Tantrums, Testing, & Talking Back

An interview with Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW

I find the “Three T’s” to be by far the hardest facet of parenting.  There’s so much talk about “The Terrible Twos” but every age seems to have its major struggles.  As the tantrums subside, the talking back and testing begin – and it seems to go in perpetual cycles.  In the face of what often feels like disrespect, how can we maintain our empathy for the underlying issues our kids are facing, but also set a clear foundation for acceptable behavior?  Is testing and talking back a necessary growing pain (for parents!)? Or is there a way to nip it in the bud?  With all the love, support, guidance, and understanding we show them, why do kids have to be so darned difficult, anyway??  We reached out to Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, for a deeper understanding and a little help taming the “T’s.”– Sam Kurtzman-Counter, Exec VP of TMC

Why is the age range of 2 to 6 years such a turbulent time for kids?

Kids this age are trying to synthesize two different developmental stages: on the one hand, they feel an increasing sense of competence and independence, like a big kid; but on the other hand, they still feel helpless and vulnerable at times, like a baby or little kid. They’re constantly seesawing back and forth between “I can do it myself – don’t help me!” and “Whoah, this is too much for me to take on – help!” It’s confusing for parents, because you’re always trying to figure out whether to step in or stand back. Take a snapshot of this stage and store it away for future reference, because you’re going to revisit the same dynamics when they’re tweens seesawing back and forth between teenager and child, and then again as teenagers when they’re about to launch into adulthood.

Why do kids go through those phases where they seem to be pushing boundaries and testing limits constantly?

Testing is part of the job description at this age, because kids can’t know where the boundaries are until they cross them. They’re trying to get a sense of their place in the family, and in the world. They’re trying to figure out how much power they have, and who’s really in charge – it’s all about “my will vs. your will,” because what you are really witnessing at this age is the birth of the human ego, or sense of self or separateness. If kids feel like they’re able to call the shots and control you through their behavior, they actually feel quite unsafe. At the end of the day, what they really want to know is that you’re in charge and they’re not – deep down, they know this is how things should be. So the parent’s task is to lovingly and firmly remind their child where the boundaries are – over and over and over again.

The other thing that’s happening for young children is they’re newly experiencing big surges of feelings, and it takes several years to master allowing these surges without getting carried away by them. That’s what emotional mastery is. To young children, emotions can feel like giant tsunamis – and some of the testing behavior is them saying, “I’m getting flooded by all of this emotion, and I have no idea what to do – please help me!” Kids need to know that you are bigger than their big feelings, and that you can help contain them when they can’t do that for themselves. If your emotions escalate right along with theirs, you’re both going to drown in the flood.

What usually triggers tantrums and acting-out behavior?

There are two ways to think about this – one is from the perspective of the bigger picture, and one focuses more on the smaller picture. From the smaller-picture perspective, the main triggers for acting out at this age are vying for your attention, transitions, and power struggles – they want something and you’re setting a limit. All of these fall under the heading “I want what I want, not what you want.” Kids this age don’t have much impulse control yet, so they need to be taught how to delay gratification, how to tolerate frustration, how to be patient and wait for something. These are core self-regulation skills they need to succeed in life. The key for parents is to allow for the degree of choice and freedom appropriate to the age, and simultaneously to own your authority as the parent – finding that balance. It’s not about wanting to having power over your child, which is really more about fear, but about holding a grounded, calm, loving space for him – in other words, keeping yourself emotionally regulated – as he navigates the turbulent waters of this developmental stage. This will go a long way toward helping him stay on a more even keel.

From a bigger-picture perspective, when kids tantrum what they’re also doing, inadvertently, is helping you get right into the NOW moment – this is where kids live. If you are often stressed or emotionally checked out, and it’s challenging for you to be fully present in your day-to-day interactions with your child, you may well have a child who tests more as she attempts to pull you out of your distraction. Part of what your child is here to teach you is how to return to the here and now – this is where life’s joy is! (Ok, except when your child is tantruming.) You once lived there, too, when you were a child – but you’ve forgotten how to stay there. One of a child’s greatest offerings is to remind us how to stop living mostly in the future and the past. To do that, you need to be emotionally present with yourself first – then you can offer that to your child as well.

Sometimes the talking back seems totally irrational, like they’re just arguing for argument’s sake. Calm responses and reflective understanding just seem to make it worse! Any suggestions?

