I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room last week, watching a little girl have a hard time. She was leaning her full weight into her Mom, loudly declaring that she did not want to go to the dentist. She was squirming in her seat and turning her Mom’s face toward her own whenever the woman turned to speak to her other child. Another woman in the waiting room caught the Mom’s eye and sympathetically said, “One of those days, huh.” Looking slightly embarrassed and beleaguered, the Mom replied, “We have lots of them,” and then matter of factly carried her protesting child to the waiting hygienist.
All kids undoubtedly have off days, when whatever stressors are impinging upon them pass the point of no return. (Did anyone see me and my kids in party city last week?) Some kids, though, have these moments or days more than others. Like the little girl in the waiting room, this type of child often has an unexpected level of difficulty managing the demands of her days and requires a higher than average level of parental intervention, patience and skill. It can be truly frustrating, exhausting and even demoralizing when you are working harder than you likely have with your other children (and harder than your friends and relatives seem to work with their kids) and still find that your child continues to struggle with extreme or intense reactions or over long recovery times from distressing events.
Parents often find relief and direction by framing these challenges in terms of the child’s capacity to soothe or regulate themselves. Some children seem naturally able to maintain or regain their equilibrium during stressful times. Research backs up this common parent observation: about 40% of kids are born with what’s called an easygoing temperament, which means they are generally in a ready and steady state of being. Children who have difficulty coping with the demands of daily life, often turn out to be the ones born with a temperament from the 2 other general categories: slow to warm up/cautious or difficult/active/feisty. These ways of being in the world come with the advantages of often deeply felt feelings, high energy fun or great powers of quiet observation. The disadvantage, of course, is that children who start the day with their equilibrium in already higher or lower than expected gear, will have more trouble coping than the easygoing kid when the activities of the day add stress to what may already be a precarious or near precarious balance.
In addition to temperament, children who present their parents with what seem greater than expected challenges are also often those whose senses respond to the world with over or under typical levels of sensitivity. This variety of sensory profile can challenge children’s equilibrium by producing physical discomfort (itchy sweaters), overstimulation (the noise level becomes irritating), understimulation (activity and fidgeting bring stimulation level up to comfort zone). or any other type of sensory motor induced state of imbalance. Adding fuel to the fire (seams to the socks!), the regular experience of this type of disequilibrium can make kids anxious. A chronic sense of vulnerability regarding one’s comfort level can push anyone off track more easily and make it harder to get back on, too. The wide range of behaviors that can result from this type of experience is frequently baffling and frustrating to parents and to children.
Directing your parenting efforts toward building children’s self regulation skills can help them cope more effectively . It can also help the whole family enjoy more balanced days. A helpful sequence to follow is: empathize with a child’s frustration, build a child’s awareness of her strengths and challenges, work together on new coping strategies, and define the goal as improving skills for comfort and self-control. Empathy helps a child learn that while they have to follow certain rules, we adults understand that part or all of their behaviors reflect their feeling off balance or off track, rather than some innately bad quality. Once a child feels understood, you can use that experience to help them develop a greater understanding of themselves (e.g. I am not a bad child but an extremely intense one who needs help calming down when I’m upset).
Once the understanding is there, you have a common starting point to build on. You can have a conversation about working together to find strategies for managing difficult moments. Strategies can be designed together, with kid input when possible. An emphasis on the goal of coping with stressors, rather than eliminating them, helps kids know that they can tolerate the inevitable bumps in the road. While eliminating stressors is sometimes possible and often desirable, kids need to learn that they can handle difficulty and that it is possible to regain their footing, even after very challenging moments.
In our workshops, we strategize with you to come up with the most helpful plan for your family. Strategies can run the gamut from deep breaths to time alone for regrouping to a big hug to a chance to draw angry pictures to full quiet to lots of noise to talking it out. Once a child understands that they can have an impact on their own feelings and behaviors, they can start to build the kind of coping skills that lead to a steadier, more productive way of being. Working through the process together gives kids and parents the chance to enjoy the strengths that come with these challenges and to feel more effective and positive in their everyday family adventures.
Lori Walsh is a founding member of .