I want to talk about anxious children. Or maybe highly gifted children with a deep sense of injustice. Or maybe highly gifted and anxious children. Children who flip out easily, and struggle to keep things together.
Imagine a child, whom we’ll call Joe. Numerous times a day, Joe starts to respond to something. Maybe Joe’s picked up on a note of frustration in someone else’s voice and thinks the other is angry. Maybe Joe is struggling to do something and worried he won’t be able to. Maybe Joe has noticed something unfair in the world, but knows no one else will want to pause things and try to sort out why it is unfair and what could be done to make it fair. Maybe there’s just too much noise and emotional stimulation around.
Whatever it is, Joe starts flipping out. Maybe he raises his voice. Maybe he threatens to leave the room, interrupting whatever joint activity is going on. Maybe he starts crying. His actions are socially unacceptable. I’ve watched different people respond to Joe in different ways.
Some want to punish Joe, to let him know his actions are unacceptable. They want to motivate him to act differently next time, and avoid rewarding Joe’s misbehavior by giving positive attention. Maybe Joe will be sent to his room, or shunned, or glared at, or have privileges revoked. Whatever the punishment is, Joe knows he’s done wrong. He doesn’t know how to stop doing wrong, and people being angry at him makes him panic more. He responds to the panic with more inappropriate behavior, and they respond with more punishment.
Other people recognize that Joe is panicking. They seek to reassure him that he is loved. They might say firmly that he has to stop raising his voice, or that he needs to come with them into a different room to calm down. They’ll put limits to his behavior, but most of all they’ll assure him that all he needs to do to be socially acceptable again is move within that limit. Stop crying, and all is forgiven. Everything is good.
Those attempting to assure Joe that everything is alright may face accusations that they are too lenient. They may worry that they are enabling bad behaviour. They may be told that by assuring Joe he’s loved when he’s misbehaving, they are encouraging misbehaviour.
Here are a few suggestions if you’re in that situation, trying to assure an anxious child he’s okay when he’s misbehaved, and trying not to give in to fears of being too lenient.
1) State what Joe is going through to help assure Joe he’s understood AND to help those around understand what is going on. “It sounds like you are panicking…” “I think you’re nervous everyone is judging you.” Let others know the child is in crisis mode so they can switch from being angry to trying to help out.
2) Encourage Joe to name his experiences. If you want Joe to find alternative ways to respond when he’s panicked or upset, then you need to teach him alternative ways of being panicked or upset. Encourage him to express his fear, confusion, anxiety, and upsetness in polite ways. If the child is upset because of someone else’s behaviour and you can’t have the child expressing it in front of them, then teach the child they can trust that they will have a chance to tell you all those problems later. Discussing things in the car, on the way home from events, is good. Going into a different room to talk, or going for a brief walk outside together is also good. If the discussion can’t happen right away, make sure the child knows when it can happen and follow through with it. Or have code words or secret signs the child can use to tell you he’s in trouble.
3) Teach the child to come to you and ask for assurance. If you’ve read certain parenting books you might think that a child shouldn’t be asking for assurance all the time, or the child should just know that he is good without having to seek parental praise all the time. Some parenting books actually recommend not giving a kid much praise because you don’t want to get the kid addicted to praise, and instead you want the child to have an internal sense of self and all that. But… if your child needs assurance, give it. Teach them to ask in polite, socially acceptable ways, and then give the praise in abundance.
Really, my advice is all a two-part strategy. When a child is in meltdown mode, the goal is to remove stress and welcome the child back into good behaviour as soon as possible. When the child is not in meltdown mode, teach the child how to get his or her needs met without melting down.
But… but… there are consequences for actions, right? Shouldn’t a child have to face the consequences? Perhaps. I think if there are consequences for misbehaviour in a meltdown state then they should be ones the child pays later (when calm) and that the child can afford to pay (so the child doesn’t have to get too stressed out about them). They should be a way of making restitution, even just symbolic. They should not be the cost of being socially accepted by everyone. It shouldn’t be “do this, and then we’ll forgive you,” but rather “we love and forgive you always, and this, which we know you can handle, is what must be done to try to fix the disruption.” The consequence shouldn’t be something the child has to be scared of. It isn’t about adding fear or using fear to motivate a child, but simply letting actions have consequences. Not every action needs to have a consequence, but if you have them, let them be something the child can feel proud of handling.