This may happen for several reasons. If your child is hungry or tired, the best course is to just let it go. But sometimes a child will react this way if he feels like you haven’t genuinely heard him. Offering a non-charged response and using reflective-listening tools won’t work if you’re just going through the motions – kids are much smarter than we give them credit for, and they’ll see right through that. Imagine if you were in a grouchy mood and your spouse said to you, without emotion: “Oh, I can see that you’re really angry right now. It’s OK for you to feel angry.” That would drive you nuts! With your child, take a step back and really tune into what he is expressing – get into his shoes and see if you can feel what he’s feeling. Rather than just reflecting, see if you can offer some interpretation: instead of “You’re so frustrated that we have to leave now,” try, “You want to stay, and you want to keep playing with Theo. You really don’t want to leave at all, and you wish you could keep on playing as long as you want.” Don’t worry that your child will then get even more upset – far more often than not, feeling genuinely heard will calm him almost instantly. And whatever you do, don’t add “but” and then explain why you have to leave anyway, which will send him right back into feeling not-heard.

But sometimes your child’s negativity is about something else altogether: fear. She may be anxious about starting a new school or activity, welcoming a baby into the home, interacting with another child at school who’s threatening in some way, or simply growing up and becoming more independent from you, if she’s taking a big developmental leap forward. When we’re in fear, we’re in our “negative ego,” or that aspect of ourselves that focuses on separateness and comparison and comes up short. We’ve given our power away, and now we seek to regain it. The negative ego always seeks to engage with negative energy – that’s what it feeds on. It’s a trap for you, because you’ll feel like you’re being attacked and your first instinct will be to defend yourself.

Don’t buy in. If you suspect your child’s negativity is masking anxiety, saying so will help lift a huge burden off of her shoulders, because she’ll have been trying to hide it. Tell her that although she sounds angry or upset, you’re wondering if she’s having a hard time with new baby, new transition, whatever it is. Help her process what’s causing her fears – talk about it; encourage her to draw or paint her feelings; engage her in imaginary play; help build her confidence back up by asking her to teach you how to do something, like bake cookies in her pretend oven.

Sometimes it’s just so hard not to get angry and want to punish these outbursts and moments that feel like serious disrespect. What can we do instead?

Most parents will notice that some of your child’s behaviors pushes their buttons way more than others. When this happens, it’s usually because there’s a pattern being repeated that’s reminding you of something difficult from your own childhood. Whatever age your child is, they represent a portal back in time to your own childhood at that age – and the strong emotional charge often indicates that there’s something you experienced as a child that you couldn’t make sense of or fully process at the time, so it remains unresolved.

Don’t shoot the messenger! Your child is simply serving as your mirror, and the reaction you’re having is an opportunity to take a look at one of your own childhood beliefs or patterns that’s no longer serving you. Once you get to the root of what’s pushing your buttons with your child, you’ll find that her behavior doesn’t trigger you in the same way anymore.

How can we encourage more cooperation and less push back?

First and foremost, by focusing on your own well-being. If you’re overworked, overwrought, and overtired, you won’t have anything to bring to your relationship with your child – and your disconnect from yourself will show up in the mirror of his behavior. Taking care of you also means attuning to your own internal emotional experience as a parent – honoring it and staying present with it rather than glossing over or dismissing it. As you become more aware of your own feelings, you’ll do a better job of attuning and attending to those of your child.

Also, you can’t express too often that your child is A-OK just the way he is, even if you sometimes need to discipline his behavior. One way to do that is to allow all of his feelings – no matter how big, no matter how inconvenient – without trying to prevent or fix or change them. Arguably the most loving thing we can do for kids – or anyone, for that matter – is to give them permission to have their experience in life. That’s what each of us really wants. We can have lots of company and support and friendship and companionship on our journey, but we want to know that our experience is our own, and that we are free to have it. A child who is loved no matter what knows that your happiness is not tied to her ups and downs – and the positive self-esteem that flowers from that seed will translate as calmer, more cooperative behavior.

Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, is a regular contributor in our stable of experts at The Mother Company.  She is co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a company that offers collaborative consultation, education, parenting groups, counseling, and products to parents of children birth to five years. She is co-creator of the book and DVD “The Sleepeasy Solution”, and also maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show.” We want to be a parenting tool….For you!

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline, Learn