Helping a Child Go From Tantrum to Intensely Focused

His frustrations grew. "This is impossible to solve. I can't do it. Why is it so hard?" I stayed with him and listened to his feelings, mostly with reassuring noises and a few gentle words like, "I'm sorry this is so hard for you. I'm sorry it isn't easier." I also added, "Let's put it away right now and get down to some math," to which he said, "No, I'm not going to do any math until I solve the puzzle."

Big-eyed boyAlbert is a really sweet, sensitive, bright 9-year-old boy who comes to me for math tutoring.  He is full of ideas and thinks deeply about many things.

On this particular afternoon, our third session together, Albert had come to me without having had much sleep the night before.  His mother had sent me a quick email to inform me about this.  I knew he would have difficulty engaging with the math, so I was prepared for big emotions.

As soon as he arrived he devoted his entire attention to a snake cube (aka elastic cube) puzzle that I happened to have on my desk.  The last time he had been here, he had played with the puzzle for just a few minutes, after which he had been happy to engage with the math.  This time around, however, when I gently set a limit after a few minutes of his playing with the puzzle, saying that it was time to do some math, he just could not disengage from the puzzle.  He continued to have a go at it and kept getting more and more upset because he wasn't able to figure out how to solve it.

His frustrations grew.  “This is impossible to solve.  I can't do it.  Why is it so hard?”   I stayed with him and listened to his feelings with reassuring noises and a few gentle words like, “I'm sorry this is so hard for you.  I'm sorry it isn't easier.”  I also added, “Let's put it away right now and get down to some math,” to which he said, “No, I'm not going to do any math until I solve the puzzle.”

His mother had been there the whole time.  She and I continued to remind him gently that it was time to take a break from the puzzle.  His mother said that he could take it home with him with my permission and could solve it later.  But he insisted that he had to solve it right then and there.

Soon his frustrations turned to anger.  “How could anyone invent something like this that no one can solve?  They should not make such inventions.  Nobody should make such inventions.  Nobody should be allowed to make such inventions.  Nobody should make ANY invitations.  I need a pair of scissors.  I'm going to cut up the elastic and smash the puzzle into the ground.”

Albert finally let go of the puzzle and lay down on the floor, full of tears and crying with full abandon.  He was now quite distraught, but he knew I was there listening to him.  His mother was very supportive of both him as well as my approach with him.

It was heart-breaking to then watch him go into feelings about his very existence.  “There is something wrong with me.  Why me?  Why me?  Why is everything so difficult for me?  Why isn't anyone telling me what's wrong with me?  I must have been adopted.  I shouldn't even exist.”  I told him I would be very sad if he didn't exist.  At which point he countered with, “How could you feel sad about my not existing?  You would never have known me if I had not existed.”  To this, I replied, “There would be an empty space in my heart that I would feel sad about… and I would not know why I was sad.”

Soon he stopped crying, but he still didn't seem ready to do the math, so I asked if he wanted a little back massage.  He agreed and I walked him through a guided imagery relaxation routine, while massaging his back at the same time.  This seemed to help somewhat, but he was still a little wound up.  Sure enough, after a short while, there was another outpouring of feelings for a few more minutes, but the tears were less intense now.  Throughout this whole time, I listened to his feelings and his mother continued to stay supportive of what I was doing.  I felt very grateful for that.

All of a sudden, right at the end of our tutoring hour, Albert was all ready to engage with the math.  I didn't have the heart to send him home just when he was finally ready to engage, so I freed up some time to work with him.  I was so amazed at how much he soaked up during the forty minutes we worked on math.  I went through a stream of many related concepts, some of which were review, while some were distinctly new.  But he had absolutely no trouble absorbing everything I said and very quickly at that.  I didn't need to offer any second explanations.  He was very bright and grasped it all right away.  The prefrontal cortex part of his brain was clearly in full gear now.  He was focused, responded well to the questions I asked him, totally understood everything I taught him, and was able to figure out how to approach problems.  He went from being intensely distraught to completely focused!  It was like night and day.

Toward the end, just before he left, Albert engaged in a deep and thoughtful conversation about how people should listen to other people including children no matter what age they were, because children have important things to say.  How true!  He also talked about being in a world where everything was free, where no one would have to work to earn a living, and where everyone would just share what they had with other people.  He also talked about the equality of boys and girls and how it was unconstitutional to have books written just for boys vs. girls!  I felt honored that he would share some of his deep thoughts with me.

Sometimes it takes a whole hour of listening and sometimes it's just five minutes.  And sometimes it can take many hours.  But the power of listening is always amazing!

—Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor  Usha Sangam

Usha Sangam

Listen to a free podcast of Parenting: Going Deeper in which Usha presented. Sign-up here.

Read other stories from Usha on this blog.

You can learn more about Parenting by Connection in the Listening to Children booklet set.

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