Life’s journey is a turbulent one, with major and minor vibrations that bolt us upright, force us to grab on tight, and steer steadily. In order to ensure that our precious children are capable of weathering life’s storms, we must give them the skills to navigate all situations; thus, our job is to teach our children coping skills.
Of course, some people are natural copers. With emotions under control, priorities organized, and solutions galore, they masterfully weave their way through life’s challenges with dexterity and grace. Many people, however, are not born copers. Still, by analyzing and breaking down the must-have “coper qualities,” we can train our children to be more resilient and capable.
In this article, we focus on giving children expressive language skills. This is the very first step in teaching children how to cope, because it gives children the ability to recognize that they cannot manage and verbalize their difficulties.
Expressive language delays tend to crop up in real life in many different ways.
Children may not realize that they are frustrated. Did you ever encounter a grumpy child who explodes when asked about his school day? Later you find his lunch left in his briefcase and realize that hunger was the problem –though he couldn’t tell you. Did you ever spend an afternoon with a moody pre-schooler, only to realize right before bedtime that the child is burning up with fever? Did you ever have your teenager slam her bedroom door in response to an innocent question? Your child may not be in touch with the core reason for his discomfort.
These children may have emotional vocabulary delays, so they cannot simply pinpoint and verbalize their discomfort. While most people think in emotional terminology, these children do not and simple mood translation is foreign for them. Your four-year-old comes home from school and rips her brother’s arts and crafts. She would like to say, “Beware! I am mad!” but does not know how to say it. Your six-year-old explodes, “I hate the new baby!” She does not have enough words to say, “I am feeling neglected and deprived.”
They may not be able to put their finger on the problem, so they cannot express why they are upset – and more importantly, cannot problem solve. Your five-year-old would like to tell you that another boy called him names recess time, that his teacher yelled at him, and that his snack got lost. But instead, he just says, “Ma, I’m never going back to school. Just because… It’s the worst school in the universe…” Your ten-year-old insists that she is dumb. She does not have enough words to express how her substitute embarrassed her last week, so she is just telling you that she is dumb. Your teenager is irritable, because she cannot express her frustration over her friendships at school.
Sometimes, these children may misunderstand surrounding situations and distort facts. Most people categorize their thoughts, storing previous information in designated “files” and figuring out which “folder” to open to add new information to. However, children with language delays may confuse “folders” and misinterpret information, causing unnecessary alarm and frustration. This causes them to react in an extreme way and freezes problem solving skills. Your seven-year-old hears a storm is coming and he panics, because he associates storms with hurricanes…
Comparable to a lost person who cannot be found by a rescue team until he figures out his location, these children cannot be taught to cope until they can accurately identify and express their problem. In a catchphrase, we want to give them a language GPS.
We start by teaching them an emotional vocabulary, so that they can categorize their feelings and then share them with you. On the most elementary level, this vocabulary has three key words; happy, sad, and frustrated. Of course, your child knows the meaning of these simple words. Still, you want him to link personal experiences with these labels. A great technique is to talk to your child at bedtime about his day’s experiences. In this calm time, ask your child, “What happened today that made you glad? What made you feel sad? What frustrated you?” If your child cannot think of examples, coach him. In addition, share these phrases with your child’s teacher, so that you all speak the same language. As your child matures, his vocabulary will grow to include sophisticated terminology, such as “confused,” “bored,” “excited,” “nervous,” or “disappointed.”
You will find it much easier and more pleasant to extend yourself to your child once he packages his feelings so clearly. Still, your child needs to learn how to expand this one word and explain why he is feeling misunderstood, worried, or anxious. Once again, teach him phrases, such as, “I don’t know what to do,” to express confusion, “I’m scared, because,” to explain fear, “I can’t talk about that now,” to clarify overwhelming feelings, “I need a break,” to express emotional overload, and “I don’t know how to do that,” for frustration. When your child is in a problematic situation, remind him of his new vocabulary, and help him grasp for the right words to express his predicament.
Mom: Pat, how was your day at school?
Pat: DON’T ASK ME THAT QUESTION!!!
Mom: It sounds like you can’t talk about that right now.
Pat: I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THAT NOW!
Mom: Okay, maybe you’ll tell me about it later.
Along with building your child’s emotional vocabulary, teach him how to be more expressive by asking guided questions, such as, “It looks like you had a difficult time. Is there anything specific that bothered you?” “Can you figure out when this feeling started?” As you cue him on, active listen and show him that you are interested in his problems and are on his team.
Remember that children who have a difficult time explaining themselves will not become emotionally expressive overnight. Still, these skills are fairly basic and can be mastered over time.
In general, when talking with your child, realize that your child has the potential to become stuck by frustration at any point in the process. So, even if you were having a calm problem-solving conversation until now, if you sense red flags and read that your child is sending SOS signals – something is brewing, but he can’t get the words out – help him! And if he says he needs a break, believe him. Your child is saying that he cannot muster the control to discuss this in an appropriate way. So, instead of being offended, take his cue at face value. Avoid the touchy topic for the time being and come back to it at a later date.
