When My Child Overreacts: A Therapist-Mom’s Thoughts

By Juli

Since Halloween, my treat-loving 5-year-old has had a pillowcase full of treats that occupy her thoughts every waking moment. Most of our conversations throughout the day involve her asking for a candy, or two, or four, from her halloween treat bag. Usually she’ll see if she can get her foot in the door with asking for just one, then it will migrate to her asking for either two “small candies” or one “big” one, and then it will end with her choosing two big candies. If I, heartless mother that I am, restrict her to just one candy, however, she will make a very noisy display of how difficult it is to choose which candy she wants. For example, she will have to choose between eating a Snickers or a Skittles. Something peanutty or something fruity? This choice, it seems, is quite torturous for her. She makes it clear that she feels like she is being asked to choose between two of her very best friends. So she usually tries another plea that she may eat BOTH of her best friends, and I say no. Out of options, then, she finally picks one, and hastily devours the chosen candy.

And then comes the regret. Once the candy she chose is gone she is suddenly hit with an intense regret for her choice, wishing she had chosen the other one. “Mommy….” She will moan, “I just realized that I atchally wanted the Snickers! I didn’t really want the Skittles after all!” And she will look at me with tears and a real, very intense pain in her eyes, and a hopeful look, hopeful that I might find it in my heart to understand the depth of her problem and help her with a simple solution, which is just letting her have the second candy. Do I give in to the pleas and the tears and the insane logic? Of course not.

BUT here’s what I do do: I do hold her and let her be sad about it. I will take her in my arms and stroke her puffy, knotty mass of delicate blond hairs and hold her head close to my chest. I will let her sob, and I will make space for her sadness. Because even though her feelings are based upon something completely preposterous, the feelings are REAL. In her small world, this is what the pain of regret looks like, and so this is what she will have her big feelings about. Looking at it through my own big-worldview eyes, eyes that have seen true regret and have observed the pain in the world around me, obviously I know that her problem is silly and non-existent in comparison. And sometimes when it is really just SOOO stupid, I have a hard time letting her be sad about it. A lot of this is because I sometimes just don’t have time to comfort her. The big feelings sometimes come at the worst times, like the times that I have something burning in the oven, or the times that we are rushing out the door to go somewhere, or the times that there are annoyed people around me who don’t understand why I am “letting” her cry about this. But I know her feelings about this “silly” problem are very real, and even though I don’t agree with her, sadness and regret is something that I can connect with.

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Sometimes parents will boast to me about how they don’t let their kids get away with things, and I am totally on board with that. Parenting involves a lot of tough love, I know, and of course this means no candy right before dinner, and that they have to go to bed at a decent time, and eat their vegetables, and do their homework, and so on. It even means sticking to what you said, and not giving in to a child’s big emotions. But I think sometimes we forget the “love” part of tough love. We think that being firm means that we make no time for the silly feelings that come after.

Maybe we hesitate to comfort them because it feels like they are trying to manipulate us, and sometimes they probably are! Maybe they seem to turn their “sadness” on and off like a faucet and this is how they try to get what they want, and we are wise to it by now. But here’s my response to that logic: who cares? Who cares if they are using their tears to try to get what they want? What does it hurt to still comfort them? It doesn’t mean that I’m giving in, this just means I’m hugging them and kissing them while I say “no.”

The reason I do this is because I don’t think there is such a thing as crocodile, or “fake,” tears. When someone can generate tears there is pain coming from some place, I think. Even if it’s not pain that’s directly coming from the current issue, it’s pain from somewhere. What a perfect time to get in there and give them a hug and tell them you love them and that it’s going to be okay, even if it offends your sense of justice. Because even bigger than your sense of justice is the love you have for that weeping little nut-bar with the fuzzy blond head and the severely flawed logic.

As a therapist, one of the things I know for sure is that if someone comes to me (in therapy or in life) with a big emotion and I tell them that it’s not that big a deal, or to “suck it up” or not be a “crybaby,” they may indeed suck it up and stop crying. Then they will probably learn that they can’t talk to me about things, and inside them the sadness will get bigger, not smaller, and I might not have access to it anymore. However, if someone comes to me with a big emotion and I make a space that is even bigger than the emotion for them by telling them I am so sorry that they are feeling that way, validating them and giving them comfort, then the emotion inside gets soothed and becomes smaller. Or more emotion that has been waiting for permission to come out comes out, and that’s okay too. I am making myself a safe place for their emotions to be released because I care about them, and to do this I don’t even have to agree about why they are upset. I don’t have to pretend to agree, even. I just have to make space for the very real emotions. This applies to adults, and it applies to kids. It applies to everyone.

There are moments, of course, when I REEALLY don’t have time to hug and kiss and spend time comforting my kids — that happens to the best of us. So in those moments I try to ask them to save it for later, so we can talk about it at a time when I can give them the hugs and kisses they need. “I see how sad you are, but we’re late for the dentist, sweetie. Can I hug and kiss and talk to you about this later?” Usually they’re okay with that. Usually.

One day my daughter will understand the difference between big problems and smaller problems and learn perspective and be able to moderate her own emotions and choose when to have them and when to save them for later. One day she will be able to do this. But right now, while she is small, the problems may be small but the feelings are really big, even though they seem really, REALLY unnecessary to us big-worldview people. And these feelings are real. And, trust me, the BEST way to get them to be resolved in a healthy way is to give them the time and understanding they need. No, you can’t have the Snickers, you ridiculous, adorable little crazy-person (that part happens in my head). But I love you. Now I’m going to hold you while you go ahead and be as sad as you need to be about that.

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2 thoughts on “When My Child Overreacts: A Therapist-Mom’s Thoughts

  1. Jenn Gill

    Thank you for saying this!! I really needed the reassurance that I am not a “pushover”.

    When my kids were babies/toddlers everyone praised my patience because I would calmly talk them through a tantrum every time. Now that my kids are a bit older (still only 4 and 7), I hear more and more frequently that I’m “letting them walk all over [me]” when I bend down to offer a hug and comfort instead of punishing, putting them in time-out, or threatening to take something away from them when their emotions get the best of them. The truth is that I’ve tried all that other stuff too, and it just didn’t work for us.

    Reply

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