My Cup Runneth Over

by Heligirl on March 7, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Tantrums are often the result of a culmination of hurts that finally run over.

Have you ever had one of those days when the seemly smallest little thing suddenly turns your little cherub into passionate flailing, boneless, and red-faced inconsolable terror? There’s an explanation that really makes handling these episodes much easier, if only from an understanding perspective.

Pam Leo in her book Connection Parenting talks about tantrums in such a clear and concise way that it’s hard to misunderstand how some of these little (or in my case, hurricane force) storms seem to come without much warning.

Think of the child having a cup to store all of the day’s emotional hurts, Leo says. Every time the child feels hurt, another drop goes into the cup.  Then, that last drop, no matter how small, runs the cup over and the child needs to have emotional release of all the hurts. It’s important to understand they MUST have that release, otherwise these hurts are stored up and remain unhealed. Helping them to learn to safely express and then heal from emotional hurts is a big part of our job as parents and goes a long way toward helping build strong self esteem.

Sweetness, for instance, could be let down that she didn’t get the cereal she wanted for breakfast because we were out, then had to endure her brother playing with her car until he was finished, had to wear a hat outside even though she didn’t want to, wasn’t allowed to watch TV when she asked (even though she knew she wouldn’t), and wanted to go to the playground, but couldn’t because it was pouring outside. Then when Mommy suggest an art project and got everything ready, Sweetness had a complete and total meltdown because Mommy handed her a paintbrush, rather than letting her choose one herself.

At this point it’s so easy for the parent to lose it too and proclaim something like “there’s nothing to be upset about,” “do you need a time out?”, “so you don’t want to play, OK I’ll put it away,” “I’ll give you something to cry about,” etc. All of these things send a message that it’s not OK to express feelings. The response Leo emphasizes focuses on reconnecting with your little one by listening and expressing empathy for not only the little hurt that might have caused the tantrum, but the day’s hurts. Granted, you may not know what they all were. In fact, many little ones store it all up, especially when they’re away from home at school, daycare, at Grandma’s, etc. then let loose when they get home because they feel safe to express feelings at home. Some even go as far to provoke a hurt so they can let loose once they get home. Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign. Your child feels safe with you.

Regardless of what others may say, you can’t stop tantrums from happening. But, as I’ve experienced using Leo’s advice, you can sure reduce them and even shorten their length. In the example with Sweetness, I took her aside where she couldn’t dump the paint or knock over the easel and got down on the floor with her. At that point I talked in a calming voice to her to 1. acknowledge her feelings, 2. assure her they were normal, even if scary (these massive releases are scary to the kids), 3. Help give her a name for what she’s feeling, and most importantly, 4. Listen. “You sure are upset. Those are some big feelings. You wanted to pick out a brush to paint with and it upset you when I offered you one, didn’t it? It’s OK to have these big feelings.” At Sweetness’s age, it is useless to suggest other ways for her to get her anger out when she’s in the middle of a tantrum. We work on that when she’s calm. During the tantrum I can sometimes just rub her back. Other times she doesn’t want me touching her. So I just sit with her and tell her I’m right here and that I love her. When she’s having a real doozie and my talking only makes her scream louder, I tell her it looks like she needs some space to let out her feelings, so I’ll be on the couch, in the kitchen, right over here, what have you. If she’s in her room, I try not to close the door and isolate her. While having some peace helps her, I have to be careful not to send the message that feelings must be let out in isolation and I can’t be bothered with them.

Regardless of how the current tantrum is going, I tell her it’s ok to let the hurt feelings out so she can feel better. That is a concept she understands – butt cream makes the butt feel better (her words!), drinking milk when a bite is too hot makes her mouth feel better, so crying out hurt feelings makes her feel better. Once she gets past the worst part, she’ll sometimes talk to me, saying she was upset over this or that.

Lately, I’ve noticed she’s starting to recognize other hurts released. While a tantrum might have been set off by me not letting her pick a diaper, she’ll say in a post-tantrum sniffle something about baby brother having her truck. This helped me see that Leo was dead on and I am helping my little one by letting her release those hurt feelings then talk them out with me. As she gets older, we’ll talk more after outbursts, but now it’s enough for her to have me just listen, connect and be there.

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