You wake up to a bright and shining sun, nothing but blue skies and birds singing. Your child calls out to you. You go into their room, look into their beautiful eyes feeling the joy of a new day and they…
“I don’t want to go to camp!!!”
Your child pulls the covers over their head and slumps back down onto the pillow.
When they get up out of bed, clearly holding their bladder, they refuse to go to the bathroom.
Then, they discover their favorite shirt is in the wash, and only the red one is clean. You were supposed to clean it, but you forgot and they are furious. Yesterday they told you they HATE the red shirt and didn't want to wear it.
“Fine, but I'll only do it if…”
It goes on…
They don’t want oatmeal, they want granola but you didn’t make any.
Fine, they relent.
They’ll eat the oatmeal but they HAVE to finish polishing their rocks before they can come eat it.
The booster seat they prefer is in the other car, which is gone, and they refuse the one you have.
You turn on their favorite playlist before driving away and they tell you to turn it off because suddenly they HATE IT!
Do you often find yourself thinking your child is reactive? Defiant? Disagreeable? Inflexible? Relentless? Difficult?
Do you feel like every time something is required of them, even straightforward tasks like getting dressed, brushing teeth, or getting in the car, they push back and oppose you?
Does an unexpected change in their schedule or a deviation from a previously held expectation mean they often just lose it?
Moments like these can pile up quickly, especially in times of transition or when you have things that need to be accomplished in a short period of time.
They can also arise from surprise changes in schedules or when things don’t go as planned.
Whatever the cause, they can leave us feeling exasperated and exhausted and thinking badly of our children.
Why do some kids sail through change and others fight or fall apart?
Life often doesn’t go as planned.
Obviously, parents forget the granola or the laundry or any number of things. Friends don’t always do what they say they’ll do. Siblings are unpredictable too.
So what is the difference between the child who rolls with the inevitable surprises and upsets of life, and the child who falls apart? And is there anything we can do as parents to get more of the former and less of the latter?
Yes. There is.
Read on and I’ll help you develop new ways of thinking and being with your child’s inflexibilities that will leave you feeling more connected, hopeful and confident in your ability to meet the moment with what’s needed.
Understanding why your child pushes back
Often there is a tendency in these moments to want to get to the root of the problem. To determine exactly what happened to cause our child to become so inflexible and then to reason with them or negotiate.
But what usually happens when we attempt this is that we feel more frustrated and in response they dig their heels in even deeper.
- They'll bargain and barter. They say they'll only do things with certain conditions attached
- They will stall on everything leading up to the event or activity
- They'll talk and talk about how awful the change is, how it's unfair, how they didn't know, why they shouldn't have to why they don't want to and how terrible you (and the world) are for conspiring against them like this
- They may get angry or aggressive
- They may melt down and cry
Here’s some welcome news.
You don’t need to find a reasonable or rational explanation before you can help your child.
It’s not that we don’t need understanding—we do. It’s just a different kind of understanding.
The brain science that shows why children can become inflexible, reactive and upset
Rather than understanding “what happened” in each different circumstance, it can be helpful to understand what happens inside a brain that is so off-track, so inflexible, reactive and uncooperative. That is the kind of understanding we need.
We can learn how to create conditions that bring that brain back toward flexibility and cooperation.
Our brains are made up of separate parts that are responsible for very different functions. When a child is inflexible and off-track they are having trouble integrating these separate parts of the brain, to get them to work together.
What happens in these moments is that the part of the brain that is responsible for reason, predicting consequences, and critical thinking (the prefrontal cortex) essentially moves “off-line” and becomes inaccessible.
When this happens, you’ll see your child become reactive and uncooperative.
Although the prefrontal cortex shuts down, other parts of the brain remain active, and we can work with those.
The brainstem and the limbic regions are responsible for entirely different functions. Namely, to avoid pain and move toward pleasure (as in fight, flight, or freeze), and to sense emotions that give clues to our safety. That is, assessing if a situation is good or bad based on how something makes us feel.
It is here we can make a difference. By appealing to these areas of the brain, we can help it to integrate and you’ll see reactive, inflexible behavior give way.
