You pick your pre-schooler up from a playdate and you can tell things have not gone well. Your son is cranky and disagreeable from the minute you say hi. Then he refuses to get in the car, he’s angry and begins kicking and screaming.
By the time you get home, you know that something has to be done.You don’t know why he is so off-track, but you see he needs your love and connection right now. This is one upset child, and you see he needs to laugh or cry or both.
Since you know that laughter might ease the strain, you take his superhero figure and you attempt to play. “Help me, I need rescuing,” your caped crusader shouts and you mime him falling to the floor. But your son picks up the figure, scowls, and throws it at you.
You move forward to connect and set a limit on the throwing, but as you come close he yells and starts hitting you. You know tears will help him offload, so you hold up a cushion to give him space to vent and to protect yourself, but the tears never come. He yells and kicks at the cushion, angry and tense, until he seems to run out of steam and his trucks grab his attention. At that point, you have to go make dinner.
As you wait for the food to cook, you see your son is lining up his trucks. He looks like he’s moved on, but you can’t help wondering if you’ve failed.
Did you do enough to help him clear those bad feelings, or has he stuffed them down deep inside where they will trouble him later?
“It’s great that this wonderful Mama attempted to be playful,” says Kathy Gordon, an Instructor with Hand in Hand Parenting. “It’s always a good first step to go for the giggles. There is connection in laughter, and laughter is a sign that light fears and tension are being offloaded. But when her son couldn’t respond with laughter, it meant that his limbic system or emotional backpack was kind of bollexed up or crusted over, and wasn’t able to release through tears. This mama did plenty to ensure her son had avenues to work through his feelings, but there are a few things she can do to make them both feel better,” says Kathy.
Six Things to Try When Your Angry Child Won't Cry:
1) Trust All Is Well. “Her son’s limbic system will find another opportunity to work on work on whatever happened to send him off-track. Sometimes, a child can’t offload in a single session, but given room to release, the tears will spill out when he is ready. It’s ok that it wasn’t finished,” said Kathy.
2) Use A Listener. “I find that after I’ve had a wild session trying to staylisten with my son, I have to get some Listening Time with my Listening Partner or I will lose it when he goes off-track again,” Kathy says. Moms that expect that more Staylistening is due would do well to grab a few minutes of EMERGENCY LISTENING TIME.. If no-one is around, ask if you can text or message your listening partner or, failing that, talk into your phone as if you have someone listening.
3) Provide a Pretext. Mama can look for an opportunity to bring a little limit to her son before bedtime. Look for something that you might normally work around, like giving in to reading an extra book or allowing an extra five minutes with the toys. “Setting a little limit early, by saying a nice warm ‘no’ to that extra five minutes might give him just the pretext or excuse to finish his “emotional poop” while mom still has some gas in her to connect and Listen with warmth,” Kathy says.
4) Offer Special Time or Rough’n’Tumble Play. “Kids need a lot of safety to be able to break through an angry crust and get to their tears,” Kathy says. Special Time and/or physical play lets parents take the LESS powerful role, which helps build safety and connection. Offering a session before bedtime might give him the change to clear our any lingering tension from earlier in the day.
5) Stop the Hitting. Parents might notice that as safety builds – often during physical play or a lively Special Time – that an earlier stored tension might come out in the form of a quick hit or bite. However, since hitting adults creates more fear and shame for kiddos, says Kathy, parents must take on the job of keeping everyone safe. “It’s good to be prepared that the fear could grab your kid’s limbic system and cause them to lash out, and it’s good to Set A Limit. We can set the limit playfully with a vigorous snuggle or by coming in with 100 Kisses (Find more ideas in 20 Playful Ways To Heal Aggression), or we can set the limit calmly and firmly by putting our hand on their hand and saying sweetly, “I can’t let you hit, Mama”.
Being prepared for the lashing out and being ready to stop it, can again, provide a great pretext for feelings to erupt. Blankets or pillows are useful for a child to pummel if parents find it difficult to stop the aggression and keep everyone safe
6) Move Away during Playlistening. If parents decide to try Playlistening to reconnect during angry episodes, it’s good to experiment with being playful from a distance. “If a child is already in a huge state of fear, your coming close can exacerbate the fear,” explains Kathy.
She advises making a chase game where the parent tries to to run from the child but are slow and bumbling so that the child almost catches them. “It’s ok if this frustrates him. He might even fall and lightly bump herself, which often happens when kids are this ramped up,” says Kathy. “They may make a huge fuss over something that normally wouldn’t bother them, and it’s a GOOD thing,” she says. “That bump provides them with the perfect flood gate to let the tears pour out.”
Trust in Connection
These six tips can be viewed as go-to strategies for giving an upset child the safety and the opportunity to release their feelings and be heard. If tears don’t fall immediately, parents might find that the child has worked through the feelings enough – either for that day, or permanently, and that they are ready to return to a state of calm and connection.
The most important gifts we can give our children when listening to feelings are safety and connection. All of us need to feel safe in order to release feelings. As soon as we get worried that our child is not crying enough or laughing enough, we erode the safety, says Kathy. “Trust yourself, trust your child’s emotional processing and most of all, trust your connection,” says Kathy.
Do you find your child cries or protests after a Special Time? Read Why Do My Kids Cry After We Have Good Fun? to find out why.
Are you living with an aggressive child? These three free videos will show you what drives the behaviour and give you strategies to handle it calmly.