During a recent counseling session, Monica, 40, complained about her two-year daughter Abigail, crying too much and being unsure about how to handle her. This is a common concern of parents with young children whom I meet with for counseling.
Monica put it like this, “My husband Kyle and I disagree about what to do when Abbey cries. He thinks we should let her cry it out and I don’t agree. When we do, she just seems more agitated and it escalates. When I comfort her, she calms down quickly.”
In a recent article for the website Motherly, writer Sarah R. Moore provides a roadmap for how to handle your kids when they’re crying — and crying for attention. Many parents can relate to the temper tantrums and trying behavior exhibited by their children, particularly when they’re toddlers. And to be sure, friends, family and frequent online posts about this reality are in a frenzy to give parents advice.
Many young parents find themselves frustrated and searching for solutions when confronted with their children crying, but the conventional wisdom leaves something to be desired. Moore points out that these episodes are often characterized as “attention seeking” behavior, and that too often parents are counseled to ignore these kind of outbursts. However, Moore writes that “it may help to reframe them.”
Moore observes that parents are well served to keep in mind “that if a child is wanting more attention, regardless of the form that takes, it’s because they’re craving connection with their trusted adult—attention-seeking is attachment-seeking.” This behavior is not only “completely developmentally normal,” and “not a reflection of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a child is… Rather, it’s a reflection of what behavior their brain is capable of manifesting in that moment.”
When viewed through this more holistic and empathetic prism, a child’s tantrum is more about crying out for connection than crying. Instead of ignoring tantrums, Moore offers three straightforward strategies for avoiding a parenting style that may lead to more intense and frequent tantrums.
First, Moore notes that ignoring a crying child teaches them that “our love is conditional.” Because many kids are not “capable of hearing instruction or correction when they’re acting out.” Further, she suggests that you “connect before you correct,” instead of ignoring negative behavior. Creating a calm, “emotionally grounded” environment is far more productive that turning away during a tantrum.
Next, Moore notes that when “an adult physically or emotionally ignores a child who’s struggling, the child has no model of ways to better handle whatever they’re experiencing that’s causing the negative behavior.”
The bottom line is that children need context for their behavior and to ignore an outburst is to “miss an opportunity to help our kids’ brains grow.” By modeling “emotional regulation” parents can lead by example to teach kids that there are more appropriate ways to express their feelings.
Finally, Moore recognizes that behavior is a form of communication, and that tantrums are simply the expression of a need on the part of the child. She counsels parents to be mindful of that fact that “even when we don’t like the way a child is expressing what he or she wants, the underlying need that they’re trying to convey doesn’t magically go away if we ignore it.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement and the premise behind it.
With this understanding informing parenting decisions, it’s easy to see that a resolution may be easier to achieve that we think. In summing up this strategy, Moore writes that “whatever it is, if we can find the root cause, it’s much more effective to address that than to pretend it’s not there—we risk sending the message to our child that their needs don’t matter.”
As a result of this advice from Sarah L. Moore, the next time I met with Monica and Kyle for a session, I advised that they follow the steps she advocates rather than allowing her to continue to tantrum and ignore her. Fortunately, they were able to find success with these strategies and Abigail’s tantrums lessened over time.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.