Bonding With Our Children Through Conflict

When you think about bonding with your child, what images come to mind? For me its kisses and hugs, gazing into each other’s eyes, playing together, laughing together hysterically as I did recently with my son when he asked my help with a poem he was writing for school.

But there’s another type of bonding experience our children need that is as deeply affirming and crucial, perhaps even more so, than sharing affection and laughter. This one requires a dynamic that can be challenging for parents: setting a limit and fully accepting our child’s displeasure

Janet,

I found your blog when I was pregnant with my son, and I’ve been looking for a way to tell you just how much it has meant to me and to our relationship. I think I may have just found a way to express at least a small piece of it. The experience was very powerful to me; the idea that my son could see me as his ally even when I was setting a limit that he didn’t want to accept.

I had known this conflict was coming. On Christmas night, my husband had allowed L to sleep with his new trains. All seven of them. And at 2:30 in the morning, the inevitable had happened – L woke and was not able to find his favorite, and he started crying. I had gotten up and helped him settle down again but now, at bedtime the next day, I was determined that it wasn’t going to happen again. Nor did I want to spend the next six months finding and carrying seven trains up the stairs every night.

“L, you may choose three trains to take to bed with you. Which ones do you want to take?” I asked.

“Want take them all!” was his predictable response.

“I know you’d like to take all of them. Tonight you need to choose three. The rest will be here when you wake up in the morning. I’ll bet you’d like to take Thomas and Percy. Can you choose one more?”

“Want Bertie!” Whew, I thought. This might be easier than I was expecting. “Good!” I said, “Now would you like to walk upstairs, or shall I carry you?”

Suddenly, L realized what I was telling him, and started to get upset. “No! Want Troublesome Truck!”

“Okay, you can take Troublesome Truck, but then we need to leave one of these downstairs. Do you want to leave Bertie?” Oh, no. That was very upsetting.

We went round and round for a few minutes as L processed the idea of only taking three trains and became increasingly upset. I sympathized, repeating over and over, “It’s really hard to choose only three, isn’t it? You sound really upset.” After a few minutes I said, “You seem to be having a hard time choosing. I can choose for you. Let’s take Thomas, Percy, and Bertie.” As I started to pick L up to take him upstairs, he became almost hysterical.

And then something really remarkable happened. He pushed away from me, and when I said, “I know this is really hard,” he fell into my lap weeping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him cry so hard, and he simply clung to me while he wept as if his heart were breaking.

If I ever needed confirmation that RIE works, this was it. As I sat holding my distraught 2 year-old, it seemed truly remarkable that while he clearly understood that I was the source of this challenging and distressing new limit, I could also be the source of comfort he needed to work through his feelings.

Eventually the storm passed, and as he started to calm down I said, “Let’s take these guys upstairs and have a bath.” By the time we got upstairs L was calm, and he went to sleep happily with the three trains.

Predictably, he had to test the limit at naptime and bedtime the next day, but the distress of that first night never repeated itself. After a day or two, the “three train rule” became the new norm, and he’s never felt the need to test it again. I am so unspeakably thankful that RIE taught me the skills to deal with this situation the way that I did; the realization that I could be a safe harbor for my son – even when I was the cause of his distress! – had a feeling of “rightness” to it that I don’t think any other approach would have given me.

***

 I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by tracitodd on Flickr)

