There are few more challenging moments for parents than a young child’s upset. One can never be perfectly ready for every little bump in the road their child experiences. There are so many sources of upset throughout the day. Sometimes they are physically hurt, other times they are distressed over a broken or lost toy, at times their upset comes from transitioning from one activity to another, or giving up a beloved toy. One of the worst is when they ‘want’ something and then they ‘don’t want it after all’, argh!!

Jennie’s 2.5 year old son’s tears were around Mom & son having different agendas and they fought constantly. He never seemed to want to do anything she wanted him to do. She was struggling and frustrated. “Try to stop focusing on your agenda and start noticing his.” Her therapist suggested. This made sense. . . “I get it” she said “so I say ‘I know you want to stay at the park’?” 

“Close!” her therapist responded “however, as soon as you say ‘I know’, you are making it about you. Keep it simple and try ‘you want to go to the park’.”

“But then how do I get him to do what I need him to do?” Jennie balked.

“Just try it” her therapist suggested.

Jennie was skeptical. If she acknowledged her son’s agenda, wouldn’t that be giving in to his wishes? Wouldn’t it be even harder to change gears then? The next day he was playing in the backyard and refused to come in to get ready to leave for gymnastics class. He was crying and raging as Jennie tried so many things before she remembered her therapists words.

“I know you don’t want to come in.” she said. He cried harder. ‘Shoot!’ she thought ‘I did it wrong!’ recalling not to use ‘I know’.

“You want to keep playing in the yard.” She said, thinking it was way too simple to be effective.

“Yes!” he said and IMMEDIATELY calmed down. To her shock and amazement, he immediately took her hand and went inside.

Jennie’s success came from a technique called ‘mirroring’ or ‘reflecting’. This is when you tell the person exactly what is happening for them based on either what they’ve said or what you observe. This is a highly effective technique with people of all ages and especially young children who don’t respond to reason.

The key to the success of this technique is your observation skills. First you must get out of your own head and focus on the child. You need to establish the source of the upset. What were they doing prior to the upset? What do they want or not want? Pay attention to the moments leading up to the upset instead of the next possible step. 

Source vs. reflection examples:

  1. Source: physical pain (a bumped head); reflection: You bumped your head!
  2. Source: a toy has been taken away; reflection: You still wanted that ______!
  3. Source: don’t want to go to bed; reflection: You want to read another book!*
  4. Source: unknown??; reflection: You are very upset! Or You’ve hurt yourself!
    • Side note: *remember to focus on the event leading up to the upset.

Practice as much as you can. Do not wait for upset. Try and reflect what you see with your child, or even others around you, throughout the day. It works very well with spouses as well!

* * *

Watching your child get upset is tough – what NOT to do: 

“I’m not okay!”

Over the years I’ve witnessed moments in which a young child experiences an upset when “You’re okay!” is an immediate response from the parent. My sense is this is a parent’s reassurance to their child that their mishap was not such a bad thing. It’s possible they are encouraging their child not to worry or be afraid. However, the statement does not acknowledge what has actually happened. The parent has inadvertently ignored their child’s feelings.

Think of it this way: Imagine you are with another adult and you stub your toe. No matter what you do or say or how you respond, the pain stops you in your tracks. What if in that moment the other adult looked at you and said “You’re okay!”? When you stop and think about it the statement is completely irrelevant to the moment. You know you are okay in that you have not broken anything and a hospital trip is not needed, but you are in pain! What would you rather hear from them? How about these possibilities: “Ouch! That must have hurt!” or “Oh no, stubbing your toe is painful!” 

When someone tells you that ‘you are okay’ it may be internalized as this:

  • My feelings don’t matter.
  • I shouldn’t be in pain even though I am.
  • You don’t have time for my problems so you are trying to fast-forward them.
  • You can’t see how badly I’m feeling.
  • My problems are not important to you.

* * *

What could we communicate instead? Try being honest and thorough.

  • You are hurting now. Underneath that pain you ARE okay and everything will be fine eventually.
  • I feel bad that you are upset and I want to help you feel better but I don’t know how.
  • I’m here for you. Things are not so bad. You can always count on me.
  • That was scary  – but you ARE okay now.

UPSET: a quick step by step guide:

1 – WATCH & OBSERVE:

Tell them what you see:

  • You’re hurt.
  • You’re in pain.
  • You are scared.
  • You are upset.
  • You fell down.
  • You hurt your knee.
  • You were scared on that slide.
  • That girl pushed you.
  • You are crying because (see above).
  • You don’t want to (have a bath, go to bed, turn off the movie etc.)

2 – ASK & HELP:

Offer support to move forward. Be prepared – I may say no. But at least you’ve offered. . .

  • Would you hold my hand?
  • Would you let me help you?
  • Would you like a hug?
  • Could we sit here together for a moment?
  • Can I try it with you?
  • Want me to carry you (to the bath, up to bed etc.)

3 – (optional*) BE HONEST WITH THEM ABOUT HOW YOU ARE DOING:

  • It’s hard for me to see you in pain, scared or hurting.
  • I feel badly when you are crying.
  • I don’t like it when you are upset.
  • Stick with statements that being with “I”. Do not say “You scared me” or “Your crying makes me feel bad!”
  • *if your initial reaction was off the mark, these can be used to recover the moment

Believe it or not this works. This works for people of all ages. The greatest challenge for all of us is keeping it that simple. We want to put our own spin on it. This creates possibility for misunderstanding. Experiment by playing with the concept of repeating what people of any age tell you back exactly word for word and you will see how effective it is. People love being heard at the best of times. At the worst of times, however, it is essential that your child feels heard and understood. This is the quickest and most effective path to that result. This also works well during arguments. . . but this is another blog!

Margaret Dahlberg is a Family Coach in Calgary, AB (margaretdahlberg.com).

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