An interesting point to note is that teaching children how to express their emotions helps them speak more respectfully. All too often, the child whose comments are out of line and disrespectful is not seeking to undermine your authority, but rather to express his frustration in the only way he knows. When you empower your child with emotion-words, he does not have to yell… He can simply say, “I am disappointed, because…” When you coach your child to rephrase his words in a more appropriate way instead of jumping the gun at him, you avoid the meltdown shut-down stage and teach him far more.
Your child is engrossed in playing with Legos. You call him for supper. He grunts, “Not coming.” You have two choices of reactions.
You can yell and punish, declare an all-out disrespectful war, and deal with the inevitable meltdown.
Or: You can realize that your child needs time to change gears. Maybe he is inflexible. Maybe he would like to express his frustration, but needs emotional language coaching. So, you can react by opening a language bridge with a sentence, such as, “You sound frustrated that you were told to stop playing, especially in the middle of building a bridge. However, you have to speak in a more respectful way. Say something like, ‘Mommy, can I play a little longer?’”
Ultimately, your goal is to teach him a working emotional vocabulary.
(While this scenario should not be an everyday occurrence for the typical child, since he should comply or respectfully request a few more minutes, for the inflexible, language-delayed, or problem-solving impaired child, this is a useful tool that can help.)
When you boost your child’s language skills, you give him the first skill necessary for coping; you teach him how to recognize a problem and call for help.
In my previous post on Tantrums, (https://educatewithtoys.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/tactics-for-tantrum-time/) I wrote how to classify tantrums into three categories. The toddler’s tantrum is a normal, passing phase in the child’s development. The manipulative tantrum is a flashing light, indicating that the home’s discipline needs tweaking. The frustration-triggered tantrum is a reaction to an emotional overload, caused by a lack-of skill or need.
In this post, I will zoom in on the Frustration-Triggered Tantrum, explore its causes and learn prevention techniques.
When tantrums occur frequently, we cannot be passive reactors to this recurring problem. We have to be proactive problem solvers and get to the root of it.
Think logically! As unpleasant as the tantrum is for the parent, it is so much more unpleasant for the child. If so, a tantrum has to be “worthwhile” for the child. It must fill a function. And that function deserves to be reckoned with, since it is playing such a major role in the child’s behavior.
Consequently, if you want to eliminate the explosion, you must first pinpoint the function it serves. Why it is happening is far more important than what is happening. Then, you can diagnose and treat the cause, rather than dealing with the symptoms.) As an aside, if you squelch the tantrum without solving the underlying issue, the problem will crop up in some other form…)
To get to the root of your child’s problem, you have to know your ABC’s. A is for Antecedents, the triggers preceding the behavior. B is for Behavior, the behavior itself. C is for the Consequences following the behavior. Simply said, analyze the before, during and after of the tantrum.
Antecedent – take a step back. Recall the tantrum’s trigger. Try to analyze why this touched your child’s sore spot. Common antecedent triggers include:
- Demands which exceed capability, often because of lack of skill (a challenging school project.)
- Threats to self-image, which cause shame or embarrassment, losing a game, getting teased, or being outdone by a younger sibling.
- Biological triggers – hunger, fatigue or illness.
- Sensory overload-too much noise, too large of a crowd or even too many bright lights.
- Lack of structure; without clear instruction and structure, children can become confused.
- Social struggles, which cause the child to feel like an outcast.
- Being made to wait.
- Unmet wishes for attention, others refuse to play with him, or jealousy.
Behavior – describe the behavior in detail. Use concrete terms.
Consequences – follow the tantrum trail and examine the aftershocks.
Consider whether the behavior resulted in:
- Avoiding a situation
- Getting attention
- Getting some desired object
- Self-pleasure or soothing through repetitive behaviors; these calm the child, but often upset others.
- Venting of frustration, especially when the child’s behavior has no clear benefit, such as when the child destroys his own half-completed project in frustration.
Sometimes, recurring tantrums are not caused by underlying triggers, but rather as a matter of habit. The child may simply be used to getting his way through yelling; he does not know a better way to express himself. Consequences reveal if the meltdown is fueled by manipulation or frustration. Usually, the manipulative tantrum allows the child to “get his way” or avoid the undesirable situation. For example, did the whining child bargain his way out of doing his duties? Did the attention-seeking “tantrummer” steal the show with his shenanigans and get Mom’s undivided attention at the wrong time? Did the sulking teenager cause Mom to cave in and buy the latest________? And even if the consequence led to punishment, did the child learn from his mistakes?
Once you have diagnosed both the cause and symptoms, you need a preventive plan. You already know what your child needs; now you need to figure out what your child needs you to do to help him fill those needs.
