying with an inherent lack of okay-ness. Keep in mind that your child can be perfectly fine even when she appears not to be, such as when she is screaming or crying.

In the moment, remember not to try to fix her emotions. Note your own responses and remind yourself that the testing of such limits is perfectly normal—your child’s emotional outburst is just a part of her normal developmental process. You may even want to observe patterns surrounding her outbursts to understand what her triggers are—perhaps, no matter how much she may initially resist, she really does just need that afternoon nap after all!

Accept Her Feelings

Rather than trying to modulate her emotions, just let your child be, even if she screams or sobs. Trust that she can handle her intense emotions and that learning to do so is a normal part of growing up. 

Your energy will communicate this understanding—by taking the position that she can handle her outbursts, her own emotions can become less scary and overwhelming to her. There’s nothing for you to fix—you are just there to be a witness to her experience. She needs you there to validate her experience simply by seeing her get through it on her own.

When parents say things like, “shhh, it’s okay” and “you’re okay,” they unintentionally invalidate their child’s experiences. We know that she is okay, but telling her as much suggests that your version of “okay” is more important than her authentic experience of feeling not okay.

There is no need to explain nor pacify. Identify the emotion in question, honor it and attend to your own needs: “You are feeling something that I don’t understand. It seems like a big feeling. I can give you a hug or a cuddle but, if you need to yell like this, you’ll have to find your own space because it’s too loud for us in here.”

In this way, you differentiate between the feeling and the behavior. She is not her yelling. Rather, she is someone doing the yelling. You are not rejecting her, but rather the noise itself.

Model Self-Care

When a child expresses herself in a way that is too loud, too physical, or just too hard for you and your family to handle, it’s perfectly fine to ask her to go to another room until she’s ready to come back more quietly (or safely, or whatever boundary you set up). This direction gives her the freedom to express the feeling, get emotional support, and have control over when she chooses to rejoin the common area.

Just as importantly, however, you are indicating that you, as a person modeling self-respect and self-care, need a calm setting for your own mental health. It is important for parents to show children how to prioritize their own needs too, building both self-awareness and empathy.

Children come to understand that parents have needs too and that there’s no need to apologize for getting these needs met. In the end, you may not get that quiet space, but don’t apologize for trying!

I suggest reframing your living room description to help work toward this more peaceful environment over time. Designating your living room as a “space for peace and love” is a great start but it may be useful to make some nuanced changes.

Communicate (with your words but  mostly your demeanor) that love is a steady and stable presence, not dependent on behaviors or places. There is even love for and from her while she is having her outbursts! The idea that, if her emotions erupt, then peace and love may crumble is complicated and scary. These are big words and hard concepts—to think that emotions over which she has little control could have such power feels like a lot of responsibility for a child.

Instead, try to be honest and tell her the truth: you need quiet space and calm bodies around the family.

Note Your Own Responses

We all have different thresholds for handling noise and we all have unique and personal reasons for these limits. Do you feel like you dance around her possible meltdowns? Do you notice yourself staying ahead of them or walking on eggshells around your child to avoid them?

Perhaps you are afraid of conflict, are highly sensitive to noise, or have experienced childhood trauma that makes such meltdowns especially difficult to handle. There are many possible reasons for your personal limitations and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for being you—just as your daughter is allowed to experience her big emotions, so too are you permitted to have your own complex feelings.

I want to give you permission to accept your limitations and try not to tolerate more than you should. Your mental health is also important and an essential part of you being a good parent!

Remind Yourself that Testing Limits is Normal

Your daughter receives ample love from you and your family, and she knows it. But, she’s a kid, so she may want to test this love/bond/trust at times. She may even find ways to do it that can trigger guilt in parents. Kids will go so far as to say, “You don’t love me!” or even “I will never love you again!” (these are actual examples that parents have shared) but they rarely, if ever, mean it.

In such cases, children are typically just looking for the most powerful statement in their artilleries, curious to see what happens if they employ such harsh words. It’s not personal—they are just experimenting with power!

Observe Patterns

Close observation can help avoid preventable challenges. Is there a pattern to when these meltdowns happen? Is it usually between playtime and dinner? Dinner and bath time? Weekends or weeknights?

Identifying when problems come up during the daily or weekly routine can often point to an underlying cause (hunger, fatigue, anticipating transition). The answer to ending these outbursts could be as simple as adding in a mid-afternoon snack!

In Summary

The bottom line here is that, when you’re clear that you are offering your child ample space for emotional expression and making sure she is seen and attended to, there is no reason to feel guilty about attending to your own needs and setting boundaries. Know that you are doing something positive when you model self-respect. You are creating a context for the expression of big emotions that works for you, your family, and your child.

Accept your child’s feelings and model self-care during her outbursts. Then, note your responses and remind yourself that her behavior is perfectly normal. Once the outburst has ended, take note of possible factors—you may find that there is a pattern to her experiencing such strong emotions that can easily be handled.

For More Support

No matter how long parents have been raising children, bringing up a child of your own can still feel like venturing into an uncharted frontier. For support understanding your children and helping them develop into happy, healthy, and mature adults, visit You may even send your own question to receive an in-depth response in a future blog post!

Wrestling is good for children.

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