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Parenting Advice
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S. - Parent Educator and Early Childhood Specialist, founder and CEO of Family Time, Inc., and consultant. In 17 years of classes, seminars, and one-on-one coaching, Karen has supported thousands of parents in their efforts to build great foundations for children. Karen is uniquely committed to helping parents become problem solvers in the large and small questions that arise "living with children."

Emotional Outbursts

Question: My 5 year old recently has become extremely sensitive and somewhat "needy" of mom. I work 4.5 hours per day, 5 days per week and have since he was 6 months old. The sitter I have is great and has been with us for 2 years. For example, the other morning I went downstairs, my son called for me I went back up and he wanted to snuggle in bed before waking up (OK, but my back was hurting this morning) so I said lets snuggle in my bed which is easier for me to access when my back hurts, he started crying, no snuggle here. I explained again and he than just said "go away". What do you make of this. Then at his 5th birthday, friends just coming over, someone got bubbles on his costume and he got very upset and wanted to cancel the party. He calmed down fairly quickly but when he gets upset he has this annoying whine cry. How should I respond to these types of situations? Thanks hope I gave enough specifics. - Jackie

Answer: Your son is going through an emotional growth spurt. He is temporarily in a state of disequilibrium, as is true for all growth spurts. He exerts control and then gets frustrated. He imagines things to be one way and then something throws a wrench into the picture. If things aren't done exactly as he likes, he falls apart. He can't quite find the right balance between exerting control and accepting the unexpected.

Routines are critical at this time to create a sense of predictability in his world. Try to make as few changes as possible to his daily routine in the next few months. If he is reacting to an upcoming change (like school) or some other new expectations, you will want to encourage his strengths. Proceed forward with challenges but equip him with the tools he needs to feel successful. Give him ongoing reminders of all the things he knows how to do well.

When possible, be on the look-out for those little things that might upset the moment. But know that frustrations are inevitable at this time regardless of your best efforts. Just like tantrums with younger children, he may just need to fall apart. It's his way of releasing the emotional struggle. Talk with him about what he can do when he feels frustrated or disappointed. It sounds like he already expresses himself very well in words. Saying it aloud, however, doesn't change the frustrating reality. Plus, you are left feeling badly about whatever went wrong.

When he tells you to "go away", he is not saying he doesn't love you. He is saying "I'm mad I can't have things my way. When his birthday fun is disrupted, it is not ruined. It's just another example of children feeling the pressure of special occasions. Do not worry that your son experiences unpleasant emotions. The goal is to teach him how to express negative emotions in an appropriate way. Unfortunately, we cannot teach much in the emotional moment. We can offer comfort when it's welcome or stand by and let it pass when he needs to be on his own.

Talk to him later in the day about what went wrong from his perspective. You can then talk about "what else" he can do in the future. This is a prime opportunity to teach decision making and problem solving. Help him to understand what happened before he was sad. Could he have communicated better? Could he have tried to be more flexible? Will he accept help from others when he feels stuck in a bad feeling? Help him to be aware of the situation and try to make choices that make him happy. Be patient - this is the beginning of thinking skills that will develop slowly over the next few years.

Your son will make some choices that do not help remedy the problem - whining is one of them. Remind him that he needs to get himself calm before you can help him solve the problem. Praise him for getting himself under control and for making good decisions like going ahead with his birthday party. He is growing into a stage of thinking and problem solving where things will get much easier for him (and for you!).

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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