In the last piece we looked at how Proverbs 22:6 means to discipline children in a way that works with them instead of against them. God is not an adversarial Parent to us, therefore, we should not be adversarial parents with our children as we are also sinners and actually sin more than our children do. The purpose of this series is to learn how to discipline our children in a manner that will lead them to God instead of away from Him. We must provide gentle yet firm discipline to our children. In this piece we will look at how to validate feelings, deal with temper tantrums, and why we shouldn’t use time-out as punishment but instead use something known as “time-IN” to help children calm down in a helpful way.
Validating Feelings—“It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to!”
Many people fail to realize just how much of an emotional life infants have right from birth. The young infant feels happy, sad, angry, and scared. But because crying is the only way of communicating their feelings, many infants do not get the validation that they require. Tragically, some infants are ignored and/or punished for crying. It is very important to understand that infants’ emotions are also their needs, and those needs must always be responded to in a sensitive and respectful manner. “It seems wise for caregivers to make the assumption that infants of all ages have feelings, since it helps us to understand their needs. The interventions we make that are consonant with our interpretations of infant emotions often seem to have the intended effect. We pick up a crying baby to soothe what we believe to be the child’s pain or discomfort as much as to stop the crying, and the subsequent relaxation of the infant confirms our belief about his or her feelings” (Fogel, 2011, p. 280). While crying is the main way that newborns express their feelings, if we observe them closely, we will see that they also use their bodies to communicate with us. Fogel (2011) states:
“Crying generally occurs in situations in which one presumes the newborn might feel some distress or pain. In addition to facial expressions, newborns can convey emotion with other parts of their bodies. During distress, for example, there may be reddening of the entire body, kicking and thrashing, contorted arm movements, and stiffening of the body. These whole body responses reflect the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and hormonal secretions that activate changes in behavior and physiology and that are consistent with emotional responses” (p. 278).
By two months of age, infants’ emotions become more defined and elaborated. They can make the facial expression for the emotion that they are feeling. Some Christians claim that an infant’s crying is manipulation and their sinful nature coming out. As I explained in my other series, this is not true. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that crying at any age is a sin, and we see throughout the Bible that God actually comforts and helps His people when they cry out to Him. “Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” Isaiah 49:13. Also, an infant 12 months and under is totally developmentally incapable of manipulating anyone. Lutton (2001) explains:
“It’s what God designed them to be able to do at that time. This is especially important when dealing with infants. It is normal for infants to cry and their wants are their needs. This is normal. This is the way God created infants to be. When dealing with normative, we are dealing with cultural preferences. The Bible was not written about people living in 19th-century Victorian England, although when many Christians talk about getting back to ‘traditional family values,’ this is the historical time to which they are referring. The Biblical cultures (for there were several) had different normative practices for parenting. However, the idea of formula feeding, separate rooms for children, and scheduling are unique to the Western Culture within the last hundred years. No one should feel pressured to abide by any of these practices under the belief that they are God’s ideal” (p. 46).
Because God created infants to cry in order to communicate their needs and emotions, crying should never be viewed as sinful or manipulative. While, as I point out in “Attachment Theory- Why NOT to Train a Baby,” there are times when infants need to cry, they must always be supported and validated as they cry and should never be left alone to cry for more than five minutes if that long. The reason I say this is sometimes parents need a short break from an infant that will not stop crying in order to prevent themselves from hurting the infant or saying something that they will regret. Shaken Baby Syndrome often occurs when an infant won’t stop crying and the parent loses control and shakes the infant. Never shake an infant as they lack head and neck control, and the shaking causes the infant’s brain to slam against the skull often causing brain damage and even death to the child. A five-minute break from the child is always better than harming the child, but the child should not be left alone for very long.
Talking to infants about how they are feeling is very important. Many well-meaning people shush infants and/or say, “You’re okay.” As I pointed out in Part 2 of my series, “The Effects of Spanking,” this teaches even the youngest infant to start to repress their feelings. We need to validate the infant’s feelings by saying, for example, “I know you’re hungry. I will feed you now.” After saying this, offer your breast (or a bottle if necessary) to your infant. This validates the infant’s need and lets the infant know what we will do to help them feel better. Young infants may not understand every word that we say to them, but they do quickly pick up on the general meaning of what is being said. So giving them words for their feelings is very helpful and important. If the infant is crying and we cannot figure out what he or she needs then we ought to say, for example, “You’re so upset, and I’m trying to figure out what you need, but I’m having trouble. I will hold you while you cry.” This lets the infant know that we are trying to help them and will continue to be there for them until it is resolved. “Even if you can’t fix the problem, it is a much healthier lesson that you are teaching your child if you hold them until they feel better. This will teach them that life is safe and mommy and daddy can be trusted” (Lutton, 2001, p. 48). Our aim as parents is not to always stop the crying at all costs. Our aim is to meet the child’s needs as best we can while always validating his or her needs. “Crying must be responded to. But how is a more complicated issue. To follow the advice, ‘Do not let your baby cry,’ is practically impossible. At times the harder a mother or father tries to stop the baby’s crying, the more anxious everyone becomes” (Gerber, 2002, p. 40). Infants are highly sensitive to their parents’ emotions, so the more upset and anxious we are, the more the infant will feel the same way and cry all the more.
