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Why tantrums are just (bad) communication

How to re-frame your child's tantrums as an attempt at communication, and how that can lead you to help calm them down and understand them better.

This morning I woke up to screaming (again).

My 6 year old son was screaming at his mom. "I don't even know how to do it! You have to do it!"

I groggily walked to the bathroom, to find him standing in front of the bathroom sink, wash cloth in his hand, crying.

"I don't know what to do next!" he shouted.

Now, he is 6 years old. He has cleaned himself many times before. So my first thought was "he's just faking it because he wants his mom to clean him."

But, instead of reacting to my first thought, I just gave myself a couple more moments to think (maybe because I was still too sleepy to do anything).

That's when I remember something that Dr Hilary Mandzik said when we interviewed her for our book "How To Get Kids To Listen".

Dr Hilary Mandzik is a licensed psychologist and the host of the popular podcast Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary.

Dr Hilary said that if your child is saying "No, I can't do this", then instead of thinking "he's doing this on purpose", rather think "what is he really trying to tell me".

Here's what she said:

So if your child is pushing back and saying, "No, I can't do this," or they're scared of doing it, or they're having sort of a meltdown around you asking them to do something. To me, I look at all behavior as communication. So if you ask your child to do something and they fall apart, that to me is data.

That tells me, "Okay, something's going on with my kid." My child needs something right now. My child is missing the skill to deal with this appropriately. And I don't necessarily know which thing is going on in any given moment. So, when I see my kiddo melt down over something that shouldn't be a big deal, I'm going to get curious.

Dr Hilary Mandzik

Instead of getting mad at my son for waking me and not wanting to do something that I know he can do, I got curious instead.

I realized that maybe it just felt like too much for him. Like too much work.

So, I broke the steps down for him. "First, put the wash cloth under the water. Then, wet it and put some soap on."

Now suddenly, each small step seemed easy for him, and he stopped complaining.

Soon, he was cleaned and dressed, no further tantrums. No fighting or further frustrations on my part. Magic!

In the interview with Dr Hilary, she shares how to figure out what your child’s “bad” behavior is telling you about them. She also shares the single most important thing we can do for our kids to help them develop emotion regulation.

My personal favorite part of the interview was at the end, when Dr Hilary explained why there is no such thing as bad kids (or bad parents). I often think about what she said.

You can find the full interview with Dr Hilary Mandzik - Why connection leads to cooperation - here.