Limit the behavior, not the feeling.
I have an intensely emotional 6-year-old. He has always been this way. When he was a baby, I joked about his tendency to go from 0 to 60 with no in-between, no warning. He would be cooing happily in his baby swing one moment, wailing at the top of his lungs the next. And he is still like this. When something upsets him – WHAM! – we can be in full-fledged meltdown mode in a matter of seconds. And I have to be honest: this can be really challenging as a parent.
Limit the behavior, not the feeling.
A couple of week ago, at an all-day workshop about therapy and mindfulness, the phrase above popped into my head and played itself over and over the rest of the afternoon. The presenter talked about how many of us expend a great deal of energy fighting against or avoiding our own emotions…and create serious problems for ourselves in the process. He wasn’t focused on kids, but I thought about how this often starts in childhood; just think about how often adults tell kids to “cut it out” when they are angry or “stop crying,” try to fix kids’ feelings, or leave them alone to figure out their overwhelming emotions.
As I sat in the workshop, I found myself thinking a lot about how my husband and I respond to our kids’ displays of negative emotion, which are so often wrapped up in challenging behaviors – arguing, stubborn refusal, door slamming. I found myself wondering how well we were doing at limiting behaviors while still allowing the actual emotions. It seemed to be one of those things that sounds easy on paper but in real life is messy and complicated and hard.
Yesterday morning, as we walked to the bus stop, Bee ran ahead down the sidewalk. Then his big brother took off like a flash, long legs flying – he bolted past Bee and kept on going. And Bee, that sensitive soul, immediately flopped down in the grass and began to cry. He had been winning the (un)race and now he wasn’t in the lead anymore. He was mad. He was upset. And, oh yeah, he didn’t want to walk to the bus stop anymore.
“You need to come to the bus stop with me. I need to see that your brother gets on the bus.”
“No. I don’t want to. I didn’t want him to pass me. I’m staying here.” (sobbing)
“You were having fun running – it doesn’t have to be a race. But anyway, you can’t stay here. You have to come with me.”
And there we were – a devastated 6-year-old and a momma who needed this kiddo to get.up.and.walk.
“It’s okay to be sad. You can still be sad and walk with me. I’m going to count to three and you need to head to the bus stop. One…two…”
There we go. Limit the behavior (refusing to walk, arguing, not cooperating), but not the feeling. He stood up and – still crying – marched his way down the sidewalk alongside me.
I do believe that sometimes limits actually help kids to tolerate their emotions. My boy is emotional and that’s okay. What he struggles with is the intensity and when we can bring that down a notch, he can be sad or angry without it overwhelming him and driving his decisions. We can help him learn to regulate his feelings without squashing or discouraging them.
So I’m paying attention. I’ve even started making a mental list:
Crying = feeling
Sobbing = feeling
Full-blown tantrum = feeling…right?
Arguing = behavior
Slamming doors = behavior
“You can’t make me” = behavior
The list feels so obvious, that I now realize part of what has been making this feel complicated is that sometimes what I feel the urge to limit is the feeling! Those big, huge feelings – the meltdowns – can be frustrating to be around. It isn’t fun to have a sobbing child and sometimes it is tempting to say, “Just cut it out!” And so having a mental list to remind me which is which and this mantra in my head helps: Limit the behavior, not the feeling.