“Tell Me With Words”– Too Tall an Order for a Toddler?

Can Tadpoles Leap?

Some very well educated, young parents are currently embracing the technique of instructing their toddlers (children under the age of 6) to express with words what they are feeling in the midst of an emotional outburst. At face value, this may seem like a helpful attempt by the parent to teach the child how to identify and manage upset emotions. Let’s look closer to see just how helpful this parental requirement to “…tell me with words,” may actually be.

Picture a pond with tadpoles swimming near the surface of the water. Would you ever expect any of those tadpoles to suddenly leap out of the water?  Obviously, that would be impossible; after all, those little guys have tails for swimming, not little legs for leaping. Yet, we know with absolute certainty that one day those tadpoles will, in fact, develop into little frogs with legs and they will most definitely leap! So, it’s really about development and the time needed for any creature to fully mature and develop naturally. So, what’s this got to do with saying to a screaming 4 year old, “Tell me what you’re feeling with words”?

Allow me to back-peddle for a moment and talk about my own experience with respect to using words to describe what I’m feeling when I’m upset. Recently, I went to visit one of my best friends at her office. I didn’t know the way and asked for directions, which turned out to be sketchy and didn’t warn me of the dangers at a confusing roundabout. Closely following her instructions, I was almost blind sighted by another car. In a split second, I avoided an accident but my heart was racing wildly and my legs were shaking as the situation worsened with mass confusion over the valet parking etiquette at her place of work. By the time she greeted me in her lobby, we were both ready for battle. She was feeling blamed and attacked by me; I was feeling angry, neglected and hurt by what I considered recklessly careless driving instructions.

For the first time in our friendship, we were trapped in a classic blame/defend dead-heat. All I wanted from her was empathy—for her to understand how the near-accident freaked me out and why it did—but she couldn’t or chose not to give me empathy; she was entrenched in defending her traffic instructions as entirely appropriate. I was experiencing an amygdala hijack that was controlling my brain and my body. Clearly identifying my feelings and putting them into words was the last thing I could possibly have done in the momentI was too preoccupied being out-of-control.

Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain whose job is to keep us safe from perceived mental or physical threats.  When it kicks into action, it triggers the release of hormones and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Once the amygdala is running the show, our thinking brain gets less oxygen and we react without thinking.  The experience of the hijack requires time and skill before we are able to recover from it and return to our reflective, thinking brain to analyze the sequence of events leading up to the hijack. That day, it took me several hours of focused attention and reflection to sort out why I got so triggered with feelings of anger, frustration and hurt.

So, I ask you: if someone like myself who has been studying the brain and emotions for over forty years can sometimes find it impossible in the heat of an emotional upset to “tell with words” what I am feeling—how is a toddler of 3 or 4 years old going to be able to do it?

You know the answer.

Rather than instruct the toddler to “tell me with words,” what he/she is feeling, the parent can instead, observe what emotion the child is experiencing and then state that observation to the child in a soothing, caring voice as follows:

“I see that you are looking really________.” The parent can fill in the blank with whatever emotion is observed (angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, afraid, etc.) If the parent has had some training and practice in speaking and listening with empathy, they can continue with follow up such as:

“I know how ______ it can feel when ______________ happens.”

“I bet you wish the baby wouldn’t grab your things and break them; I would be _____ too if that happened to me.”

“However, no matter how angry you are at the baby for breaking your things, hitting is never allowed.”

When a child, (or anyone, for that matter) encounters this kind of empathic response, the result is that they begin to calm down because they feel heard and understood and because they are being given the right to feel their feeling (whatever it is) rather than being forced to not feel it.

Toddlers will gradually learn the names of their emotions by receiving clear and informative, neutral assistance/feedback from their caregivers who name their feelings and report them objectively to the child with a kind and tender voice/tone. While they are in the midst of an amygdala hijack, it’s impossible for them to suddenly pause, reflect, and say, “I’m angry because the baby grabbed my my new crayon and broke it!” To expect the toddler to be able to do that is akin to expecting the tadpole to leap.  Recognizing and naming our emotions is an emotional intelligence skill that takes time and practice over the first twenty or more years of life until the brain is fully mature enough to master it.   However, toddlers can learn to slowly develop the necessary vocabulary that identifies and defines their feelings and over time, along with patience from their parents, and repetition, they will ultimately be able to “tell with words,” what they are feeling.

