In the Eye of The Storm: How To Stay through Staylistening

from the hand in hand blog(1)

By Heidi Grainger Russell

It can be hard to stay with your child through an intense crying session, especially if you child runs off or tells you to go away. Here’s how Hand in Hand’s Heidi Grainger Russell rode out her son’s big feelings about garbage recycling and his grandmother moving in right next door.



Last summer my mother moved from over 2,500 away to a house right next door. It was a dream come true for all of us, and particularly my four-year-old son, who adores his grandmother. But a change this big doesn’t come without ripples.

My son was sorting through some big feelings around the change, which mostly manifested as boundary pushing and inflexible behavior. At this time, one of his favorite activities was managing our garbage recycling. He emptied our wastebaskets daily and put the cans out on the curb for collection every week. He would even wake up early on Thursdays to watch the garbage collection trucks. It was his true delight. He also had lots of pride and ownership around it. It was, “His job.”

One Thursday we returned from some errands to find my mother had pulled the cans in. She was having guest over and had put them away to make more parking space in our shared driveway. My son was very angry and immediately began dragging the cans back to the curb.

I tried to reason with him about my mother’s guests coming, but he was upset and angry that she had taken his job. As the big wave of feelings swept over him he just could not be flexible.

Setting the Limit

I set a limit, approaching him calmly and placing my hand on his hand, which still held a garbage can. I said, “Grammie’s friends are going to park there. You can bring the cans in next week.”

This was all he needed to throw himself on the driveway crying and screaming. He yelled about how unfair it was.

“Doesn’t she care about me? Why did she even move here?” he cried, thrashing on the ground, while I squatted nearby and listened. I wondered what the neighbors might think of this noisy commotion. I was feeling the heat of their judgment. But I said to myself, “My son needs me to be present and listen to him. That is the most important thing. They can think what they want.”

Safety First

But with that concern out of my head, I realized that with guests due the driveway probably wasn’t the safest place to stay. Ideally when listening to children during big upsets, we stay with them where they are, so they can have a full release of feelings without distraction. That’s why it is referred to as Staylistening. However, staying put is not always possible. I told him I wanted to hear his feelings but we needed to move off the driveway.

I helped him up and he took off into the house. I followed closely behind. He kept crying and running wildly through the house and I stayed near. He yelled, “Leave me alone!” a couple of times, but I stayed near as he continued to cry and move through the house. He eventually ended up at my desk in the kitchen and sat in the swivel chair and faced the wall. I sat on the ground behind the chair. He cried there for several minutes.
boy-hiding face

When it got quiet, I peeked around the chair to see if he would make eye contact. He looked away. I waited. I peeked a couple more times to remind him I was there and receptive. Eventually he swiveled the chair around and looked me right in the eye. I don’t know how else to describe it, but he had a very deep look in his eyes. Then, he leapt into my lap. We sat there for a few minutes and he began to notice things around him and make light conversation. I knew the storm was over.

Sunny Outlook

heart-canLater, when my mother’s guests were gone he was able to ask her nicely to leave the cans on the curb for him and he was able to accept her reasons for bringing them in. All of the charge and anger about the subject was gone.

When we are able to set loving but firm limits for our children when they are off track, they will often show you the big feelings that are driving the unworkable behavior. If we are able to be present and listen to those big feelings without trying to “fix it”, the feelings will be released, and the cheerful and cooperative child that is underneath can shine through.

  • Read this if you want to know what to say during Staylistening
  • Find out how Staylistening helps with sharing
  • Need help setting limits? Our booklet shows you how

Heidi Grainger Russell

Heidi Grainger Russell is Certified Instructor with Hand in Hand Parenting, and lives in Petaluma, CA, where she offers ongoing parenting support.




2 thoughts on “In the Eye of The Storm: How To Stay through Staylistening”

  1. I’ve been trying to use staylistening with my toddler, but I’m finding there are some barriers. Rather than just being able to sit there with my little guy while he gets his big feelings out, he hyperfocuses on things and seems to be trying to distract us both from the main issue. For example, he’ll often ask to blow his nose. When I try to help him, he screams at me and loses it even more. If I say we’ll blow his nose when his body is calmer, he throws himself to the ground in hysterics and/or starts blowing snot all down his face hysterically. Then he asks to blow his nose again, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve tried sitting silently and not replying at all. I’ve tried silently handing him the wipe or telling him he can do it himself. I’ve tried telling him we’ll blow his nose once his body is calmer and he’s gotten his big feelings out. Every attempt has led to an increasingly awful meltdown that just goes in a vicious circle. Is there something I’m missing, or something else I should try?

    1. Elle Kwan

      Hi Britt, thanks for reaching out. Patty tells us that when a child is really reaching to the heart of his issues, it can look like avoidance. An older child, for instance, might want demand water, and try to get it, but if you can stay right there – as you have been doing – he’ll have more space to offload. Do you feel like the nose blowing act and your saying no actually brings out the tantrum, and, in the end, helps? How is he once these big cries get done? Regularly we see children get interested, without our prompting, in something minor – a hair on the carpet where he is laying, a book on the shelf, and he’ll come out of the upset, happier, lighter.
      But you know your son, so if something about the nose blowing feels off to you, have you tried mentioning the cause of the upset as the crying cools off, but before he blows his nose? Such as, (as crying slows) “I know you wanted that cookie, and I said no,” to gently bring his mind back to whatever caused him his upset? If he is working on an emotional project – some major upset – you may find these crying episodes happen quite frequently as his body tries to work through the project. There’s an excellent article on this if you put “emotional project” into the search on this site. Well done, dear mama, for supporting your son and caring about him so thoroughly during this tough time.

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