29 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I think this is a great post, and I agree that conflicts such as this one certainly promote bonding. My trouble is this– my son’s meltdowns seem to be much more extreme than the kind of meltdown that is usually described in your blogs. When he’s in the midst of one, your articles flash through my mind, and I think, “What would Janet do?!? How can I be respectful and empathetic in this moment?” But I end up feeling more desperate and alone, because I’ve not read an article with meltdowns like my son throws. Explosive ones. And the more appropriate question becomes, “How can we survive this?” If I don’t find a way to calm him down quickly, it’s only going to escalate, and he’ll cry for 30 minutes and bang his head (accidentally) on several things in the meantime, because he will not let me restrain him. Like in a parking lot, when I can’t get him in his car seat, and he’s about to hit his head on the pavement from bucking out of my arms. I find myself saying things like, “I hear you are upset. You did not want to leave the toy store. We have to go home. It is cold. I’m going to put you in your car seat now.” (And yes, I warned him appropriately that we were leaving soon.) But I can’t even hear myself saying these things, because he’s screaming so loudly, and it feels completely totally futile. What then? How do you empathize with a child that is screaming too loudly to hear? And in a context where waiting it out is not safe or reasonable? Is this kind of meltdown “normal”? Whatever that means? And how would you handle them? (He’s 28 months.) I comfort myself by saying, “Surely Janet’s kids didn’t do THIS!” 😉

  2. Hi Rachel! Explosive meltdowns are normal…but if you are trying to “calm him down quickly” you are going to get into trouble. Trying to calm him down quickly is the opposite of acceptance, and what children need in these situations is acceptance. So, first of all, know that it is healthy for your boy to release his emotions. Calm yourself with this perspective. Don’t try to talk to him when he’s in the middle of a storm. Just relax, let go, be there, nod your head. When he’s quieted down (in HIS time), you can acknowledge, “you got so upset about leaving the toy store. You wanted to stay there and look at the toys…and I said no, we have to go. That made you very mad.” *This* (believe it or not) is bonding…and also the dynamic that will foster your son’s emotional health.

    1. I feel misunderstood. Trust me, folks, I ACCEPT my child’s feelings. Oh, how I wish I could go back and change the wording in my comment, rather than go through the rest of the day receiving advice from well-meaning people, who assume I am trying to calm my son too quickly.

      Allow me to explain myself further, and please consider the possibility that my child may have something more going on. These meltdowns I speak of are not a once-a-month kind of ordeal; they’re a every-time-we-have-a-transition kind of deal. Does anyone else out there know how exhausting this is? If so, I’d love some empathy and some practical tips for keeping my child SAFE in the midst of his meltdowns WHILE I fully accept his feelings.

      When I said, “If I don’t calm him quickly,” What I meant was, “If I can’t understand his screams and interpret what he’s asking for quickly, and find a solution, his meltdown will turn into a very, very long ordeal with the potential for physical harm. Multiple times a day.”

      Surely, we can agree that understanding what our child is asking for, before he starts screaming too loudly that he will be able to hear reason, is not the same thing as trying to calm him too quickly? I figured out, on that 9-degree afternoon, as I tried to keep my son’s head from hitting the pavement, that he wanted to open and close the toy store door himSELF. So we went back, I let him open it himself, and we got in the car seat peacefully. Whew. Head injury narrowly avoided. There have been many other instances in the last week when I was unable to figure out what tiny thing was wrong about the transition we just went through, (Did he want to pick out the diaper himself? Did he want to buckle himself? Is this the wrong cup? I guess we’ll find out in an hour, when he stops screaming, because I was unable to figure it out before he lost control of his emotions.) In the meantime, I sit quietly beside him and wait for him to be quiet enough for me to empathize with him. I promise you, I accept his emotions. You have no idea how much and how often I accept his emotions. What I’m asking is– how can I restrain him in the meantime? Especially if we’re in a place like a 9-degree parking lot with abundant pavement waiting to make contact with his head?

      And should I consider that there might be something *else* going on with my child? Family members have suggested SPD.

      Sigh. This is why I despise online parenting conversations. I pour my heart out, many other mamas who make me feel less-than offer an oversimplified answer, I feel stupid. I would just delete this misunderstood comment, if I didn’t think there might be another mama out there who might glean some hope from knowing there’s someone out there going through the same thing.

      1. Hi Rachel,

        I’m a special needs educational assistant by training and an early childhood educator by employment. I understand what you mean. The unusual frequency and intensity of your child’s outbursts make it very challenging to keep him physically safe while also allowing him to express his emotions to the extent that he needs to express them, and every little disappointment or frustration has the potential to quickly escalate into a full-blown crisis.

