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SALT LAKE CITY — As my 3-year-old was throwing an epic temper tantrum, I noticed a thought go through my head: “What is wrong with her?”
It was so easy to blame her. I’d had a long day at work, I was tired, and here she was, making a strenuous day all the more challenging. It was even easier for me to become angry and raise my voice at her. Honestly, I felt a little like a victim. My inner dialogue went something like this: “Here I am, working hard and doing my best and this kid isn’t appreciating my efforts!”
Then I realized, 'Oh yeah, she’s a kid!' This gave me pause and I was able to step back from the situation for a moment. In hindsight, I can look back and see where I messed up. The fact is she was trying to ask for something. I was dismissive and detached, overwhelmed with life’s demands, and not being mindful and aware of the moment. Her need for my attention wasn’t being met and she was reacting in the only way she knew how. In that moment, I got to own that I was a major contributor to the Great Temper Tantrum of 2016.
I have seen a lot of children (mostly adolescents) in my practice with a whole array of problems, from defiance and behavior problems to drug abuse and addiction, depression, anxiety and self-harm. Regardless of the problem, there is a common theme: Parents are in a panic. They feel helpless and lost. They want to help their child, but they can’t. By the time they get to me, they tell me they have tried everything to help their child. I believe them. I know they are scared and worried and have exhausted all known resources to help their child get better. But they have not tried everything.
To fully understand how we impact our children's behavior, we first must understand the Polyvagal theory, which comes to us from Stephen Porges. Here are the basics in a nutshell: We have three levels of arousal: hyperarousal (sympathetic nervous system response) when we feel threatened/anxious/panic, etc., hypoarousal (dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system response) when we shut down and numb out, and the optimal zone of arousal (ventral vagal parasympathetic nervous system response) when we can feel an array of emotions but we are able to stay grounded and in control of our behavior.
Brains don’t reach full maturation until between ages 22 and 25. This means people are operating with brains that are not technically fully mature and functioning at their full potential until they are out of college. It is not surprising when a child throws a fit, wants to engage in behaviors that are foolish or risky, or wants to push and test boundaries.
The parents' job
It is our job as parents to help nurture and teach them as their brains develop. They may frequently go out of their optimal arousal zones of being able to tolerate emotion. The major problem arises when the parent also goes out of their optimal zone and punishes or reacts harshly while in hyperarousal or tries to tune the child out and ignores behavior by going into the hypoarousal response: Behavior tends to get worse or the child shuts down.
Daniel Seigel, a psychiatrist and renowned expert on the brain, states that children and adolescents crave adventure, exploration, and will naturally push limits. In addition, kids of all ages want and need to be heard and validated. Even teenagers and young adults crave connection and nurturing from caregivers. When things between parent and child frequently go badly, there has likely been a perpetual cycle of both the parent and the child leaving their optimal arousal zone over and over, resulting in hurt, miscommunication, frustration and both feeling helpless.
When parents can stay in the optimal arousal zone and practice hearing and validating their child, better results will follow. I have seen amazing things happen when a kid is throwing a tantrum and the parent realizes he or she is not helping the situation because he or she is either overreacting and acting punitively or shutting down. When the parent is able to slow down, take a breath to regulate his or her own system, and listen, everything changes.
Don't give in
Please understand that hearing and validating a child does not mean giving into what they want. It does not mean that we don’t also hold our children accountable for their actions. What it means is that we can hold them accountable by setting a good example of holding ourselves accountable for our behavior first. It means that we can maintain the relationship with our children while also being able to set boundaries and limits. Boundaries and limits that are set while the parent is emotionally regulated are much more likely to be reasonable, which means the parents will have an easier time following through.
Had I been in my optimal arousal zone in the example at the beginning of this piece, I would not necessarily have given into what she wanted, but I would have been able to respond to her in a way to help her to move through her emotions and feel nurtured at the same time. This was a chance to teach an important life lesson. She may have still been upset, but I would have been able to validate her feelings and help her to manage her own emotion.
It is important to note that being a good parent doesn’t mean you don’t ever go out of your optimal zone of arousal. We are all human and you will, at some point, mess up this parenting thing. Teach your child how to apologize and to take accountability when you do it wrong. It is surprising how willingly they forgive when a parent is prepared to take accountability for his or her own mistakes. This does not make you lose respect from your child. On the contrary, it will increase their respect for you as they see appropriate behavior modeled.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She is certified in EMDR through EMDRIA. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.