I had come to pick up my six-year-old from school one day. We had planned on eating lunch at a restaurant for a change. She had asked me, before she left for school, to bring an outfit for her to wear it at lunch. The morning had been cold, so I chose two. One had long sleeves and the other had half-sleeves. I thought that way we could choose according to the weather.
By the time I reached school, the weather was fine. Both outfits were suitable, and so I asked her to choose one, but she didn't want either of them!
The Hitting Begins
Despite having worn each of the outfits at other times with no complaints, she suddenly started crying about them both this time. She hit me on my arm, so I took her hand softly and, making direct eye contact, told her that I would not allow her to hit me.
She kicked, cried and screamed really loud then.
I tried to keep close to her, all the time keeping her from hurting me when she lashed out. In the middle of all of this, she shouted out: “Why didn't you bring me clothes that I love to wear?
“Why didn't you ask me before you chose these?”
“You should have asked me first!”
Maybe she was tired from school and wanted to sleep, or maybe she had other reasons, but I knew that, at this point, she was melting down and not able to think straight. I knew from my experience with Hand in Hand Parenting that the reason didn’t actually matter.
What she needed was for me to get close and listen, to keep setting the limit not to hurt me, and to keep our connection open and available.
She kept crying and I kept listening to her. All in all, I’d say it took about 10 minutes of her crying until she picked out the long-sleeved shirt. She raised it to me without saying a word, indicating that she'd wear it.
After she put on the shirt, we headed to the restaurant and ordered our food. She looked at me, smiled and asked me to read from a storybook she had with her. When our meal came, she joked, telling me that she would eat all the food herself, and leave me nothing to eat. I chuckled. I knew then that she was bright once more, and ready to play.
I put on a funny voice and said. “Oh, but I'll be so hungry If I can’t find anything to eat”.
She laughed a lot at this silly response, and then we continued our meal happily.
Why it Works to Limit then Listen
School takes a lot out of our little ones. They make big efforts to keep it together through the natural demands to follow rules, listen well and interact socially. Added to this, the break from home, and from us, can lead to disconnection, where self-doubt and fear can flourish. We see this often at pick-up when a child can be irritable and cranky, or like Yasmeen’s daughter, not quite ready to face a transition calmly.
All of these signs say, “I’m holding tensions, can you help me here?”
Yasmeen used this three-step plan to respond to her daughter supportively:
Set a limit: Yasmeen set two limits – one to choose an outfit and another that told her daughter “it’s not ok to hit.” She set the limits softly and without anger, but she did not give way to them. That gave plenty of space for Yasmeen’s daughter to butt up against. Her cries were helpful in lifting her pent-up feelings.
Listen to Tears: As Yasmeen noted, as soon as her daughter was lashing out physically and vocally, she knew her daughter had gone into fight-or-flight mode. At this point, the brain can’t respond to reasoning, but it can respond to gentle touch and empathy. So Yasmeen stayed close and listened as the tantrum unfolded. As her daughter’s upset found a conclusion, they were able to decide on the outfit and move away from the school.
Respond with Laughter: When the brain recovers from a tantrum or upset, a child will often appear brighter than ever and ready to play. Yasmeen responded to her daughter’s two offers of connection. The first to read the story brought them close together, the second set them up for some laughter and good times. In laughter, light tensions shift, and a child knows all is still ok with the world.
Letting an upset unfold naturally like this can be challenging the first few times. It can seem a lengthy process until we measure the effort and time it takes to force a set of clothes on a child or bribe them away from crying. But letting whatever is blocking a child’s contentment release through tears and laughter lets them shed those worries and move on.
Watch this video and find out How To Help a Grumpy Preschooler with Sabina Veronelli
Read How To Reconnect with Your Child After Time Apart to help transitions go more smoothly.