        I recently cared for a child whose reactions were very much like this. There is no easy answer to your question, but I would like to strongly suggest that you speak to whichever professionals in your region can have him assessed for SPD or ASD (the former is often a “symptom” of the latter). Having a diagnosis is NOT labeling your child or condemning him; it is a starting point. It may allow you to find some tools and strategies that will help you both communicate more effectively and reduce how often he becomes so upset. It may also put you in touch with someone who can train you in the use of therapeutic restraints.

        I know that restraining a child who is upset sounds like a horrible, controlling, disrespectful practise. However, when a child is not in control of his own body because of the intensity of his emotions, I believe that helping him stay safe until he regains his self control is the most respectful and helpful thing to do. I include such phrases as “I am here to keep you safe. I won’t let you get hurt. I won’t let you hurt other people.” and so on when I am acknowledging the expressed emotions, along with “I won’t let you fall down” when a child is irrationally trying to make me drop him. I also make a point of acknowledging evidence that the child is trying to restrain himself: “Thank you for using your voice to tell me how you feel” when he raises his clenched fists as if to hit me, but screams instead. Through it all, I do my utmost best to be as confident, kind, and unshakably calm as possible. Unfortunately, I do not have access to a completely safe place where I could put a child down when he is upset enough to hurt himself; the safest place for him is in my arms.

        It is a scary, scary thing to feel out of control. Knowing that he can trust his adult in charge to handle his temper and keep him safe may give him the security he needs to start learning the skills that will help him express his feelings and control his body while doing it.

        Please, please, consider getting some help for your child and yourself. I know it is exhausting and frustrating for you, and that “typical” parenting advice seems to miss the mark and make you feel isolated. It sounds to me that your child is not typical. That means that applying the practises and ideals of RIE will look a little different for you.

        1. Melissa – your perspective is very much appreciated.

        2. I can totally relate. While my daughter does not do them too frequently, she does those 30-40 minutes of loud screaming where nothing anyone says is heard. While she does not usually endanger herself during these bursts, it is really really hard to stay calm when she’s having the meltdown in the kindergarten hallways, and a bunch of kids start gathering around me asking what is wrong. Or on a crowded street during Xmas and a homeless woman stopping by to say “Santa does not bring bad kids toys” – happened to my husband.

          I have used – for lack of a better description – my physical strength to contain her when it was getting out of control; as in thrashing around in cold wet mud. I saw no other way, we had a 20 minute walk ahead of us and she’d freeze with wet clothes. I have physically constrained her several times because she tried to pull my hair, bite me. The good news is after those episodes and after we talk about what happened – she seeks a lot of physical closeness and wants to spend a lot of time with me. I’m taking that as a good sign.

          To stop the meltdown once it happens, I have no good advice. I wait it out until she is calm enough to hear me again. But I’ve tried to understand why they happen and plan ahead. It is mostly a combination of tired/hungry and being interrupted/expectation not being met. It helped us ALOT to talk about beforehand what is going to happen to ease transitions. “We will visit XYZ, but we need to leave before dinner time. I will tell you 10 minutes before it is time to leave.” And I’ve actually set a timer on my cellphone and showed her.

          Sometimes I feel like I have the only child having extremely intense meltdowns. So I really understand your frustration.

      2. Rachel – I’m so sorry I misunderstood…yes, it can be extremely challenging to understand each other and get our points across in a comment thread. You seem upset and offended and that was certainly not my intention. You’ve asked several questions in both your comments and I’ll attempt a more thorough response…

        “Is this normal behavior?” Yes, it is normal for 2 year old’s, especially those with intense personalities, to routinely explode and meltdown. But you know your child best. If you have concerns about this being atypical behavior, or feel in over your head, you should definitely get an assessment.