Communicating with our infants from birth will help our infants and us develop a unique communication style. As we learn our infants’ cues and cries, they will learn to anticipate our responses to them. The more this happens, the more accurate their cues and cries will become as they learn to depend on us. Even when we are having a hard time figuring out what they need, speaking to them can help us eventually figure it out. As Gerber (2002) states:
“Remember, crying is a baby’s language—it is a way to express pain, anger, and sadness. Acknowledge the emotions your baby is expressing. Let him know he has communicated. For example, you might tell him, ‘I see you’re uncomfortable. And hearing you cry really upsets me. I want to find out what you need. Tell me. I will try to understand your cues and, in time, you will learn to give them to me.’ Or, ‘I see you are unhappy. I wish I knew what is making you unhappy.’ Then think out loud. ‘Could it be that your diaper is wet? I don’t think you are hungry, because you just ate. Maybe I’ve been holding you long enough and maybe you want to be on your back for a while.’ This is the start of lifelong, honest communication” (p. 41).
The more we talk and validate the infant, the likelier it will become easier to understand them. Sadly, many well-meaning parents will immediately offer the infant the breast or bottle when the infant begins crying. While it is usually true for young infants that they are hungry, and if that is the case, then please nurse them. But there are other cues a hungry baby will give even before crying such as rooting and searching for the breast. Infants should be fed when they are giving these cues to you. If they have to really cry before they are fed, this means they are very hungry. But if young infants are not acting hungry, do not pop the breast into the infant’s mouth. This may quiet the infant temporarily, but we are missing the actual need. And we do not want to condition the infant to accept food if that is not his or her need. The infant may be wet, or need to be adjusted more comfortably in the sling, or something may be pinching him or her, or he or she may want a toy, or to be held differently, or put down, or to see something again that looked interesting and wants to look at it again. Infants have so many different needs that must be met. And infants also have a right to cry and feel how they feel. “It will take your baby some time to function more smoothly, to relax, to anticipate and respond to your care. Do not just try to stop the crying. Respect the child’s right to express his feelings, or moods…Try to find and eliminate discomfort” (Gerber, 2002, p. 41). The same notion applies to the use of pacifiers. Newborns should not be given a pacifier if the mother is trying to breastfeed as this could cause nipple confusion. Nipple confusion makes latching onto the breast difficult for the newborn. Sadly, I have seen parents shove a pacifier into a crying infant’s mouth and hold it there as the infant cries harder and struggles. This is not sensitive or respectful at all. This teaches infants that their parents do not care why they are crying, and are willing to do just about anything to get the child to “shut up.” “The pacifier is a plug. It does stop a child from crying, but the question is, does an infant have a right to cry? Should an infant be allowed to express her feelings and communicate them? Plugging her mouth gives the message, ‘Don’t do what comes naturally. Do what pleases me, your parent. I am in control of how you should feel and how you should show your feelings’” (Gerber, 2002, p. 50-51). This is not a healthy message to send to infants!
Now, there may be times when an infant needs to suck on something to soothe themselves, a pacifier or teething ring may be offered to the child as he or she gets older, but allow the child to choose whether or not to use it. Many parents discourage thumb sucking because they are afraid their children will take too long to outgrow it. Yes, some children will suck their thumbs as older children, but the majority of children will wean themselves off sucking their thumbs just as they wean themselves off of the breast. The thumb is a natural self-soother. Even babies in utero suck their thumbs, and therefore, should be allowed to do so after they are born. This is completely natural. Just as at times only the breast will suffice. The important thing is for us to allow our children to have their needs met, and for us to help them and validate them. “The thumb belongs to the infant. She has to discover it and learn how to use it as part of her own body. It is always available. It doesn’t fall on the floor and get dirty or get lost when needed. The infant can put it in her mouth and pull it out according to her own needs and desires. In the process, she learns how to soothe herself and how to become self-reliant. When there are no misgivings about it, she will use it when and for as long as she really needs it” (Gerber, 2002, p. 50). Help your child co-regulate by validating him or her and providing for his or her needs.
After all, this is what God does with us. He validates our feelings and our hearts. For example, in Matthew 9:2, Jesus first tells the paralytic to “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” See, being disabled in New Testament times was quite a hardship emotionally as well as physically because people treated people with disabilities as beggars. They were outcasts. Some even believed that they were disabled due to sin, which, John 9 shows that that isn’t the case. Jesus is more concerned with our hearts than our physical beings.
“Jesus was validating the paralytic’s heart! He called him ‘son.’ To me this is almost like when I called a young girl I was ministering to last week, ‘Sweetheart.’ It was tender.. It was non-religious. It was validating…Jesus was more concerned with validating the paralytic’s heart than he was with healing him physically. He was healing him emotionally. Think of how much pain and discouragement the paralytic must have had throughout the years! Think of the judgment and condemnation he had endured from the religious crowd who said he was paralyzed because of sin” (Lawrence, 2012, http://sermonseedbed.com/the-grace-that-validates-devotional/).
