Note: I submitted the following article to a magazine. It was not selected. So why not share with y’all?!
My second daughter was born on the hottest day ever. Well, probably not the hottest day ever in the world, but in our neck of the Pacific Northwest, June 28, 2009 is the hottest day ever recorded. And I use this fact to explain much of the hot-headedness of this strong-willed, big-emotioned girl of mine.
At 6-months old she was throwing her first tantrums. She would get so angry she’d throw herself backwards from a sitting-up position, of course making herself even angrier at the pain that would cause.
At 18 months her verbal skills could rival that of a 3-year-old and she was using them to her advantage against me. (Once at a MOPS meeting a speaker claimed our toddlers were not actively pushing our buttons and it was all I could do not to exclaim that she hadn’t met my daughter, who most certainly knew how to push every single one of my buttons.)
At 2-years-old I was checking out all the books on strong-willed-children the library would let me.
My daughter is now (miraculously) 7-years-old and is an incredibly bright, funny, inquisitive little girl. But she is still as fiery and unpredictable, dramatic and emotional as that baby I gave birth to in that overheated hospital room.
I have learned a few tricks over these past years that have helped us both when emotions of all kinds, especially anger, start to overtake her. If you have a hot-head of your own at home, maybe these will help you too.
Tip #1: Lean In
There was a season when my daughter’s anger would express itself in foot stomping. The minute the first foot would hit the floor I was there encouraging her to stomp harder, or stomp with both feet, to shake the floor or even the whole house. Sometimes I would join in with the stomping or the jumping and before you know it we would be laughing and the anger would be diffused enough for us to have a conversation if needed, or more often simply to move on.
Sometimes the anger would show up in her facial expressions. (That kid can give some serious stink-eye!) In these instances I would use the same trick as with stomping: encouraging her to show me just how angry she could make her face look. Sometimes even a good wail would be added for emphasis. It wouldn’t take long for us to move on to silly face, or surprised face, or anything else that would calm her down enough to talk or move on.
Honestly, for some kids when the anger starts to boil I know a challenge to let it all out might feel patronizing or make it worse. You have to know your kid. For my daughter, if I caught it early enough and used this trick of leaning in, those anger episodes often ended in fits of laughter instead.
Tip #2 Change it Up
My brother-in-law taught me this trick: whenever my nephew started to get frustrated about something, his dad would take something my nephew said and “hear it wrong.” The next step would be to twist the words into something nonsensical—“What? You’re mad about not fletting a yern? Petting a worm? Why would you want to pet a worm?” My nephew will crack a smile and very quickly join the silliness (how could he resist?) and forget why he’s mad.
This trick has worked great on my daughter as well. I have to be sure there is a silly grin on my face, to invite her in on the joke. But once she knows this is an attempt to get her to change her tone, it often works just in time to avoid a major meltdown.
Tip #3 Use Brain Science
In their incredible book Parenting the Whole-Brain Child, Drs. Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. use brain science to help frazzled parents to connect with their kids. When it comes to strong emotions, like anger, Drs. Siegel and Payne Bryson discuss the difference between the “upstairs brain” (responsible for higher-order, analytical thinking) and the “downstairs brain” (responsible for basic functions like breathing and for strong emotions). When strong emotions start to erupt, the downstairs brain takes over and it is nearly impossible for a child to use the upstairs brain.
For us, it has looked like this: in a moment of calm, I asked my daughter to make a fist with one hand and place the palm of the other hand over that fist. The fist represents her “downstairs” brain and her strong emotions, and the palm is the “upstairs” brain that when in control is able to regulate those emotions and make good decisions. But when strong emotions take over (open the fist) she “blows her lid” and off goes the functioning of her “thinking brain” we have started calling it.
Now that she had a picture, when strong emotions begin to erupt, I show her that picture and remind her that her “feelings brain” has taken over her “thinking brain,” and in order to close her lid, let’s put that thinking brain back to work. We do that by asking her lots of questions, helping her to identify the strong emotion, the reason for it, and if her reaction is logical. We also give her lots of support, comfort, and reassurance. This knowledge of brain science has helped tremendously in helping her regain control.
I am so thankful for this strong-willed, and strong-emotioned daughter of mine: she has challenged me to become more knowledgeable, more creative, and more caring as a mother and as a human.