The first thing you want to do is modify the triggers. You want to make it easy for your child not to explode. You want to time situations right and avoid setting off an overly exhausted, hungry or sick child. You want to make appropriate demands, sometimes even adjusting expectations and accepting limitations. Can your child’s teacher allow him to complete 5 of the 25 math homework problems? Can you ask your child to clean up the playroom for ten minutes, instead of until it is entirely organized? You want to reduce sensory stimulant triggers, such as too much noise, light, touch, etc. You might even want to give visual supports and provide graphic instruction, guiding your child through potentially challenging scenarios.
Next, you want to teach the skills to overcome the trigger. Skills can be learned – when taught correctly. Academic challenges, social difficulties and even emotional regulation abilities are almost always surmountable. Is it a general concept, such as problem solving, perspective taking or venting in an acceptable manner? Or is it a specific skill? Do you know how to teach the skill? Does your child need professional intervention? Indeed, your child can learn how to express himself in a more constructive way if taught how to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.
Finally, you want to implement a reward or loss system, encouraging your child to make the extra effort and overcome his challenge. Only use a loss system if the triggering situation has been modified to a manageable-sized challenge, the child learned the skills to deal with the situation in a better way, and was reminded to engage in proper behavior but still chose the negative behavior.
In addition, you might consider biological and physical strategies, such as dietary changes, exercise or even medication therapy.
The following scenario depicts a mother solving a typical challenge by using ABC’s and implementing a preventive plan.
When Steve’s mom was called down to school for a meeting, she know that Steve was in for it. She had already spoken to the teacher several times on the phone regarding Steve’s frequent altercations during recess. She knew the teacher had already penalized him with lost recess, and she had also tried implementing several consequences of her own. Nothing seemed to be working. Now that she had to come down to school, she knew this was serious business.
She already filled in the C’s – lost recess, different created consequences and lots of criticism. She wanted more information about the behavior and antecedents. At the meeting, she began asking the teacher for more specifics of unacceptable recess time behavior. The teacher said he had hit, kicked and pushed other children during recess. She asked for a description of the most recent flare-up, and the teacher said that yesterday he had pushed a boy.
Then, she began zooming in on the antecedents. She asked, “What happened before Steve pushed?” The teacher had no idea. She tried questioning classmates. They answered, “Nothing; he just pushed him.” She even asked Steve, but Steve denied pushing, although everyone else saw him do just that.
With no concrete trigger data, she decided to do some real sleuthing and come down to the schoolyard for some observation. She watched how Steve approached two boys playing ball and said, “Can I play?” The boys answered, “No, we just started.” Steve squinted his eyes and lightly shoved one of the boys.
She approached Steve and asked why he did that. He muttered, “Because they hate me and won’t let me play.” This spoke volumes about Steve’s distorted perception of his classmates’ messages, and his ensuing misbehavior. He surmised that peers who did not allow him to play dislike him. Really, all they were trying to say was that he has to wait to play with the winner.
As she continued watching him to see whether her hunch was accurate, she noticed time and again that whenever Steve was told that he cannot join an already stated game, he would push, punch or hit. She also saw that whenever he disagreed when told he was out during a game, the disagreement led to a physical fighting match.
Sometimes, these flare-ups landed Steve in trouble; other times, they went unnoticed. Never did his outburst get his peers to take his side. In fact, they seemed to be increasingly wary of him and tried to steer clear. He never really seemed to be getting any real payoff. Still, these two perceptions of social rejection and social injustice crept under his skin and got the better of him. She knew that she did not need to penalize him more since the consequences he had received were not working. She would need to brainstorm for a preventive plan. Steve’s mother wanted him to learn how to overcome the triggers and respond in a more positive way. Specifically, she wanted him to have friends to play with, and understand that “waiting for a turn” was not a personal rejection. She also wanted him to learn how to accept being out even when he thought he should be in. First, she tried to modify the triggers. She wanted him to have a regular playmate during recess. So she asked the teacher to encourage structured play and ensure that Steve was invited to join. She also gave him games and balls to bring to recess, so that he would be initiating the game, rather than depending on joining others’ ongoing activities.
Next, she aimed to give him skills to deal with the triggers. She sat Steve down and explained to him that these rejections were not personal, but rather rules of fair play. She showed him how boys who sometimes did not allow him to play initially later invited him into another round of the game. She also discussed how he could find another partner while waiting for the game he really wanted.
Finally, she explained that fighting about questionable outs caused him to lose playing time, and Steve agreed that he preferred to use recess time productively rather than waste it arguing. She also reminded him that he would be a more popular playmate if he would argue less often.
She summarized both of these skills on a cue card to reinforce the skills. She asked the teacher to review this card with him before recess. She also told the teacher about the particulars of the discussion and asked him to remind Steve of the various highlights when Steve looked like he was heading toward a meltdown.
As far as implementing a reward or loss system, she decided to keep the school’s consequence system in place and added a reward system of her own, promising Steve a trip to the park if he would control himself for one week. One month later, the teacher called Steve’s mother with good news. Steve had overcome another hurdle in his path to growing up.
Remember: If a child has been prepared for a challenge and is taught coping skills for that particular situation, then we can try to stand firm and push his resistance. If children do not have the skills to cope with a challenging task, then we should avoid the power struggle.