We see another example of Jesus validating someone’s feelings and heart in Luke 8:48 where He comforted and reassured the woman that had been bleeding for twelve years after she touched His cloak and was healed. Again, Jesus knew how much she had suffered emotionally due to her condition because, under Jewish Law, women who had their periods or were bleeding for any other reason were considered “unclean.” They were shunned just like people with disabilities. Yet, Jesus comforted her once she came forward and admitted that it was her that had touched His cloak.
“Jesus again said, ‘Cheer up, daughter.’ Why would Jesus say, ‘Cheer up’ to a woman whom had just gotten healed after 12 years of sickness? I wonder if somehow he was as concerned about her ‘heart’ as he was her ‘body.’ And again, look at how he spoke to her, ‘Daughter.’ It was endearing, tender, compassionate. I am so grieved as I think of how parts of the ‘Church’ have used God’s Word to hurt God’s children. We have told them that if they have enough faith they can be healed – so the implication is that if you are not healed, it is your fault. We have told them that others can have enough faith for them to be healed, which implies their lack of healing is our fault. Must make God want to curse! Okay, not really, don’t throw anything at me. It must make God very angry! How about that?” (Lawrence, 2012, http://sermonseedbed.com/the-grace-that-validates-devotional/).
Due to the fact that Jesus was 100% human just as He was 100% God, He has experienced every human emotion there is. Our God is able to fully relate to us in our emotions. And He validates and comforts us if we ask Him. God is not against us having negative emotions, He just doesn’t want us to use those negative emotions to sin against Him or to have them be our main focus. He also does not want us to punish our children for having negative emotions. “The 100% humanness of Jesus causes people to connect their hearts with God’s. The misunderstanding of his 100% Godness keeps people away. They wouldn’t stay away if they could see God’s heart, but our fears of God in His holiness and power cause us to stay at arm’s length. But when we see Jesus in his 100% humanness and 100% Godness, it makes a bridge in our hearts to cross over from our hearts to God’s” (Lawrence, 2012, http://sermonseedbed.com/the-grace-that-validates-devotional/).
And look at what Isaiah 40:1 states, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” I love how God comforts and validates us when we need him to do so. As infants get older and begin to get angry or frustrated when their bodies won’t yet allow them to do what they want or when we set simple limits for them, we need to keep in mind how God validates us when we get upset. Allowing some frustration in older infants is important so that they learn how to appropriately cope with frustration. It also helps drive them to meet developmental milestones such as crawling or walking. I am a big proponent of allowing infants to develop unassisted without us manipulating their bodies to do things that the infant is not ready to do. God created infants to develop naturally. And research shows that infants that are allowed to develop naturally have more graceful movements and are more competent human beings. “When development unfolds naturally without adult intervention, physical security increases and skill development is remarkable” (Gonzales-Mena, 2004, p. 3). However, too much frustration can cause the opposite effect in children. It is important for us to observe our infants in order to see when they are getting too frustrated so that we can step in and help. An out-right angry cry usually indicates that the infant has had enough. Sometimes infants will start crying before they have reached their limit but a simple word of encouragement will help them to continue trying. But if the word of encouragement does not help, then it is time to step in an offer the minimal amount of assistance necessary to help them achieve their goal. For example, if the infant is playing with a ball and the ball rolls out of his or her reach, first, let him or her try to retrieve it. If the infant cannot get the ball, then say, for example, “I see you’re frustrated because you can’t reach the ball. I will get it for you.” Then put the ball within the child’s reach. This validates the child’s frustration.
This is also important to do when the infant doesn’t want to do something that the daily care routine requires, or a limit has been set. I’ll give an example of my own. I worked with a high-needs infant that screamed whenever she was angry. One day she was playing outside. She was between 10- and 12-months-old at the time. While she was playing outside, she needed to come in and have her diaper changed. She was respectfully told that it was time to come in and have her diaper changed, and then she could come back outside afterwards. Well, this did not make her happy and she began to scream her head off. When she came in, I began to calmly talk to her. I did not get angry and scold her. I also did not just say, “You’re ok.” Instead I said, “I know you’re angry because I have to change your diaper. I need your help with changing your diaper and then you may go back outside.” She did not immediately stop crying, and I didn’t expect her to either. But I validated her feelings and told her what had to happen as well as what I expected from her. I remained calm but firm with her. After a few minutes, she did start to help me. I made it as fun as possible and she calmed down. Before we both knew it, she was changed and was back outside playing. Even if she would have fought me, I would have still validated her feelings, set limits, and completed the diaper change. I also would have given a meaningful consequence such as having her help me clean up diapers that she threw if that had happened. But I would not have punished her in any way.
