Throwing A Fit- Everyone Does It
'Fess up, adults. You know you throw fits sometimes. We all do it. We whine, we complain, we criticize, we judge, we call names. Some adults even hurt other people physically. The truth is, it is important for children and adults alike to learn how to handle frustration and disappointment. When children whine, scream, stomp, or otherwise throw a fit, parents have a valuable opportunity to teach them how to cope with disappointment. Think about it: when your child is upset, how do you tend to respond? Do you ignore their feelings? Make them deal with it on their own? Punish them? Or do you respond with empathy? How would you want someone to respond to you if you were upset?
What Is Empathy?
First of all, empathy is not permissiveness or a passive acceptance of misbehavior. Empathy is understanding what another person is feeling. When you empathize with your children, you are showing them that you care about their feelings and thoughts. Empathy also teaches children to recognize and label emotions and to understand how their feelings can influence their behavior. Additionally, when you reflect a child's emotions by putting words to what they're feeling, you actually help them move from using the more emotional level of their brain to using the thinking and problem-solving area. This is a great thing!
Responding With Empathy
The amount of empathy with which you respond is determined by a couple of factors. Calm parents are more likely to be empathetic, while upset parents are less likely. Also, if you equate your child's misbehavior with disrespect, you are less likely to respond with empathy. However, when you recognize that your child is having trouble handling disappointment or frustration, you are much more likely to be empathetic.
It is important to reflect your child's feelings and to make him aware of them. It is also important to reflect what you see, feel, and hear.
- Reflecting What You See: Focus on the child's body, facial expressions and posture. Describe what you are seeing- but do not do it sarcastically! "You are stomping your feet and your face is scrunched up." You will help him learn to regain control of himself if you will take a moment to help him become aware of how his feelings are driving his actions.
- Reflecting What You Feel: Do you feel frustrated? Then there's a good chance your child does too. To reflect what your child might be feeling, focus on his body language. Then say something like, "You seem angry," or, "You sound sad."
- Reflecting What You Hear: Listen to what your child is saying, then summarize it in your own words. This shows him that you're listening and that you understand what he's feeling.
Be aware of your intent when you use the skill of empathy. Sometimes parents may use empathy to "make" a child stop feeling or acting a certain way. But this is not true empathy. Also remember that empathy is not a tool to eliminate children's feelings; empathizing with them does not mean their anger or sadness will magically disappear. Feelings are a part of life, neither good nor bad, and we need to help children recognize and understand their feelings rather than insisting that they be happy all the time.
Anger and Tantrums
Parents often have a harder time being empathetic about anger than they do about sadness or happiness. But empathy is actually one of the best skills you can use to help your child gain control over his angry emotions and the behaviors that follow. When anger is ignored by parents, children learn to ignore their own anger and it ends up surfacing eventually in the form of nagging, criticism, and depression. When parents respond to anger by bribing, threatening, or spanking, a child is more likely to act out in violent ways when he is an adult himself.
All children have tantrums. This is normal. For that matter, even adults have tantrums sometimes! Most parents respond to temper tantrums by caving in, isolating the child, shaming, or spanking. Think about how you would feel if you were very angry or upset, and someone responded to you this way! Not surprisingly, responses like these do not help diffuse the situation or calm the child, and they can actually increase the frequency of tantrums. Instead of focusing on stopping tantrums, focus on helping your child move through them. Stay calm, empathize with your child, and reflect his feelings. Having you there to calmly help him through his feelings will help him feel safer emotionally and physically, and it will guide him toward self-control.
Empathy is Important!
Empathy is used along with the other basic discipline skills discussed in Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. When empathizing with your child, remember that the situation is what it is, then help him through it. Empathy teaches children so many necessary life lessons, and it is truly an indispensable skill.