Introducing the “river of the mind.”
In The Whole Brain Child, Dan Siegel, M.D. explains, “the key to thriving is getting all these parts to work well together.”
We know that when our kids are not well-integrated, they become overwhelmed by emotion. They become reactive and disagreeable, and they can’t respond reasonably to the demands of life.
The same is true for us. It can be a struggle not to get reactive ourselves. To try and shut down what is yet another trying. difficult response.
When we become inflexible in response to our children’s inflexibility, we are essentially engaging in a struggle between the parts of our brains and their brains that are trying to survive, that are not capable of reason.
Dr. Siegel explains, “Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting—and life—are a result of a loss of integration, known as dis-integration.”
He uses the metaphor of a river when describing a healthy mind. A healthy mind is an integrated mind so, in a “river of well-being”, all the parts of the brain are working together (are “integrated”). When floating down the middle of the river of well-being, you feel good about yourself, other people, your place in the world. You can be flexible to change and you feel stable.
Finding the calm spot between chaos and control
He suggests imagining that the bank of one side of the river represents chaos. When we go too far in this direction, we feel out of control and caught up in the confusion of the rapids and turmoil of life.
This side of the river is filled with instability, anxiety and fear.
The bank on the other side represents rigidity. When we drift too far to this side, we attempt to impose control on everything and everyone around us. We become unwilling to be flexible or adaptive to change.
This side of the river is filled with stagnation.
We all move back and forth between these two banks and the middle of the river throughout our days. It is a natural part of being human.
Where we run into trouble is when we don’t have awareness of having drifted, and we don’t have support systems to bring us back to that center river of well-being.
And as parents, we can also run into trouble when we aren’t clear about our role in those overwhelming moments when our children seesaw between chaos and rigidity.
Here’s how you can bring your child back to a calmer, happier place
Let’s look at our role, as parents, and what we can do.
If you think of the boat in the river, your role as parents is to be the anchor for your child’s wandering boat.
When you can drop yourself into the river of well being, right in the center, you can bring your child back from the shores of chaos or rigidity using just your presence, calm and connection.
It doesn’t help to explain they are drifting as they are drifting. They can’t hear us. That reasoning section of their brain is off-track, remember.
It also doesn’t help to get angry as they drift. That just propels them farther away toward the turbulent shores.
Now, you may be wondering how this plays out. How do you bring your presence and connection to them?
What exactly do you do when you see your child repeatedly resist your requests? When they become reactive and inflexible when things don’t go their way? Or don’t go as they had planned?
And how can you respond when you know that reprimands only really push your child towards rocky waters?
Here’s what I did one morning when greeted by my own relentlessly inflexible kiddo.
How to break through the wall of inflexible, reactive behavior using your presence as an anchor
My son woke up one Monday morning groaning about going to Kindergarten.
I brought him into my bedroom and he and my husband and I were laying around talking about the day. I could see my son was fighting back tears as he asked me if it was a school day.
When I told him it was he yelled, “You didn’t tell me! I didn’t know I was going to have a school day! I didn’t get a weekend day!”
I had, in fact, told him the day before that I would be taking him to his grandmother’s in the morning a little early and she would take him to school, because I had a doctor’s appointment. Still, I listened as he complained and when he finished I gently reminded him of a couple things we had done this weekend as a family.
This is one way to bring your presence. You listen. And in doing so, it’s like you throw your child a first lifeline, and you show them that they are safe.
What happens next may seem counterintuitive, because often your child’s inflexibility will rise for a moment. They may become louder or more forceful.
This is them using your presence to test their safety and to reveal the true depth of the anxiety or fear they are feeling.
It was like this for my son on that day.
He started thrashing. He grabbed pillows and clothes from our bedside chair. Throwing them across the room, he yelled, “NO! I don’t want to go to school! I don’t want to follow directions all day!!!”
The second way you can overcome reactive behavior
I got up from the bed and approached him as he threw a pillow at me.
I caught it and pretended it was big and heavy and that I couldn’t hold it saying, “Oof! Ugh!” as I stumbled to drag it back to the chair.