        “How can I be respectful and empathetic in this moment?” Allow and accept the tantrum. Let it run it’s course without interruption. When children are interrupted in the middle of tantrum, even when it’s with a kind, empathetic response, gentle reasoning, a helpful suggestion, acknowledging the feelings in hopes of calming our child, etc., this usually ends up intensifying the meltdowns. There was an interesting scientific study about this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/12/05/143062378/whats-behind-a-temper-tantrum-scientists-deconstruct-the-screams

        Some children are so sensitive that saying even a word to them while they are in the eye of the storm will infuriate them, and also lead to even more frequent severe meltdowns. That is why I tried to convey to you the importance of accepting and allowing the feelings, just staying calm and still and maybe nodding your head. It sounds like you are doing that most of the time, but still (understandably) hoping to avoid the meltdown.

        You say that talking to your son at the beginning of his meltdowns has been the answer sometimes — brought about helpful solutions that calmed him. But, believe it or not, this still might have been an interruption to an emotional release he needed, and, therefore, the cause of even more meltdowns. In other words, if you son is melting down because he didn’t get to be the one to open and close the door of the toy store, that is only the tip of the iceberg. There are deeper frustrations he’s trying to release… Most meltdowns can’t be avoided…they are only postponed.

        I wasn’t clear until your second comment that your main concern was safety, so I’m sorry I didn’t address that the first time. I would focus on moving him to safest possible place in order to contain his explosion, but not think in terms of restricting it or him. Those ideas can, again, interfere with the “acceptance factor”, and our children know the difference between an accepting response and something that is subtly (or not so subtly) less accepting. So, maybe there is a grassy (or snowy?) area near the parking lot, or better yet, you can manage to carry him into the car. You are stronger than your little guy, right? He needs you to be. He needs to know you aren’t afraid of him (or for him). Imagine how hard it is to feel safe when you are 2 years old and sense your parents are unable to contain you. If you can even pretend to be calm, confident, and capable of handling him, he will have less of need to flail like crazy when he explodes.

        Typical children who bang their heads, etc., when they are upset or angry, do not do this to the extent of seriously hurting themselves. But if your boy senses that you are unnerved by him, he will not be able to release his feelings as he needs to. This is a very challenging dynamic for parents — keeping the situation under relative control while also calming ourselves around scary things like head-banging, etc. The most I would do is casually slip something soft under his head, or inch his head toward a soft surface, all the while projecting calm acceptance.

        1. Hmm. So, I should refrain from saying “I can see that you are angry” or “I won’t let you hurt me” or “I won’t let you hurt yourself” when they are very upset? In what situations should we (as RIE parents and practicioners) verbalise, and in which should we be silent? This is a confusing distinction for me! 🙂

          1. Kim, those words sound fine… Sometimes parents say, “I know, I know you’re so angry”, etc., in a manner that conveys impatience and stems from their wish to calm their child. Sensitive children KNOW…and that is why our words (and demeanor) can intensify the feelings… These subtleties are the hardest to explain in words on a blog! Generally, this is about knowing your child and understanding his or her point of view.

            1. Thank you so much for this reply. I feel like I truly understand what you’re saying now. I was hung up on the idea that “even acknowledging feelings can make the situation worse”, when what I should have focused on was “in the hopes of calming our child”. If someone is only acknowledging in the hopes of calming, with that implicit message that you are pressuring them to “wrap up” their meltdown or emotions, I think that would definitely carry across in the voice’s tone.

              Even a kind, empathetic response can feel to the child like you are pressuring them to “wrap up” their emotions or mimise them. And I have seen first hand how even a small word or change in demeanor can even go so far as to begin an emotional episode – in my 3-4 classroom, there is a child who is having trouble with accidents. If a staff member displays *any* hint of disappointment, frustration or unkindness towards her mistake, she becomes very ashamed and begins lashing out, pushing and kicking. I have never had her do this to me, and have in fact intervened when she was kicing and pushing at another educator, and she immediately stopped doing that the moment I came down to her level, told her I wasn’t angry, and said I would wait for her to feel better before I tried to change her. I really was relaxed and calm, and I think she read that in my tone and body language and knew it was genuine, so she stopped kicking and pushing, and very quickly became much less distressed (she had been crying in that “almost screaming” way). She has such sensitivity and an acute sense of shame about this issue, and I am in the process of helping the other educators to see that she can pick up on even a trace of disappointment or frusration in their tone or demenour, and react to it. It shows how sensitive children truly are.

