When your personal life is out of balance, it strains your body’s immune system. If you don’t pay attention and make a change, you are likely to get sick. When your relationship with your child gets out of balance, then the relationship’s immune system gets strained. Our bodies let us know when we’re at risk for getting sick through excessive tiredness, aches and pains, or a low grade fever. Children let us know when our relationship is out of balance by acting out–including regular tantrums, meltdowns over “nothing,” or defiance at even the most benign requests. Relationships can get out of balance for any number of reasons: perhaps a child goes through a developmental leap and our parenting doesn’t keep up. Or other elements in our lives sap our energy and attention. Or perhaps our child has always responded to us in challenging ways.
Nonstop Tantrums are the Child’s Way of Sending Us a Message
When I say that a child is trying to send you a message, I’m not saying that he or she is consciously thinking about. However, while children may not know what’s wrong on a conscious level, they do know it intuitively, because when the imbalance is addressed, then the behavioral issues tend to melt away. Four common messages that I see in children regularly acting out include:
- A Call for Boundaries
- A Call for Affection
- A Call for Consistency, and
- A Call to Slow Down.
When we can figure out what message our child is trying to send, we can respond to the need and get the relationship back into balance. Once that new balance is achieved, negative behaviors tend to melt away. Of course there will still be occasional meltdowns–children are still learning to manage their emotions, and they get tired, hungry, and overstimulated more easily than we do. But they will become the exception rather than the norm. If you’re stuck in a pattern of negative interactions, follow this strategy to shift the energy around and figure out what’s going on.
Do A “Pouring In the Love” Campaign
Start your information-gathering phase with a week-long Pouring In the Love Campaign. During this week, put all of your reservations aside and just POUR in the love, connecting with your child in every way you can.
- Initiate games you know she loves.
- Invite her to be your special helper.
- Give her lots of eye contact, special smiles, and hugs of appreciation.
- Laugh at her jokes.
- Go along happily when she initiates play.
- Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and put it in a drawer, out of sight.
- For ideas of special activities that you can do together during your Pouring In the Love Campaign, check out my blog post on Acting Out.
Don’t worry that this level of attention “isn’t sustainable.” Even if you are already exhausted because of a new baby, a new job, or some other stressor, give it all you’ve got for one week. It’s only one week, after all, and it can transform your relationship. If you still feel a lot of resistance, notice it but set it aside for now. You are NOT “rewarding bad behavior” by doing this; you are finding out what’s wrong and taking actions to fix your relationship.
Watch and See What Happens
When you do the week-long Pouring In the Love Campaign, and you really give it your all, one of three things is likely to happen: 1) Your child’s negative behaviors “magically” melt away. 2) Your child seems to amp up their defiance even more, making increasingly ridiculous demands and throwing a fit if you refuse. Or 3) Things improve slightly, but then settle back to how they’ve generally been.
A Call for Affection
Sometimes when you do a Pouring In the Love Campaign, your child just lights up. He basks in your positive attention, and his negative attention-seeking behaviors decline dramatically. It may seem impossible that this could happen with your child, but I’ve seen it happen many times, and experienced it myself. If this happens to you, great!
Please rest assured that you won’t have to maintain this level of attention forever. When you get the flu, you don’t worry that you’ll never be able to eat normal food or go back to work again; you know that if you take care of yourself now, your body will become healthy again and you can resume normal life (as long as your life was relatively healthy to begin with). It is the same with your relationship. Continue the Pouring In the Love Campaign for a second week, then gradually ramp your attention down until you reach a new equilibrium that feels healthy and good.
A Call for Boundaries
If you Pour In the Love and your child amps up their demandingness and defiance even more, this is almost always a Call for Boundaries. If this happens to you, don’t stop pouring in the love! Any time we increase our discipline in a significant way, it’s important that we increase our affection at the same time. However, there also needs to be a shift from your child being in charge, to your child learning to put her own desires “on hold” when appropriate. This involves learning to recover from disappointment, and responding to your requests even when she doesn’t feel like it.
The challenge of this, of course, is to learn how to set firm boundaries without losing your warmth. Parents who have fallen into a pattern of permissive parenting often feel their children’s hurts so deeply that it is hard to maintain connection while they are “inflicting” disappointment on their children. My book Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love dives into this subject extensively.
A Call for Consistency, and A Call to Slow Down
Sometimes pouring in the love leads to things improving slightly, but not much. Or perhaps they improve when you’re hanging out and playing with your child, but as soon as you ask him to do something, interactions go sour again no matter how much effort you put into it. If transitions regularly fall apart, your child may be telling you that there’s too much chaos, uncertainty, overwhelm and/or overscheduling in her life. She is begging you for things to be slower, more spacious, more regular. The problem with this is not just that we can feel trapped in our lives of being busy all the time. Rather, for people who didn’t grow up with consistency, it can be equally difficult to want to establish kid-paced, regular routines. From the outside it can feel like this would be SO constricting. However, let me give you this image:
When children don’t have a strong rhythm so that they know in their bodies exactly how things will go, then we spend the bulk of each day focusing on the WHAT of the day: convincing our child(ren) to get dressed, to sit down at the table, to get in the car, to take a nap…everything is a struggle.
When children have solid routines that are not rushed, we can stop focusing on the what, and start focusing on the HOW of each activity: how do we sit down for a meal together? What sweet rituals can we develop for bedtimes, for hair brushing, for greeting one another at the end of the preschool day?
Once we have the how well-established, we can move on to the most important thing of all: the WHO. Suddenly, it’s the relationship itself that comes into focus. You can notice and celebrate each new skill that your child gains. Perhaps she is suddenly able to reach the tissues that she couldn’t reach before, or she can use the washcloth to wash her own body (in the exact same order and way that you used to do it for her), or she sees that you have a headache and is extra thoughtful that day. When the what and the how are consistent, then we can truly use each part of the day that you’re together to enjoy and connect with one another. And after all, isn’t that what we all long for?
Warmly, ~Faith Collins
For a more in-depth exploration of the Pouring In the Love Campaign, and establishing healthy balance in our relationships with our children, check out my book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love. Available on Amazon (go her to check out the reviews) and on my website (buy here to support the author; I get a much larger cut).