This morning I very calmly and gently explained to my 4-year-old that when he places a cup down on our glass coffee table he needs to be gentle. His response: “It’s not fragile! You are the dumbest mommy. I am not talking to you ever! I am going to double spit at you…” And this is not atypical—he explodes like this on a regular basis, whenever we need to correct him or set a limit, or when he can’t do something perfectly right away. When we try to reason with him he shuts down—he’ll often just cover his ears or run away. Help!
It sounds like you have a temperamentally very sensitive little guy on your hands. Temperament is a child’s inborn way of approaching the world—the “why” that explains the meaning of his behavior. Temperament is something we are all born with, not something children choose or that parents create. It’s why some of us revel in new experiences and others are anxious and need time to warm up to unfamiliar situations. It’s how we’re wired which influences the way we process our experiences in the world.
Children who are highly sensitive emotionally take in their experiences in the world at a deeper level than children who are more “regulated”; it’s as if their internal filter is more porous (what we used to unfortunately call “thin-skinned”) so they are more deeply affected by their experiences and have a harder time managing their strong emotions. They get triggered by seemingly benign events, such as being given what we might think of as a simple direction. It’s as if they experience these moments as shaming—a slight—and they go on the attack to defend against these difficult feelings. This can result in an onslaught of threats and vitriol. (Think about it—even many adults have a hard time tolerating feelings of shame and get hostile when triggered.) When children feel out of control on the inside, they often become out of control on the outside. I see many families each week with similar stories; for example, another 4-year-old who destroys every game when she loses and attacks her opponents telling them how stupid they are. (Parents with the go-with-the-flow, “whatever” kids, who make their parents look soooo good, rarely enter my office.)
As you have already figured out, trying to rationalize with children when they are in this highly aroused state is rarely useful. When they are overloaded emotionally they don’t have access to the part of the brain that enables them to think and reason. So, the most sensitive and effective first step is to just acknowledge your child’s emotional state. Saying something brief and empathic such as, “Wow, those are very big feelings”, is just right. This helps him calm and communicates that you are his rock; that he can trust you to handle his most challenging moments and that he is not alone. When parents get aroused and reactive it tends to increase children’s distress leading to more dysregulation and out-of-control behavior. (We also tend to use a lot of language which the child can’t process and just serves to further overwhelm him.) As tempting as it is to teach your son a lesson about not using harsh words, he can’t process that in this moment so going down that path will increase both your and your child’s frustration and make it less likely you can ultimately solve the problem at hand. You can’t make your child stop reacting this way—you don’t control him; what you do have control over is how you respond.
Once your child is calm, you can process the experience and help your child, over time, gain some perspective—to see these encounters not as personal indictments that there is something wrong with him but as loving, parent guidance. It will be important to approach these conversations without judgment or criticism as that will shut him down. Retell the story matter-of-factly; acknowledge that it feels bad to him when mommy or daddy is trying to teach him something and then help him problem-solve: “Mommy asked you to be gentle when you put down your cup on the glass table because it is fragile and can break. I meant this as helpful—just like when your teachers give you a direction at school—but you got very upset. Did you think mommy was angry? (Probe for how he felt and acknowledge that you understand. Remember—validating a feeling is not agreeing with it. Feelings are never the problem; it’s what we do with them that can be problematic.) Sometimes people hear things in a way that the other person doesn’t mean.” It can be helpful to recall past experiences your child will remember that illustrate the same dynamic: “Remember when you fell off your scooter. Daddy tried to help but you got really mad at him because you didn’t like the feeling of falling. It made you feel out of control. Daddy just stayed by your side. When you were calm he showed you how to balance and you were off!”
It is also important to avoid the temptation to make your child feel all better and solve his problems—a very typical knee-jerk reaction to highly sensitive/reactive children. Remember, the root cause of their challenges is feeling out-of-control and unable to cope, which can feel scary; they panic and get paralyzed. Your job is to help your child develop the mindset and skills he needs to be the master of his mind and body. When you solve his problems for him it sends the message that you don’t believe he can figure things out; and, he misses out on opportunities to build his confidence that he has the ability and tools to overcome challenges.
It is important to be aware that some children who are big reactors emotionally also have some sensory reactivity—meaning they have a low threshold for stimulation and thus have bigger reactions to sensory input. For example, a child who has a low threshold for tactile input may be very picky about the clothes he wears and the foods he will eat. A child with a low threshold for sound may get overwhelmed in a busy preschool classroom, cover her ears at seemingly benign noises or sound-levels, and spend more time in solitary play in a corner of the room where she feels more protected and safe. Children whose sensory system is highly sensitive and reactive are triggered to feel out of control more easily which can result in big emotional reactions. This is something to keep in mind and potentially explore as you are decoding the meaning of your child’s behavior.