              Thank you for your reponse! It has really helped my understanding.

          2. I think I might understand your question and what Janet meant… I think you shouldn’t say this things if your child is so upset that you end up talking over him (like talking when your words get lost in the screaming); they’re great to say when there is a pause in the screaming or when your child’s tantrum starts to subside. I try to think about whether my words will add to the general feeling of noise and chaos (bad; makes both of us louder, and in that case it’s better for me to be a quiet, calm presence) or whether what I say will make the emotional outburst feel more like a conversation in which everyone is heard (good; if I wait for a natural pause, my daughter seems to feel like I’m responding to her rather than talking over her, and her focus shifts from outburst to communication). You know how great teachers don’t shout over a noisy classroom but instead find that moment of quiet and speak quietly? Like that!

            1. *nods!* I think I understand a bit better now, after your response and Janet’s.

              “When children are interrupted in the middle of tantrum, even when it’s with a kind, empathetic response, gentle reasoning, a helpful suggestion, acknowledging the feelings in hopes of calming our child, etc., this usually ends up intensifying the meltdowns.”

              Like, sometimes even a kind, empathetic response can feel to the child like you are pressuring them to “wrap up” their meltdown or emotions, or trying to minimise their emotions. It was only the phrase “acknowledging the feelings” phrase that threw me, when what I should have focused on was “in the hopes of calming our child”. If I am only acknowledging in the hopes of calming, I think that would definitely carry across in my tone, and I think that is what Janet was trying to say.

              Thank you for your reply! I must say that, although I think this is a really good strategy, I have had some incredibly insightful moments asking questions of children who were still visibly upset and didn’t want to be touched/cuddled/comforted. I would ask these questions after any “peak” in the emotional cycle, and then back right off if another peak seemed to be ramping up. A child recently told me “I am never happy!” during on of these gently ‘questioning during trough of meltdown’ instances, which I thought was a powerful utterance that really spoke to where that child was emotionally and the need for more positive interaction with that child.

      3. I just wanted you to know that you aren’t alone. My son is almost 22 months old, and I was having serious issues with him anytime I told him to do something. His biggest problem has been with throwing things, and it is very frustrating. Sometimes he’d carry on for almost 20 minutes, just screaming and trying to find things to throw. He is beginning to understand that he cannot throw things or hit people. If he does, I put him upstairs in his crib. It gives him some time to be in a safe place, and it usually results in him calming down and playing with some of his stuffed animals. When I take him out, I explain that he cannot throw things, and ask him to try again. It’s important to be consistent, I’ve found. I really just wanted you to know I understand the meltdown scenario. He had an episode last week and was trying to throw the leaf blower in our laundry room, screaming and spinning in circles. I let him go. I stood nearby, but trying to hold him would result in my being hit, and trying to talk to him would just make him angrier. Once he calmed down a bit, I was able to approach him and walk him into another room. I hope it becomes easier for you. It is very difficult.

  3. What a wonderful, and yet again timely post! My son just had a meltdown because I reinforced a boundary. He was clearly frustrated and angry and I stayed with him throughout with empathy but clear limit. It felt like FOREVER when he was crying and upset but just like that, it went by and he was asking for cuddle just now before bed when I surely thought he would want NOTHING of me after that incident.

    I agree w/ poster above, though, I wouldn’t know what to do if during the meltdown my son is also doing something that may hurt himself or that I cannot restrain him in a safer place (such as in sidewalk when he refuses to get into his carseat). I live in the city and most of the time we won’t have a safe place to restrain him on the sidewalk. I agree w/ Janet that if I hurry he would escalate, but still, there must be a way in this situation that won’t jeopardize the safety of the child.

