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When They’re Hell-Bent on Misbehaving



“In contrast to their enthusiastic, loving nature, all children (like all adults) experience times when they aren’t themselves. They lose their sunny attitude, their ability to make each day a good one… They can’t listen or respond thoughtfully to the situation around them. Their behavior goes off track, and they begin to do things that don’t work, things that isolate them from other people…Every effort to guide them sends them further off track…When our children are unreasonable, they are asking for our help. They need us to set limits for them. They also need to know that we care about them. It’s our caring that puts them back on track again.” — Patty Wipfler

When your child is acting like a little demon, it’s your cue to step in. He’s signaling that he needs you to hold him — figuratively and literally.  He needs your help to work through some “messy” pent-up emotions.  He needs to reconnect with you, and with his own sense of well-being.  And he’ll keep acting out until you help him.

If you punish him for misbehaving, you’re not helping him learn to manage the emotions that are fueling his misbehavior.  Even “mild” punishments like timeouts isolate him and disconnect him from us just when he needs us most.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t set limits as necessary. In fact, a limit–set emphatically so he feels safe–may be just what he needs to trigger a release of his upset feelings. Crying in the safety of your loving presence restores your child to a state of well-being and connection. Once he feels good again, he’ll “act good” — because our kids naturally want to connect happily with the adults they love.

How do you set limits that help your child?


1. Be kind but firm: “We don’t hit….It’s time for bed…..Toys are not for throwing….It’s time to leave the playground.” Usually, you’ll need to intervene physically to enforce the limit because kids in an upset state can’t control themselves. Your child needs to know it’s a firm limit.  If she senses you waffling, she’ll keep fighting to change the limit rather than grieving and moving on.

2. Empathize: “I know that makes you sad and mad…..You wish you could have the candy now….You don’t want to stop playing.” Feeling understood defuses the angry energy and puts your child in touch with the more threatening feelings that always hide behind anger — sadness, hurt, fear, disappointment, powerlessness. If you set the limit harshly, your child stays in anger and can’t get to those underlying feelings he needs to discharge.

3. If your child begins to rage or cry, stay close. You’ve given your child a tremendous gift:  access to the feelings that were making him act out. You may think he’s over-reacting, but who knows what hurts he has stored up that he needs to get off his chest? It’s your loving, attentive presence that allows him to feel all these scary feelings and let them go. Hold him if you can, but if he struggles, just stay close. Be his witness.

Reassure him that it’s ok: “I love you…I see how sad and mad you are…so much hurting…it’s ok to feel mad and sad…everybody feels upset sometimes….it’s good to get all your angries and sads out…I’m right here….I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings….Cry as much as you need to….When you’re ready, I will hold you.”

4. Reconnect. After kids have a meltdown, they’re ready to reconnect with you. Don’t insist they talk about their emotions.  They probably don’t know why they were so upset, and feeling analyzed will make them feel less safe about trusting you with their inner lives.  Just scoop them up, hug them, reassure them that everyone needs to cry sometimes and that you love them no matter what.

Should you always set limits?  No. First be sure that what you’re asking is age-appropriate.  You can’t ask a two year old to sit quietly in a restaurant in the name of setting limits.  Second, be sure you’re not creating the situation with your own impatience. Kids are acutely sensitive to disconnections from us and always respond by acting out; in those cases a big hug will restore everyone’s sanity. Third, offer help.  Sometimes your child can pull himself together if you just offer assistance with whatever’s frustrating him.

But if he seems hellbent on trouble, he’s asking for your help. Give him the heaven of your loving attention, and you’ll get your little angel back.

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