Dad and Son talking next to a pianoWhy a Child Reacts with Outbursts and No listening

Safety first, but what’s next in the middle of an outburst? Or “How to care about the things that really matter, so you can stop caring about the things that don’t.”  A quote from Marie Forleo during her interview with Mark Mattson.

That quote inspired me to write this post. I of course, am going to slant this toward parenting.
So, what do I mean? I’m talking about … (drum roll please) “Emotional Pressure” and why a child emotionally retreats?

There are all kinds of emotional pressure. In this post I’m talking about the kind of emotional pressure that blocks you when you’re parenting. The kind of emotional pressure that plays a rousing game of smoke and mirrors with you, which causes you to look at the shiny object over here, instead of the reality in the room. The kind of pressure that makes you ask, “Why is my child reacting with an outburst and has stopped listening?”

Brief explanation needed: When I get ready to write a post, it seems like the universe exposes me to many different parenting situations that all have the same underlying thread. For this post it was reacting, emotional retreating, outbursts and lack of listening. This post may feel personal, like I have a camera in your house, but I don’t. I am writing about something that happens to us all. Now back to my tale.

When kids are misbehaving, when they’re emotionally out of control, or when they’re doing things that you have no idea how to stop, you tend to emotionally freeze. This “emotional freezing” is similar to the flight, fight or freeze mechanism that we all know so well. Here’s my point of view on how this plays out in parenting.

When your child does something, and you begin yelling, arguing, or lecturing, your child is trapped. They can’t leave the room. Think about it, if an adult was yelling, arguing, or lecturing you, you could leave the room. Your child can’t do that. If he/she did that, you would go ballistic.

So, your child has no choice but to leave emotionally. She retreats inside herself to protect herself from the onslaught of the intensity that’s coming at her. She shuts down, and emotionally disconnects a little bit. That means she’s not really listening to you. That also means she is not hearing the lesson, the information, or skills that you are trying to pass.

Why is that important?
Because that’s basic human nature. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you too, were a child. So this habit of emotionally retreating when you find yourself in an emotionally challenging situation is probably something you did too. There are some who tend to lash out in situations like this, but that’s not what this post is about.

So regardless of how old you are, if someone is acting intensely, yelling, or screaming at you, you unconsciously become stunned and emotionally retreat until you can calm yourself, engage your logical mind, and regroup. That also means when your child is out of control, yelling, misbehaving, or screaming, you do the same thing, you emotionally retreat for a short time. 

Since you’re in a state of emotional retreat you begin focusing on things out of order, which undermines your ability to stop the behavior, or having your child learn something.

Here’s an example.
In our example, the first thing a parent did was ask her child to simply do her homework.
The middle of the situation arrived when the child screamed “NO!” and shoved her chair forcefully to one side of the desk. The parent was startled by the movement of the chair, because it’s unlike her child to do something like that. As a result of being emotionally caught off guard, the parent leaps to the obvious and focuses on the chair being shoved forcefully.

The parent ended the situation by yelling, “Don’t you shove a chair in my house, you’re grounded!” and sends the child to her room. This ignites the child’s rage, and she begins stomping up the stairs, slamming doors, and screaming. Mom runs upstairs and … you can imagine where things go from there.

How does the mom do what I quoted in the beginning, “… care about the things that really matter, so you can stop caring about the things that don’t?”

Let me qualify that statement for our purposes. I am not about to suggest that the parent dismiss the shoving of the chair, the stomping up the stairs, or the screaming. What I am about to suggest is that the parent makes those things less of a priority, for the moment.

The shoving of the chair, the stomping up the stairs, the screaming is the emotional shiny object. It’s the thing that the parent will go after because they have emotionally retreated in order to withstand the intense onslaught of the emotions coming from the child.

Is there another way?
Yes, but it takes awareness to pull it off. It takes some awareness of self, and awareness of your child.

Earlier in this piece I mentioned, “because it is unlike her to do things like that.” That’s the key.
When you feel like all you’re doing is following your child’s outburst around the house in order to put the fire out — stop, go silent, breathe, and think. Ask yourself, “Is shoving a chair normal behavior for my child? Or is this my child’s attempt to express frustration, upset, disappointment, hurt, or anger in the only way she is capable of, in the moment?”

If that behavior is not the norm, then reprioritize what happens next. Do not go after the shiny object, the shoving of the chair etc., instead, begin exploring what’s underneath the behavior.

This is when you say things like, “Shoving a chair is not okay, we’ll talk about that in a moment. Please have a seat and calm yourself, and then, when you’re ready, tell me what’s going on. I will sit here, and wait for you to speak to me in a calm respectful voice.”

That action shifts everything. It also teaches her the skills needed to handle intense emotional situations in the future. Then, when it’s time to talk about the shoving of the chair, you will be speaking to a child who can hear you, because she hasn’t withdrawn emotionally.

Let me know in the comments if this was helpful and feel free to share it with others.
FYI: A FREE webinar about yelling is around the corner. To learn more about it, either “follow” me on Facebook at Proactive Parenting Tips, or (better choice) go to Proactive Parenting dot NET and opt-in. 

I applaud your commitment to shifting your parenting from reacting to responding.
Now go hug your kids.

Sharon Silver is a parenting educator and the founder of Proactive Parenting dot net, where she shows parents how to turn their reacting into responding. She is also the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments.


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