    This may be on a tangent but I also wouldn’t know what to do if during the meltdown a child would do violent thing to himself as I’ve seen other children do. We go to a developmental preschool (some of my son’s classmates are children in ASD) and it is really tough for their parents to even restrain their children to safety when they have meltdowns. One time, I had to witness a child being restrained by 3 adults because he kept banging his head on the wall/window, it just breaks my heart to see his parents (luckily my son was not in the exact same room at that time) I am all for letting all emotions go, but again, I always put children’s safety first.

  4. Hi Janet. Thank you for always sharing such helpful and inspiring information. My issue is very similar to Rachel. When my girls have a meltdown if I say anything to them, even letting them know I understand how mad they are, it makes them even more angry and often they’ll lash out or scream at me (they are 3 1/2 and 20 months). As long as I stay close is it ok not to say anything until they have had a chance to calm down. I don’t want to make them more mad but I also don’t want to make them feel like I’m ignoring them.

    1. Hi Kimberly. Yes, it’s fine and actually safer not to say anything when children are in the “eye of the storm”… (Please see the link I shared in my response to Rachel, above)

  5. The key is the degree to which the child is given the space and support (including the empathy and firm boundaries) to self-determine through the crisis.

  6. I wanted to first say thank you to Amy for the great post, I can so relate to how you describe your son crying as if his heart would break, I had a similar moment with my son. Which leads me to what I would like to say to Rachel: I think you are having so many of these incidences with your son because as Janet says in her response, you are not allowing him to work through his emotions, as you are – quite unintentionally I’m sure – shutting him down too soon.

    The incident I’m referring to with my son happened a few months shy of his second birthday, whilst I was on holiday with him at my father’s house. My father had wanted to surprise him with an early birthday gift and had bought him a ride-on tractor and trailer. He had gone out in the afternoon to buy it but then found it needed a bit more assembly than he’d anticipated. By the time he completed it, my son only had about an hour to play with it before he had to come in for dinner. Of course he was very upset at the idea of having to leave his exciting new toy to come in to eat dinner and a tantrum inevitably ensued. Looking back now, I should have anticipated it, but it took me by surprise because he had only had a few minor tantrums previously. But I remembered everything I had read about giving him a holding space and letting him work through his feelings, and I thought that this was the ideal opportunity to put it into practice, because of being in my dad’s house and not having to worry about the usual responsibilities of cooking and housework, so we could just go with it. And go with it we did! For 3 hours we sat on the bathroom floor whilst he was in a complete paroxysm of grief – he cried, he sobbed, he screamed, he wailed so much he almost made himself sick, he banged his head on the floor, he hit himself in the face, he almost stopped a couple of times before starting again almost worse than before. The only word he could articulate was ‘no’, which is what he said every time I offered him a drink or a hug or to wipe his face. So I did nothing for 3 hours but sit on my hands and tell him over and over again that I loved him and I was here for him and whatever he needed I would try to help with, but that I was sorry, we couldn’t go outside to play with the tractor again. That I could see he was very sad about having to leave it and I didn’t blame him for that but it was time to come in. I even told him it was my fault for not having thought about it before I let him play with it so late in the day and that I would try not to make that mistake again. The longer it went on, the more I got a sense of how important it was for him to do this and how he must have been holding back a lot of emotions about the long journey to my dad’s house, the break in his routine, missing his own dad who had not come with us and any number of other things that had happened recently. I had a lot of insights – I had 3 long hours to process the situation while we sat there! Both my parents came at points to check up on us but I thanked them gently to let us be and we would come when we were ready, however long that would be. I could see my little soldier was working so hard to get through this by himself and I was so willing him to come through it – and eventually he crawled over and put his head in my lap and cried for the last time and let me comfort him. I shed a few silent tears on the top of his head too I must confess, I was so relieved! He let me clean him up and change his nappy and we went up to have dinner, which my parents had held for us and full credit to them, they acted like nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. And my little guy was so sweet and loving that evening, I had to hide my tears again, I was bursting with pride at him.