He started laughing right away and kept throwing pillows at me. I’d catch it, bumble about and ultimately fall. This went on and on for several minutes with him laughing and laughing.
Keeping playful like this is a prime way to connect. The safety and relief in laughter breaks through the anxiety, the wall of inflexibility and upset. It reinforces the feeling of safety you created in step one.
A note here. Sometimes laughter is not enough. Or it comes too early. If laughter doesn’t work after one or two tries, try this.
On this day, laughter seemed to be what my son needed. Pretty soon he said, “Let’s go play cards!”
Frankly, I was stunned. Usually these kinds of tantrums go on for much longer. But since play had opened a door, I thought I'd continue using it. I began using a play tool Hand in Hand Parenting calls Playlistening. You can find out more about it here.
I said, “OK! Hey, since you were saying you always have to do what other people tell you to do, do you want to tell me how I’m supposed to play?”
He happily agreed and made up a card game, directing my every move.
I was supposed to put all my cards on the table and discard one each time. I rolled my eyes, whined, “Do I HAVE to?!” to which he’d yell, “YES! DO IT!!!” and laugh and laugh.
This is a third way you can bring your presence and connection using play and laughter. I set the game up so that he could channel some of his feelings about school and following directions through the play. Since he got to direct me and I got to complain he could really feel safe about his feelings and work through them using the play.
Try it if you have some idea about why your child could be reactive or inflexible around an activity or task. There’s some more good ideas about using play with some common struggles here. If you don’t know why they are resistant, that’s okay. You don’t actually have to know—just bringing your warmth and connection is enough.
We played the card game for about ten minutes and then I got his breakfast ready.
That day, we had an hour less than we normally do before we had to leave. Often it’s a challenge getting dressed, brushing teeth and eating. That morning, I decided to drop the teeth brushing in an effort to make things smoother. He transitioned swiftly through the other tasks and when we got into the car he said, “Mama, we forgot to brush my teeth!”
I told him I decided since we had such a short time this morning that we could brush them in the afternoon.
(I wasn’t avoiding it forever, by the way. That would be too permissive and not good for his teeth!. But I did want to create some ease for both of us, and we did get his teeth brushed that afternoon).
As I clicked him into his carseat he looked at me and said, “Mama, I love you! Just ‘cause!”
That felt so good to me, and was a pleasant 180° from where we began our morning.
Your four-step plan for anchoring your child when they are inflexible, reactive and defiant
It is possible to bring your child back to calm and happiness without yelling, punishments, or even bribes or consequences.
When you can anchor them with your presence and connection, you listen and connect. Their brains do the rest.
You might notice your own brain trying to allot blame or guilt. Was there something you could have done differently?
Remember, nobody did anything wrong.
Your child’s brain had trouble keeping up for a minute which sent them to a rockier side of the river. It feels hard for them to swim back on their own. But as you hold the space and anchor them, they will make it back to smooth waters.
Wait until later, when things are calm, to think things through. You may decide on a new plan to try for next time. But very often with kids like these, it’s really hard to tell when they will get reactive.
Here is a plan you can use next time your child becomes disagreeable, reactive, inflexible or defiant.
- Listen: This helps establish your presence. If your mind is racing or you feel you need to do or solve something, remember your child’s brain will sense your warm presence. It’s all you need.
- Playfulness: Respond playfully to your child, and see if that breaks the wall of their inflexible behavior and upset. Laughter is a simple and easy way to connect.
- Playlistening: If they are open to play, follow their lead. This helps your child reassert their power and feel safer. If you see an opportunity to play with the situation, try that too.
- Listen some more. After each attempt you make to connect, listen to how they respond and what they are telling you. Sometimes they are so off track that playfulness doesn’t land. In that case, stay near and tell yourself, as you’re listening, that they’re doing just what they need
It can get exhausting and overwhelming parenting a child who often gets reactive, who constantly disagrees, who pushes back on what you ask. I hope that you can use the strategy in this post as a roadmap of what to do the next time it happens in your house. I’d love to hear your questions if you have them.