Will they be able to do this while the amygdala hijack is occurring?

Ask yourself; could you?

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What’s Wrong with Saying “Calm Down,” to a Child Who is Upset, Frightened, or Angry?

For the most part, parents generally have good intentions for dealing effectively and appropriately with their child’s upset feelings; yet, the words they say, the tone of voice they use to say these words and the expression on their face often produces the opposite results they seek.  Their children become even more upset rather than calmer.  Let’s look at why “the meltdown” frequently occurs with children younger than 8 years old when parents tell or command them to “Calm down!”

When children cry or act out in any way because they are afraid, confused, hurt, angry or feel an unpleasant emotion that they are too young to analyze and understand–they want and need their parents’ attention and they want it NOW!  The more they need their parent to assist them–the louder and harder they will cry; they want the problem to get fixed and they need mommy or daddy to fix it.  In desperate need of help–they cry and/or physically cling to the parent. This is normal and healthy; babies and young children crave connection with their caregivers in a time of strong emotion and genuine need; it is an intrinsic survival behavior.

So, what happens when the parent says, “Calm down” either in a gentle or not-so-gentle voice? The child’s brain, which is already experiencing an amygdala hijack, becomes more desperate to get the adult’s attention because her/his need for assistance and desperate plea for comfort and aid is being ignored and/or rejected!  The reactive/impulsive part of the brain (amygdala) triggers the chemicals that cause the child to scream louder or cling harder to get help; this is simply how the human brain functions.  The parent mistakenly assumes the child is having a “tantrum” or a “meltdown” and responds by further withholding that which the child needs the most in that crucial moment: empathy, connection and understanding.  As the scenario develops, the more upset and demanding the child becomes, the more withholding and distant the parent responds by continually commanding or imploring the child to “Calm down.” The child screams louder and more frantically.  This continues as parent and child disconnect further. The child, who has less power, ultimately wears down physically and emotionally.  Red-faced and exhausted from the trauma of crying, the defeated child finally appears calm–almost as if in a stupor. At this point, the parent approaches the child, possibly with affection, and assumes the child has learned that comforting comes only after the child has obeyed by “calming down.”

But, in truth, what has this child really learned?

Let’s explore this.  Something happens to hurt or frighten the child; the amygdala in the child’s brain takes over and the child cries for help.  Rather than help, the parent instructs the child to calm down first before help will be administered.  The child physically can not obey this command because the brain already released the toxic chemical cortisol, that is driving the hysterical crying. The child wants to please the parent and calm down but is not capable of doing so.  The scene then plays itself out as described above but this is not an isolated incident that happens once in this child’s life.  The requirement from the parent to “Calm down,” when the child is physically and emotionally unable to do so, is one that happens repeatedly–maybe daily, weekly or monthly until the child gets it.

And what exactly does the child get?

In the example above, when the child finally appeared calm, what actually happened was that the child surrendered to the hopelessness that Mommy/Daddy would empathize, understand and respond to the genuine need for help. Intuitively, energetically, the child also gets that Mommy/Daddy doesn’t want me to show my feelings, doesn’t want me to feel my feelings, doesn’t want me to have feelings.  And perhaps the most psychologically damaging message the child gets is that Mommy/Daddy will only listen to me, pay attention to me, or help me if I am subdued, passive–or in their words–“calm.”  And to take it one step further, the child learns that Mommy/Daddy only gives me love when I act the way they want me to act. If I don’t, they will withhold their love from me and since I’m afraid to live without their love, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win it–even if it means pretending I don’t have feelings–even if it means learning how to not feel!

Is this really what we want our children to learn–that we will only give them love if they suppress their authentic emotions?

There is another way to interact; it’s based on empathy–the intrinsic capacity of our brains to connect with others; empathy engenders understanding and compassion.

Empathy Warriors teaches how to listen, speak and act with empathy.  Learn more; private message me or buy my book and start your own Empathy Warriors Support Group with your peers to learn and practice these new behaviors.  I am available to support you in your efforts; it’s my gift to you.