    And it has never happened again. Sure he has had meltdowns and tantrums but nothing that has ever gone on over 10-15 minutes – I hold my limit, acknowledge his emotions, tell him I’m going to help him to do whatever it is he’s having a hard time with and he calms down soon enough. He goes through the occasional difficult phase when he really focuses on one thing (like sitting in the front of the car instead of his carseat) but I gave him a place where he could do it (in our driveway), set his limit (not in carparks at the supermarket or daycare) and stuck to it. It took him 2 months to get bored of doing it but he eventually stopped asking. Rachel, I really feel that if you could find an opportunity to allow your son to fully work through his emotions, you too might find things easier afterwards. I know it’s so easy to unintentionally end up in a combative vicious circle with our children when their needs and wants seem so at odds with ours (I had that relationship with my mother for years) but I believe that if you can give both of you the time and a safe place together to explore this fully, you will reaffirm and reconnect the bonds between you that will hold you strong throughout your daily life. I wish you all the best mamma! Love and light to you xx

    1. Christina – I can’t thank you enough for sharing your helpful story. I especially appreciate: “The longer it went on, the more I got a sense of how important it was for him to do this and how he must have been holding back a lot of emotions…” Yes!

  7. Another great post Janet. (I’m actually using RIE techniques with a friend who keeps asking me “why do I keep breaking down and crying when this happens?” I regularly tell her during our long phone calls “It’s OK to cry”).

    The need to ‘scream’ through an accumulation of ‘traumas’ is something I am beginning to consciously take in (what might seem small and inconsequential to us is giant to a child under 5, but even bigger to a child who can’t yet communicate their emotions clearly). Coming to terms with emotions is one of the great life lessons we can offer our children, and ourselves, through RIE.

    Such sensitive input/stories from Amy, Rachel and Christina. Rick’s ‘firm boundaries’ I love – ‘boundaries’ are so hard to explain at times. I sometimes refer to it as ‘bracketing’ (aka parenthesis – Oh, look the word ‘parent’ is right there!). I imagine my arms as the first brackets – I’ve enveloped many troubled, crying infants in my arms, while staying calm.

    To Claire’s comment about her child’s school – I think often about Temple Grandin’s need to be in the squeeze box she devised for herself, which is what got me started thinking about bracketing desperately sad infants in daycare. It is the ‘calm’ presence that is so critical, and often hard to find when we are with our own children.

    As our children get older we can expand our ‘bracketing’ – it might not need to be physical but they need our guaranteed presence and calm reliability. My Dad’s ‘bracketing’ at any time of need in my youth is what ‘holds’ me today – he died nearly 30 years ago. I like to think my husband and I are bracketing our oldest son at 36 who’s been through considerable emotional drama this past year – he lives 4000 miles away in England but a quick text reconnects us again.

    Which is why Magda could say ‘slow down’ and ‘wait’ – I’m sure she had Emmi Pikler on her shoulder her whole life.

    Thanks again Janet.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom, Helen. I like your descriptive ‘bracketing’.

  8. avatar Elanne Kresser says:

    What a beautiful story! I share this mom’s sentiments. When we set those limits and are available for our children in the feelings that follow we let them know that everything they feel is acceptable. We’re not afraid of their big feelings and they don’t need to be afraid of them either. I know in my own life I love the people who I have fun with, and it’s the people who’ve really been there for me when I’ve been in pain who I have the deepest, most profound bonds with.