When setting limits (which I will describe in-depth in the next post), such as “cups are for drinking only,” infants and toddlers will get angry when we enforce the limit by taking away the cup after the 3rd time they’ve thrown the cup. This usually means they are finished anyway. Still, it is important to say, for example, “You’re angry because I won’t let you throw your cup. Let me put you down and you can throw the ball (or whatever is appropriate for your child to throw).” Many times children will comply easier if we will validate their feelings. Dr. Kay Kuzma (2006) provides an excellent example of this:
“It was a busy time at the Wilsons’ family reunion as preparations were being made for a picnic. Four-year-old Jacob was running through Grandma’s kitchen with his cousin, David, when he bumped into the table. The watermelon crashed to the floor. It split open and made a mess. Mom, realizing it was an accident, calmly asked Jacob to help her clean it up. ‘No,’ he shouted he ran out the back door, ‘you can’t make me.’ There were dozens of relatives milling around, and immediately two older cousins bent down and started cleaning up the mess. It would have been easy to just let Jacob go. But Mom was too smart for that. She said, ‘Leave a couple pieces on the floor so Jacob can help. I’ll be back with him shortly.’ Mom casually walked outside, visited with some grown-ups, and then found Jacob kicking a ball with his cousins. She watched their play for a few minutes. She even kicked a ball back to the group when it came toward her. She didn’t push immediately to right the wrong. She knew Jacob needed time to calm down. Then she spoke to the cousins. ‘Would you please excuse Jacob for a minute? As soon as we’ve finished, Jacob will come back out to play.’ It was Jacob’s turn to be surprised. His defenses were down. Mom further disarmed him by showing she was on his side by quietly saying to him, ‘I know you didn’t mean to knock the watermelon off the table.’ She reached into his heart for the emotion that caused his behavior. ‘You were embarrassed that your mistake made such a big mess, weren’t you? Then in front of the relatives when I asked you to clean it up, it made you angry that I would embarrass you even more. All you wanted to do was get out of there. But, Jacob, it’s always important to do the right thing, no matter how we feel. So let’s go back and help pick up that watermelon. It makes Jesus happy when you do the right thing.’ After talking for a few minutes, Jacob relaxed. He felt sorry for what he had done. Jacob admitted that running through the kitchen was not a smart thing to do. To right the wrong, he agreed to apologize to Grandma and then help pick up whatever was left. Together, they walked back to the kitchen. Mom could have acted quickly. In two minutes, she could have collared Jacob and marched him back into the house to make things right. But she didn’t. Instead, she listened to his emotions and recognized his hurt. When he felt understood, he willingly obeyed her request. Here’s the lesson for parents: Guard your child’s feelings of personal value. If Jacob had been pushed in front of an audience to apologize when he was embarrassed, he would have resisted. By waiting until negative feelings cooled, Jacob had a chance to make things right himself and save face” (p. 359-360).
I really like the above story because many parents would have taken Jacob’s response as defiance, and would have forced him to apologize right away and help clean up. Some parents would have physically punished him as well or punished him by making him go sit by himself. All of this would have made him feel even worse and would have bred resentment and anger in his heart. We always want to help children save face. We need to look beyond the behavior to the emotion that may be causing it. If children feel right, then they will act right. Sadly, many parents seem to be more concerned about their children’s behavior rather than the feelings behind the behavior.
I would like to re-visit teaching children manners because this is an area in which many parents embarrass their children by forcing them to say, “I’m sorry” to another person. I have had a great deal of parents force their young children to apologize to me. It actually makes me more upset when parents do this than what their children did because their children were just being typical young children. I didn’t want or need an apology, and I could see how embarrassed the child was as he or she would look down and quietly say it as I would anxiously pray that the parent wouldn’t make the child say it louder. Then I always say, “I forgive you,” to the child to help everyone move on. As I said in Part 1 of this series, there’s nothing wrong with gently teaching young children manners by constantly modeling politeness. But when we force young children to be polite, it makes them feel embarrassed and a sense of shame. “But many children squirm and look downward as they utter their politeness, probably because when you are pressured to be polite, it also can stimulate a sense of shame that you didn’t come to it on your own. And shame is not fun for a child, or an adult, for that matter” (Bialik, 2012, p. 156). Dr. Bialik has also had the experience of a parent forcing her child to apologize to Dr. Bialik. Dr. Bialik (2012) states:
“I was once at the park with my sons, and a three-year-old boy whom we did not know was using one of our sand toys, a small plastic block shaped like a castle. (One of my rules for our boys is that whatever we take to the park is for all the kids there to play with; if it’s too special to let others play with it, leave it at home!) When it was time for this boy to go home, his mother reminded him to give back the castle, which he did by tossing it at me from a good three feet away. It landed gently at my feet and I giggled at his obedience and sweet lack of finesse that only a three-year-old can demonstrate, while inwardly noting that his mother probably didn’t have that method of delivery in mind. I was right, she looked very disappointed and said to him sternly, ‘Say you’re sorry.’ He mumbled a lackluster ‘Sorry’ as I tried to open my mouth to say, ‘It’s okay!’ She didn’t think he said it loud enough, so she told him to say it again and to speak louder. This made the situation even more awkward because: 1) I had heard him the first time, and 2) I did not need an apology! If he had deliberately tried to hurt me with malicious intent, I could see having a meaningful exchange about the value of empathy, but this was not the case. This was a plastic castle being returned as she had asked, just not as politely as she desired” (p. 155-156).
Since young children are just learning how to be polite, it is always better not to embarrass them by forcing them to say things they don’t completely understand. Instead, say it on behalf of them and soon they will follow suit. This will also help to say these phrases when they truly mean them.
