Dear Faith, I’m a nanny of two boys, and I’d love your advice on situations like this: The other morning, Joey came down for breakfast and he saw that his dad had put the little brother’s food on a plate that Joey thinks is “his,” and the sight of that triggered a total meltdown. His parents were home (as they often are when I am there) and they assured him that the little brother is just using the plate for this meal, we all share anyway, etc. but Joey wouldn’t have it.. he totally freaked out, started crying, etc. At that point a lot had been said already, we all did our best to slow down, comfort him, connect, distract, etc. but it took a good long time before he calmed down. So yeah, any suggestions in regards to that type of scenario would be much appreciated!!
When people tell a child ‘no’ about something (as in, “No, I won’t take the food off of this plate I’ve prepared for your brother”), and the child is disappointed/sad/angry, our normal reaction tends to be, “I know you love that plate, BUT your brother’s using it right now.” This usually doesn’t go well! So then we might try connecting by identifying their feelings: “You feel sad/angry, you wish you had that plate, don’t you.” The desire to connect is a good one, but focusing on their bad feelings only helps them go deeper and deeper into them, often leading a full-blown tantrum.
Instead, try this: Your first response should let them know that you won’t change your mind, but instead of hammering in the “no” aspects, end with a positive thought you want them to focus on. So instead of saying, “I know you love that plate, but your brother’s using it today,” switch the first sentence around, omitting the BUT entirely: “Your brother’s using that plate right now. You love that plate, don’t you?”
This sentence acknowledges his feelings, but it focuses on his positive feeling around the plate, rather than his negative feelings around not being able to have it. Talk about those positive feelings some more, and really acknowledge how much he loves the thing that he wants (a plate, to go with Daddy, to stay in the sandbox when it’s time to come in). After you’ve acknowledged his feelings, continue talking about things that he loves, and let it evolve into a new topic, using your imagination. This can help him move on. It might go something like this:
“You love that plate! It’s your favorite plate, isn’t it. Do you usually eat off of it?” He nods, unsure of where this is going. “What will you eat off of it the next time it’s your turn? Maybe macaroni and cheese. I know you love macaroni and cheese. I do too! Mmmmm…. (pause for a moment.) Did you know that when I was a little girl, on my birthday I was allowed to choose any food I wanted for dinner on that night, and I always chose macaroni and cheese. If you could choose any food for your birthday, what would you choose?” Then, maybe he’s not ready to be happy yet, and he starts crying, “I want macaroni and cheese.” You think, ‘oh great. Now I’ve done it.’ You continue, “I wonder when we’ll have macaroni and cheese again. Do you think we’ll have to wait for your birthday? I know…I’m going to pretend that my rice with veggies is macaroni and cheese.” Take a bite, and say, “Mmmm….yum! I can taste noodles, and cheesiness….do you taste it too, in your imagination?” Saying ‘yes’ to them in fantasy (by pretending to give it to them, or imagining that you would give them a huge amount if you could, or talking about how great it will be once they get it, etc.) can move them out of a sense of lack and into a sense of imaginative fun.
These techniques, of ending your “you can’t have that” sentence with a positive statement, focusing on what they love about the thing they want, then helping them move on by telling a story or saying ‘yes’ in imagination, can really increase your enjoyment of your children, and your children’s enjoyment of you, while still keeping boundaries and gentle authority nice and strong. Give it a try!
Warmly, ~Faith Collins