Wait a minute, you might be thinking. Why would I want to do that? I don’t want my kids to grow up to be spoiled, entitled brats! Yep, me neither. So, hear me out.
What is it about the word no that just inspires rebellion? Say it playfully and it becomes a game. Say it harshly and tantrum of epic proportions. Don’t get me wrong, setting limits and saying no is important. With two kids under three years old, I say it plenty. However, I don’t say the word no often because I want them to know that when mommy says no, she means it.
For example, let’s take a common scenario like watching cartoons. After an episode, I tell my three year old daughter no more tv. She asks to watch another episode. Since she is still within an appropriate amount of screen time for her age, I am fine with another episode. After the episode ends, tv is turned off. However, she seems to have forgotten what we talked about 10 minutes ago and begins to fuss that she wants to watch more cartoons. Soon, the request turns into a full blown tantrum.
I calmly sit next to her and verbalize her emotions. ‘Seems you are upset that the tv is off. Is that right?’ She continues to howl but nods. ‘ Well, we agreed that it was going bye bye after that one right? So you watched it already.’ She continues to whine. ‘ I hear you, doll, but no means no. I understand you are upset. It’s ok to have those feelings and to cry.’ I ask her if she wants me to give her a hug and usually she does, even while she is crying.
When she starts to calm down, I redirect attention. ‘How about we go do (insert activity).’ She may continue to cry for a few more minutes but then moves to next activity and is usually in a better mood. Emotions are not a bad thing and sometimes being able to get those feelings out (even if it is through a tantrum) can be therapeutic for the child.
The situation described above is pretty common in preschoolers and most parents experience tantrums regularly. The child tries to exert independence while experiencing big emotions. Tantrums can be quite trying on a parent and being sleep deprived or having multiple tantrums is not easy. It takes a lot of self control and calm to take a deep breath and respond in a gentle way.
When you break down a tantrum and the response, it can actually be a good learning experience for both child and parent.
In the case above we discussed a child having a tantrum about tv. Here’s the breakdown:
- Child able to talk to parent and it is a safe place to discuss her preference, which is to watch another episode
- After our agreement, the effect will happen. In this case, the tv will turn off
- The child may have real emotional response to effect and have a tantrum
- Parent will be there for the child without making me feel shame or guilt about the emotion/tantrum. Here, by verbalizing and validating emotion, getting to her level to talk it out, hug, etc.
- Having an emotional response/tantrum is ok but it will not change the outcome. Tv did not turn on after tantrum. Usually this is where parents succumb to the tantrums. Unfortunately, giving in here teaches the kid wrong lessons and does not extinguish the offending behavior.
- After the emotional response/tantrum, there is no negative consequence or judgement and we can carry on with the next activity.
As a pediatrician and mom, I find that for most children, speaking with loud harsh words, giving angry looks, walking away from them can really affect them negatively and doesn’t teach any of the lessons mentioned above to the child. It instead gives a little child the impression that if she tries to have an emotional response (tantrum) she will be rebuked, shamed, or abandoned. These are not the lessons most parents want to convey because usually the parent just wants the child to stop the offending behavior. As parents, we need to be mindful of what our actions are conveying. No need to make a tantrum into a power struggle between an immature child and a sensible adult. One can’t really reason with a small child. The child will learn self regulation of emotional responses and self control over time as the brain develops.
As parents, we can offer love, support and gentle guidance while dealing with tantrums. I have found that with this approach, tantrums may still occur as children as trying to exert their independence but the emotional responses are less intense, less frequent, and easier to work through. By setting boundaries in a gentle yet firm way with positive parenting, you can have an impact on the behavior of a child while maintaining a strong parent-child relationship.
So, why is this important?
If you are going say yes to something, say it from the beginning. Please don’t teach your child that no means maybe or try harder. There are too many recent examples where somehow that lesson has been missed, that no means something else. No means no. Let’s not contribute to the misconception that it means anything else.
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