Finally, when validating children’s feelings, it is important to do so when children have accidents and falls instead of rushing over and saying, “You’re okay.” The child may seem “okay” to us, but if he or she is crying, obviously, he or she does not feel okay. Instead, ask the child if he or she is okay. Allow the child to tell you how he or she is feeling even if the fall just frightened him or her. If the child was just frightened by the accident, then say, for example, “It scared you when you tripped. Do you need a hug?” If the child is hurt, then say, for example, “It must have hurt when you fell. Are you okay? I will get you a Band-aid (or) an ice pack to help you feel better.” Do whatever your child needs you to do to help him or her feel better. Do your best to remain as calm as possible as over-reacting can make children unnecessarily upset. Comforting boys and girls appropriately does not create wimpy children. Boys and girls have the same right to cry. As Dr. Bialik (2012) states:
“Shushing in order to stop a child from crying, and phrases like ‘You’re okay,’ ‘Stop crying,’ ‘Big boys/girls don’t cry,’ and ‘There’s nothing to cry about’ send a message that getting hurt and expressing your pain makes people uncomfortable. Sure, we objectively may think or even know that they are okay, but a child who falls or gets hurt is sometimes scared and startled, and she is, in her opinion, not okay! Crying or wanting to be held and cuddled is appropriate for both sexes. Boys and girls alike should be encouraged to express pain and discomfort without us telling them how to feel or react; it won’t make them weak or ‘sissies.’ Don’t we want our children to understand and care for others? Let’s start with letting them express their hurt without judgment or unnecessary redirection” (p. 144).
Another great response to a child that has fallen is to simply ask, “Hurt? Scared? Both?” A toddler can easily answer this. Small children have big feelings. Many times toddlers do not know how to handle these big feelings and will have temper tantrums because they feel out of control. In the next section of this piece, we will discuss how to help our children get through these meltdowns.
Small Children, Big Feelings! Dealing with Meltdowns.
Toddlerhood is full of intense emotions and transitions over which they have no control. They are discovering their independence, while at the same time, still requiring much dependence on their parents. Striking a balance between dependence and independence can be difficult for them. Plus, they still lack the vocabulary to tell us how they feel or what they want. On top of all of this, as they can finally walk, climb, and run in order to explore their world more fully, there are limits added that weren’t there before, and sometimes, they may not always get what they want. Yes, toddlerhood is not an easy time for toddlers. Developmentally, they cannot control their impulses. They test everything out of curiosity, not maliciousness. And they are egocentric, which, as I pointed out in “The Effects of Spanking,” is completely normal for this age. Yes, they are sinners, but they do not mean to be. “Sometimes toddlers completely lose control. This kind of behavior is often called a tantrum. There are lots of possible reasons: over-tiredness, too much excitement; being rushed when we’re in a hurry; frustration over wanting to do more than they really can” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 71).
Sadly, on top of all I have just described that toddlers are going through, this is the age that they get spanked the most. They get punished for having big, negative emotions as they try to figure everything out. As we all know, this is the age for temper tantrums. I prefer to call them “meltdowns” as I believe “meltdown” is a more accurate description of what is happening. Guess what! Adults have meltdowns too! God does not punish us when we have meltdowns, therefore, we should not punish our children for having meltdowns either. Sometimes we may be able to prevent our children from having full-blown meltdown by validating their feelings, and giving them appropriate ways of releasing negative emotions such as punching a pillow or biting a teething ring. “Children need rules for behavior, but their emotional responses to the limits we set (or to anything else for that matter) should be allowed, even encouraged. Toddlerhood can be a time of intense, conflicting feelings. Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit. A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment. He may need a pillow to punch — give him one” (Lansbury, 2010, http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/04/no-bad-kids-toddler-discipline-without-shame-9-guidelines/). Allowing simple choices such as what color cup they’d like or if they’d like to hop, skip, or walk to the bathroom can also help prevent meltdowns as they feel like they have more control over the situation. It is also important to tell toddlers what is expected of them. For example, if we are going to the grocery store, we need to tell our toddler what we will and will not be buying at the store. This will help them not to be so disappointed when we remind them that candy wasn’t on the list when we are at the store. A well-fed, well-rested, and well-loved toddler is less likely to have a meltdown. But despite everything that we may do in order to prevent toddlers from having meltdowns, there are always going to be times in which a limit has been set or a “no” has been given to something the toddler really wants and the toddler is going to get very upset and have a meltdown. As upsetting and tiring it is for us, this is a normal stage of child development for young children, and is just as upsetting and tiring for them.
When a toddler is having a meltdown, it is important for us to remain as calm as possible, and help the child get through the meltdown. Do not scold or punish the child as this will make the child even more upset, and in the long run, keep meltdowns going because negative attention is better than no attention. And, as we saw in “The Effects of Spanking,” angry and resentful children tend to act out more. “A parent screaming at a screaming child will only make matters worse” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 74). Of course, it is just as important not to give in to the child having the meltdown. “It can be tempting to give in to whatever the child wants, just to avoid a scene. Although we’ve all done this, it’s a big mistake in the long run. If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 72). Our job as parents is to allow the child to safely have the meltdown and try to help the child get through the meltdown. As Sears and Sears (1997) states:
“Our job as parents is to take a young toddler from the stage of being at the complete mercy of his emotions to a time, later in childhood, when he can manage his anger. Being angry is not the problem—Jesus had anger. So many adults never learn to control anger, so when we see it in our children it can trigger anger in us, make us very anxious and unable to help our child. The goal of Christian parents is in Ephesians 4:26, ‘In your anger, do not sin.’ Remember, the goal is to help your toddler get through a tantrum” (p. 350).