  9. Thanks for sharing this! I decided to use a backpack to carry all my daughter’s teddy bears (not all of them are bears) up and down the stairs because it is probably not as hard as carrying trains and it works great for us too. 🙂

  10. Janet, your blog continues to reassure me I am on the right track or are messages come timely delivered. This time, this post reassured me we are on the right track. My 5 yo old train loving son seems to think every time we go to the SuperCenter to get groceries, he has to get a toy aka a train which leads us to be compelled to offer the same to his 3 yo sister. It has been getting worse and the recent birthday and Christmas season (the two are within two weeks of each other) hasn’t helped his train addiction / obsession. We do oblige sometimes, but yesterday it was very very very difficult. In the end we left without him getting even a small toy. He was clearly sad and cried and clung to me like glue. After he calmed I told him that I know and don’t expect him to understand its importance now, but that I need him to trust me that we can’t buy something we don’t really ‘need’ every time we go to the store. I repeated it a few times slowly and he seemed to get the gist of it. We know it was difficult at the moment, but I truly believe the constant teaching of need vs wants will be rewarded with someday a more grateful child. Thank you again for this reassurance.

    1. Sherra,

      Try setting a verbal boundary before entering the store, “We are not getting any toys this time.” And then stick to it. I suspect that your son feels that the sad, pleading, clinging will get him a toy if he tries hard enough, because it sometimes does? Kids will try whatever tactic has worked in the past, especially if it’s worked more than once.

      The other thing that may help him is 1-2 ‘car toys’ that live only in the car. This helped my older brother at the same age as he didn’t have to wait until we got home to play again.

  11. I do believe I know this Mama! Well done Amy!

  12. avatar Fossil Mum says:

    I really enjoyed reading this lovely story and the posts from everyone which followed it – thank you to everyone who shared. I was also struck by some similarities with an incident which occurred between my son (who is nearly three) and his Dad recently.

    It was time to go to bed and negotiations were underway about which trains could be taken to bed (obviously this happens in a lot of households :)). My son was a bit upset but it was only when his Dad decided to choose for him that he became really distressed. I was struck by this at the time but hadn’t really processed it until I read this post. In doing so I have remembered times when I have been struggling with deciding about something which is important to me and provokes anxiety (even though it may not seem important or difficult to others). Sometimes, whilst I am ‘dithering’ others have pressurised me or maybe taken matters out of my hands in an attempt to ‘help’ which has provoked in me anger, upset and an intense sense of helplessness. I can completely understand why sometimes we cannot wait forever for our children to decide about such things but thinking about how this might feel to my son has given me a new sensitivity to what my he might be experiencing in such moments and why his reactions might be so intense. Thank you.

  13. For what it’s worth, given I live in a city and have had a few significant meltdowns while out and about: (and, if you’re already doing this, kudos to you, and I don’t want to make anyone feel badly – we all do our best in any given moment!)

    When upset, my son can (understandably) become more angry if he feels I’m trying to stop him, hold him, “make” him calm down, etc. Of course – I’d feel that way, too! I find the key, for us, is for me to contain him in an area, only stopping him from leaving and giving him as much freedom in it as I can (like dropping my arms if he’ll stay in it and only raising them to stop him from leaving, or to stop him from serious harm – even hitting his head is unlikely to actually seriously hurt him in a long-term sense (and the last thing you want to do is give an angry, oppositional child the idea you don’t want them to do something, right? They may just want to do it more!).

    I keep mostly quiet, with a sympathetic tho concerned look on my face, and only speak if necessary (e.g. “we have to stay here, it’s not save to stand where we’re blocking or running into people walking by.” If I think it won’t enflame the situation, I might start with “I’m sad to see you so sad.”, “Can I help?” or “Do you want something?”. He seems to accept that I’m only putting one limitation on him (stay in this area), as opposed to what can come across as many limitations when you’re struggling to physically hold onto a child. I would hate to be physically restrained!

    A related point: I decided long ago to at most “detain” my son, immediately letting go again, instead of continuing to hold on to him. If he tries to leave the area, I would stop him and let go again, sometimes in quick succession, and sometimes explaining briefly “I’ll let you go if you don’t leave.” He wouldn’t want to be held if mad, so he seemed to appreciate being given some space and autonomy, even if it couldn’t be much because of where we were (e.g. a city sidewalk).

  14. avatar Hayley Kilmister says:

    My husband says to my 3 year old stop crying, everytime my boy starts crying. I think this is unaccepting of my boys feelings. What can my husband say instead?

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