Helping a first-grader cope with life’s disappointments
Q: I just put my first-grader on the bus. Right before that, I had received a text that said he wouldn’t be able to go to a friend’s house as planned because his friend had become sick. He asked me to see whether he could go to another friend’s house and declared, “I am going to someone’s house.” He has a hard time with transitions. I tried to roll with it, not overreact and not get caught up in explaining why I can’t invite him to someone else’s house. What I am concerned and frustrated about is that at the bus stop, he was kicking his sister’s stroller and being rude and obstinate around our neighbors. My instinct is that if this is how he’s going to behave, he shouldn’t get to go to a friend’s house. I get being disappointed, but my boundary is when he treats me poorly. Is that unreasonable?
A: This is a perfect example of how we can help our children adapt to difficult and inconvenient circumstances and how hard it can be to do so. First, you handled it beautifully, and even though you would have preferred that he had not acted the way he did, I want to highlight what was normal about it.
Let’s begin by understanding how a child deals with disappointment compared with how an adult does: When adults get news that is inconvenient, our mature minds immediately feel the pain of being let down and then get to work on fixing the problem. We make quick, logical sense of our circumstances, assess what can and can’t be changed, and either move into action or into acceptance. We are (usually) able to empathize with someone else’s experience and try to make it better: “Man, it stinks my friend is sick. I will drop off some soup for her today and let her rest.”
Our adult brains are both emotional and sense-making machines. We can feel our disappointment and move through it. If the disappointment is acute and painful, we will also cry about what we cannot change.
Children are deeply emotional, but the rational, mature part of their brain is not working as well. In most 7-year-olds, you see more and more “on one hand and on the other hand” thinking, as developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls it. For instance, if young children really wanted cereal for breakfast but there were only eggs, they might say, “On one hand, I was excited for cereal, but on the other hand, I can eat these eggs.” Most 2-, 3- and even 4-year-olds struggle mightily with this, but 7-year-olds? They can hold two opposing thoughts. Mostly.
What happened when your son exploded at the bus stop? We know he has trouble with transitions, which means he has difficulty moving from mad to sad, from frustration to tears. He has built something in his mind and emotions, and when that image cannot be brought to fruition, the pain of the letdown is too much for him to bear. Rather than cry or feel sad, his mind moves into trying to change what isn’t working: “This is unacceptable. I wanted to see Billy, and I was going to have a great time. Now this is not going to happen. I will make another play date, then.” None of this is conscious; it is your son’s immature brain escaping pain. Adults do this, too, whether it be drinking alcohol, binge-watching TV or overeating. It is normal to want to escape pain. What’s hard is practicing staying in it and moving through it.
To add to this, our children’s public outbursts are embarrassing. All parents feel shame when their children act out. And that embarrassment and frustration leads to your desire to punish your son: “My instinct is that if this is how he’s going to behave, he shouldn’t get to go to a friend’s house.” I love that you used the word “instinct,” because that is usually code for “fear.” When we operate from our instincts, we are often reacting to our reptilian brain. This part of our brain feels attacked by our children and is often provoked into attacking back (punishing) or controlling them. I am not saying that you should stand by while your son kicks his sister’s stroller. But you don’t need to punish him to prove a point. So leave the public nature of this outburst in the past and figure out how to help your son move through transitions with more ease.
1. Try to deliver bad news as privately and personally as you can. This means taking your son away from others (siblings included), getting down to his eye level and capturing his eyes in yours. When we speak to the tops of our children’s heads, almost everything tends to go a little less smoothly.
2. Walk him into the bad news and his hurt feelings. Because we love our children, we will often deliver bad news and then immediately begin trying to fix things and cheerleading: “But it’s okay! We can go to the park instead! Don’t be sad!” But for children who have trouble transitioning from mad to sad, this rarely works. Instead, draw out the feelings: “Reginald, I have bad news. Scott cannot play today, and I know how disappointed and mad you are going to be. This really stinks.” Resist the urge to fix the situation, because this sends him right into anger. You want to hold him in his disappointment until he has his tears.
3. And when he cries, still resist the urge to try to fix things. You can just be there to listen, hold him and wait for the storm to pass. You want to hold him in this pain because you are preparing him for the many pains that life will bring, and the more he can adapt to these small pains, the better he can handle the larger ones to come.
4. Pick your moments to help your son adapt. Sometimes it’s easier to allow life’s circumstances to change — it isn’t your fault that his friend is sick — and then to simply be there for him. Perhaps it would have been plausible to try to make another play date work. Just don’t get cornered into making promises you can’t fulfill, or you’ll only invite more trouble.
I have given you a lot of stuff to work on here. Please know that this is not an overnight process and that you must be patient with yourself. He will get there.