To help our toddlers get through meltdowns, whether we are home or in public, it is essential that we remain calm. This can be difficult, especially when a crowd is staring at us in a store. If you feel that you and your toddler can get through the meltdown in the store, then ignore the stares and rude comments and focus on helping your child get through the meltdown. If it helps your child to go out to the car to get through a meltdown, then go out to the car. We need to do whatever it takes to allow the meltdown to pass. During meltdowns, speak calmly and quietly to the child. Say, for example, “You’re very upset right now. I will remain close by until you calm down. After you calm down, it will be lunch time.” Some children need to be held during meltdowns; others need space. Respect these needs. However, do not allow the toddler to hurt his/herself, others, or materials during the meltdown. Say, for example, “I won’t let you hit.” But, try not to say too much during the meltdown as it may agitate them even more. “In this situation, we can give the toddler space to kick and cry, while making it clear that we won’t let anybody get hurt. ‘You can lie on the pillows and kick, but I won’t let you kick me.’ And we can let the child know what will happen when the upset behavior is stopped. ‘When you’re finished screaming, we’ll get some dry pants and you can go play’” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 72).
A professor of mine loved to tell the story of a teenage girl that would babysit a toddler. One day the teen took the toddler to the park. When it was time for them to go home so that they could eat lunch, the toddler had a meltdown because she didn’t want to go home. The teen remained calm and simply told the toddler that as soon as she finished having her fit that they would go home and have lunch. The toddler calmed down and they went home and ate lunch.
Another example of a parent remaining calm during a meltdown was when my professor took her 4-year-old daughter to the mall and her daughter wanted my professor to buy her a toy. My professor told her daughter no. Of course, her daughter got upset and said, “If you don’t buy me that toy, I’ll scream!” My professor calmly said, “Well, I’m still not going to buy you the toy.” So, her daughter began screaming. My professor ignored her and kept going about her business. Seeing that screaming was getting her absolutely nowhere, the 4-year-old soon stopped screaming and never pulled that stunt again. As I said, even negative attention will often keep meltdowns going in the long run. Being firm but gentle will help children outgrow having constant meltdowns as we teach them more appropriate ways of dealing with and expressing emotions. “Young children grow out of becoming so upset that they lose control of their bodies. As they get older, they learn to use words to express feelings. They become able to do more for themselves and to find choices that work for them” (Van der Zande, 2011, p. 74). We must being willing to allow our children to show us their big negative feelings without us judging them. “Global critical comments create anxiety because they make the child believe he or she is intrinsically bad. ‘You are bad’; ‘Dummy’; ‘You are so stubborn;’ ‘You never listen’ are common examples” (Lieberman, 1993, p. 139).
At the end of a meltdown, it is okay to talk to the child about more appropriate ways of dealing with their anger. If they made a mess during the meltdown, have them help you clean it up. This should not be a punishment. Make it fun. Also, right after the meltdown, pray with your toddler to help them feel God’s peace within them. “You can end the scene on a spiritual note, with an offer to pray with your child. Our little ones welcome prayers as a way to regroup, as though sensing God’s blessing and forgiveness—a sense of having a fresh start” (Sears & Sears, 1997, p. 351). I also recommend singing a favorite Christian song after the meltdown. Children must learn that God loves them no matter what, and we do too!
Time-IN Not Out!
Many parents use “Time-Out” to punish their children, especially parents that do not want to spank, but feel that they must punish or “discipline” their children somehow. While I would much rather have parents that are bent on punishment use Time-Out over spanking, Time-Out is still harmful to young children when it is used as punishment. As with spanking, Time-Out is most often used with very young children. The youngest child that I have witnessed with whom a Time-Out being used was 18 months old. Like being slapped, 18-month-olds do not understand why they are being forced to sit alone for one minute. And like spanking, it very temporarily stopped the behavior, which means multiple Time-Outs for toddlers that lack impulse control. This is not good and sends the wrong message to children.
Time-Outs require that children sit alone, sometimes facing the wall, quietly for the amount of minutes corresponding with their age. For example, if the child is one, they sit for one minute; for a 2-year-old, it’s two minutes; for a 3-year-old, it’s three minutes, and so on. What’s even worse is if the child gets up, talks, or even cries during the Time-Out, then their time starts completely over until he or she “successfully” completes the Time-Out. This can mean a five-minute or more Time-Out for a toddler that cannot full fill the requirements of a Time-Out. As with physical punishment, I’m afraid that whomever came up with the Time-Out and its associated rules did not understand child development, nor they understand our loving God. Christ never banished anyone. So why should we banish our children when we can’t deal with their behaviors? Young children cannot sit still and quietly with nothing to do for very long. And they are not sitting there pondering why what they did was wrong. Time-Outs are totally developmentally inappropriate for young children, and sets them up for failure. As Dr. Bialik (2012) states:
“However, this teaches the child nothing about why the behavior was unwelcome, nor does it give motivation to internalize why to stop. Now, I know that parents do tend to tell children why they are being put in a time-out, and I also know that ‘You’re going to get a time-out!’ is heard as often at our local park as ‘Mommy, I need to pee.’ But the use of a threat of being alone and crying is not the motivation we want for our children to behave well, or to follow the rules and expectations we have of them. We want them to behave in a certain way because it feels right, makes sense to them, and makes for positive interactions with everyone around them” (p. 182-183).
As with spanking, Time-outs teach children that they are “bad” and deserve to be in isolation. Being in isolation is very scary and difficult for young children that desperately need our support and guidance.
“You confirm what she suspected – she is a bad person. Not only does this lower self esteem, it creates bad behavior, because people who feel bad about themselves behave badly. As Otto Weininger, Ph.D. author of Time-In Parenting says: ‘Sending children away to get control of their anger perpetuates the feeling of ‘badness’ inside them…Chances are they were already feeling not very good about themselves before the outburst and the isolation just serves to confirm in their own minds that they were right.’”(Markham, 2012, http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts).
Another thing Time-Out does is to set up an adversarial parent-child relationship. As with physical punishment, the goal of a Time-out is to teach the child who’s boss. “They set up a relationship that pits you and your authority against the child. It’s true that as long as the parent is bigger than the child, the parent wins this power struggle, but no one ever really wins in a parent-child power struggle. The child loses face and has plenty of time to sit around fantasizing revenge. (Did you really think she was resolving to be a better kid?)” (Markham, 2012, http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts). I also believe that using any type of punishment with our children not only erodes their empathy, but also our empathy for them. I find it very difficult to listen to a crying child and not offer any comfort to that child. Dr. Bialik (2012) has had this same experience as she states:
“I can often identify a child who is having a time-out first by the sound of screaming. When I identify the locus of the screaming, I typically have observed a child in a chair in the corner of a restaurant or at the park or in a car seat, alone and sobbing and usually facing a wall. The parent is often close by, looking appropriately concerned and often murmuring reminders that this is because the child did so-and-so, and she can come back when the time is up or when she stops crying. By this point in my observations, I often tend to start crying as well. The sight and sound of a crying child being forced to be alone in his sadness is something that really bugs me and makes me feel very bad for both the child and the parents who think this is the way to get their child to behave in a certain way. I cannot leave small children alone with emotions they don’t yet know how to handle, no matter how uncomfortable I am with the emotions it brings up for me” (p. 182).
We want to teach young children how to handle their big emotions in a healthy, helpful way. We also want to teach young children how to behave appropriately. As we have seen throughout my work, punishment most often leads our children into more sin, and does not help them internalize the lessons that we want them to learn. Dara found this out with her children as she and her husband made the change from using punishment to actually disciplining their children. On May 14, 2012, Dara conveyed the following to me in an electronic message:
“The main social event for my family of 8 kids was Tuesday and Thursday nights at the youth center playing soccer. Three of my older kids liked going, and then there were two of the younger ones; ages 8 and 6, who also liked going.
So, one Tuesday night neighbor kids were all showing up to go along as usual and my house was all abuzz with everyone getting ready to go. Something happened and my 8-year-old, Josh, got mad at his younger sister, Evelyn, and hit her.
My husband took over dealing with the situation and the way I am is that if he gets to it first I try to not ‘interfere’ so there is just one person talking to whoever is getting talked to. I figure that’s less intimidating and less confusing for the child. So, I sat nearby and was just ‘observing.’
We had just made the change that year from spanking to not spanking and I had been doing a lot of reading about punishment and it’s ineffectiveness but you can’t just read something and change one day to the next so we were ‘in process’ at this point.
As I watched the situation happening, I was watching my 8-year-old son’s eyes. Dad was talking to him about what he’d just done and why it’s wrong to hit your little sister. Then, my husband said something that changed the whole situation. He told him he was being punished, ‘And, so you’re not going along to the youth center tonight.’ It was then that all the stuff I’d been reading on paper came into focus right before me in real life.
As I watched, Josh’s eyes changed. His whole countenance changed. His posture and his movements changed. He went from looking calm and remorseful for hitting his sister and disappointing his dad to utter panic. I could see that every cell in his body was focused on one thing, ‘I am not allowed to go to the youth center!’
Now, I don’t like arguing in front of the kids about ‘discipline’ but I also don’t think that for them to see us working thru things and changing our minds together is bad so I said, ‘Dad, wait! Wait! Stop! You need to tell him that he can still go tonight because you lost him. He’s not hearing a word you are saying anymore.’ Trusting me, my husband told him he took it back and he was still allowed to go, and I kept watching Josh and I could see him change back again. As the seconds passed it was as though the stress and panic was visibly draining from him and his eyes and his countenance and his movements all returned to calm and he again focused on my husband. Then, he was hearing what my husband was saying again and told his sister he was sorry all on his own.
A lot of parents would have scolded us for ‘letting him get away with something’ by taking the punishment back after he started to react to it. They would have seen that as rebellion. But, our goal was not to ‘hurt’ our child, but for him to understand that hitting his sister was not acceptable. And, punishment is pain. The pain of the punishment, like all pain in any situation, rose to the top of my son’s focal attention. No matter how much he wanted to listen to his dad and no matter how much he agreed that hitting his sister was bad, he was distracted by the pain of the punishment and that became his sole focus. It is the nature of pain because pain is supposed to get our attention and punishment hurts, therefore, it wins. It gets the attention because it requires it. So, adding ‘pain’ to the situation when Josh hit Evelyn only served to take Josh’s mind and focus it squarely on his pain and off of what we really wanted to teach him. And, now I not only have read this on paper, I have seen this happening in my own children with my own two eyes.”
Instead of punishment, children need discipline and guidance. This is where “Time-In” can be very useful. Time-In, unlike Time-Out, is not punishment. To use Time-In with young children, set up a “comfy corner” in the most lived in room of your house. The “comfy corner” should contain soft pillows and chairs, blankets, stuffed animals, and a few favorite books. The “comfy corner” should be away from the main action of the room but not isolated in any manner. When your toddler is having a hard time with his or her feelings and complying, the “comfy corner” can allow your child (and you) to decompress. It should be a safe, welcoming place to express big feelings, while receiving comfort. Toddlers are not forced to go to their “comfy corners,” and may choose whether or not they want their parents to accompany them. While in the “comfy corner,” pillows can be punched and/or kicked and/or hugged, stuffed animals can be held tightly, books can be read, songs can be sung, and prayers can be prayed. The purpose is to calm down. Even if the child chooses to go to his/her “comfy corner” alone, the parent is still nearby and can offer support to the child. “When you realize your child is getting to that dangerous over-wrought place, suggest that the two of you take a ‘Time IN.’ This signals to your child that you understand she’s got some big emotions going on and you’re right there with her. If she’s just a bit wound-up and wants to snuggle or even read a book, fine. If she’s ready for a melt-down, you’re there to help. Just let her know you’re there and she’s safe” (Markham, 2012, http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts). If we use Time-In consistently without forcing the toddler to go to his or her “comfy corner,” the toddler may begin to ask to go there when he or she senses his or her big feelings welling up. Toddlers learn that their feelings matter to their parents and to God. This is such an important step for teaching young children self-management skills because their feelings are validated and respected, and they are given appropriate choices for dealing with their feelings.
Now, for parents, as with infants, there are times when toddlers are having a particularly tough day and are having their 5th meltdown of the day. A parent “Time-Out” is very appropriate for these types of situations so that you don’t lose it with your child. This is not punishment for either the parent or the child. All parents need a break from their children. “If you have older children, you can simply say you are having a hard time and need a moment to gather yourself. Some people add that they feel out of control and do not want to do or say something that would hurt their child, but that should be done only with a child who can comprehend this kind of discussion. You then need to either physically take a moment or hone the skill of taking a time-out in the child’s presence, using breathing techniques or some sort of mantra or short meditation” (Bialik, 2012, p. 191). Praying truly is a must during a parent “Time-out.” Allow God to fill you with His peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
For a toddler, we can simply say to them, “I need a break. I am going to the bathroom, and then I will hold you again.” If you can, leave your child with your spouse so the toddler isn’t being left alone. If this is not possible, you will have to go to the bathroom as your toddler follows you, most likely crying. Gently close your bathroom door as you reassure your toddler that you will be right out. Turn the water on in the sink and breathe deeply. Pray to God for help, strength, and peace. Pray for your child, who is right outside the door screaming, that God will fill him or her with peace. After you pray, say aloud to yourself, “My child will grow out of this.” And while you’re in the bathroom alone, take this opportunity to use the toilet. All of this should take less than five minutes, and should only be done when absolutely necessary. When you open the bathroom door, smile at your child so he or she knows this wasn’t his or her fault and that you’re now ready to help him or her again. Now, if someone is able to take over with your child, I suggest getting out of the house for a bit. Being a good parent means taking care of yourself as much as possible. Our goal is to teach our children that God is the God of comfort, and that He will comfort us in order that we may comfort each other. “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
We have seen how important it is to validate children’s feeling from birth onward. This, after all, is what God does for us. We have also seen that toddlers have big feelings that they cannot control. They need us to provide support and comfort when they are having meltdowns instead of scolding and punishment. They also need us not to give in when they are having meltdowns. Time-Ins are a wonderful way to help young children calm down when they are out of control. Finally, I need to mention how important not labeling young children is based on typical toddler and preschooler behavior. “Terrible twos” is a common label for toddlers. “Little sinners” is common among Christians. These labels are quite harmful to children and can last a lifetime. They often become self-fulfilling prophesies for a great deal of children. “What I’ve learned, from my son, my siblings, and various kids that I’ve cared for over the years is that children listen to authority figures. It may not always seem like it, but they do. Your words are imprinted on their psyche. And try as you might, a two year old is not going to grasp the doctrine of total depravity. So telling him that he has been a “bad bad boy” (actual quote I recently overheard at kiddie class) is absurd, perplexing, and psychologically detrimental. Telling a little one that they are bad won’t stem unwanted behavior. It will, however, create tiny fissures in a whole spirit. These fault lines, with added pressure, slowly come together as a child’s naturally positive self-perception–and your relationship with him—crumbles” (Rach, 2012, http://theincorrigiblegingers.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-toddler-is-not-bad.html). We need to love our children as God loves us. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1a).
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Discipline without Harm by Steph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.whynottrainachild.com.