There are few things more frustrating than a perpetually pouting child. I know because I’ve had one. Sometimes two. It’s exhausting, because no matter how good out intentions, being around the negativity of a child pouting is draining, especially when it’s illogical and we spend our time attempting to turn it around. Having largely overcome this issue in our home, I have a few tips for dealing with a sulking child.
A while ago I was in the kitchen when I heard a disagreement between my girls escalating. I abandoned dinner and went to intervene. But, as was becoming a frequent occurrence, Pixie’s temper exploded and there was no calming her down.
Dealing With a Sulking Kid Throwing a Tantrum
I don’t recall the precise circumstances on this particular occasion, because there were so many they all meld together. Suffice to say the ‘crime’ her sister had committed certainly didn’t warrant the response, if for no other reason than Pixie is six and Elfin is only three. However, despite my regular attempts to explain that we must make allowances for those younger than us, it seems to go in one ear and out the other.
And when her temper erupts, there is no reasoning with her.
When this happens, it’s extremely difficult to remain calm. I adore my children, but I’m only human. I have a real problem with noise levels, and so when Pixie loses it, I find it difficult to ignore my stress response to her fury. And when I’m struggling just to remain calm, I know I’m not able to parent in the way I want to.
In moments like those I find it helpful to remember this quote:
The children who need the most love, ask for it in the most unloving ways.Russel Barkley
How to Deal With a Sulking Child
I knew something had to change, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so I started Googling for strategies. Here’s some of the advice I found:
- Don’t engage with bad behaviour,
- Send them to their room,
- Remove privileges.
But as parents who have never used a naughty step and don’t believe in cry it out, these suggestions didn’t sit right with us. So we ignored them and followed our gut instead. But just before I share with you what has worked for us, I want to share the information I found about the limitations of those suggestions…
I started to look into the effects of ignoring ‘poor’ behaviour in kids, to see whether perhaps my weakness when it came to discipline was, in fact, ‘enabling’ undesirable acting out. Everything I found confirmed my instincts:
Ignoring children is never the answer.
Aside from not giving the intended results, it also implies that a child’s behaviour is a choice. But of course we know that children have poor impulse control, which is what drives their behaviour at a young age. This approach also suggests that the alleged decision children make to ‘misbehave’ is a calculated or manipulative choice designed to achieve a goal.
Certainly for young children, the truth is closer to the fact that they’re feeling overwhelmed, and are simply acting intuitively (something we often do even as adults).
We may not like the way that looks – it’s soooo draining! – but they are not actively conniving to frustrate us. They are feeling sad or mad or both, and they are still learning how to appropriately regulate those emotions.
They need our help and guidance with this. It’s a huge responsibility. But for me the breakthrough came when I discovered that ignoring children teaches them the following…
They’re Not Important
Think about how it makes you feel when your partner/sister/mother/friend doesn’t respond to you in the way you’d hope in a moment of need. It’s highly unlikely to change your feelings or how you’re acting in that moment, and much more likely to exacerbate those feelings instead.
You’ll probably even feel pretty let down. And that’s as an adult with a sound grasp of and ability to regulate your own emotions.
Actions speak louder than words, and using a strategy of ignoring a small child as a disciplinary tool will teach them that their feelings are not important to you.
Their Big Feelings are Scary
…Or that you can’t cope with them, which is an equally unhelpful message.
Nobody likes feeling sad or bad, but it’s a normal and healthy part of life, and our job as parents is to equip our little ones with the tools they need to become resilient when faced with uncomfortable feelings. Sending a message that big feelings are scary does the opposite.
It’s far more beneficial to teach that it’s okay to sit with those feelings, work through and express them appropriately, and then let them go.
They Should Bury Those Feelings
If a child learns that their big feelings are too overwhelming for us (and therefore them) to deal with, then the subtext is that they should suppress them.
The trouble with suppressed feelings is that they never disappear; they fester and eventually spill out in an inappropriate manner, at an inappropriate time. And in the meantime every interaction they have is coloured by those buried feelings, manifesting as a lack of confidence, or a fear of intimacy.
They Can’t Trust Us
Children are born trusting. If we don’t respond to them appropriately, they will learn that their trust is misplaced. And this is the most heartbreaking lesson a wrong reaction to their big feelings teaches, because of the way it manifests…
Not to Come to Us For Help
If we do not respond positively to our children when they’re small, then they’ll learn not to come to us when they’re older.
We will ultimately lose that privilege, and they will lose that support.
Okay, enough negativity. The point is, I knew that what I felt in my heart was correct – that is not the way I wanted to parent, and for good reason.
So what was the answer?
It’s on us to help our little ones. And thank goodness, I figured out how with Pixie.
Before I come to that, I just want to give you a little heads up that the solution is simple, but it’s certainly not easy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a parent.
But I promise it is oh so worth it.
How to Stop Your Child From Sulking – Without Withdrawing Compassion
I once heard a really excellent idea for dealing with your children when feelings run high:
Imagine somebody is watching.
It changes everything. If you can lay down at night and feel proud of how you managed a tense situation with your child, then everybody is winning.
The biggest challenge was working on myself. I realised that at the very heart of the issues we were having was the fact that I’d forgotten these simple truths:
1. A child having a tantrum is not giving you a hard time; they’re having a hard time.
2. By default, children want to please us.
3. Even when they’re behaving in a bratty way, children are, essentially, innocent.
4. My own feelings and perspective on a given day influence my responses to my children.
5. It is entirely my responsibility to reframe so that I can be a better parent.
How to Stop a Child Pouting
With the above in mind, which basically sum up my values but are also very easily forgotten in the moment, I put a plan in place with the support of my husband.
The plan involved general changes, as well as practical steps for managing meltdowns.
The general changes included reasserting boundaries, and a making self-care for myself a priority. I needed to ensure I had the emotional bandwidth to see this through while it was still tough, before we made headway.
Because it took some time to show improvements – but over the course of a few weeks, things got drastically better.
A General Shift in Attitude
As mentioned above, I had to keep the above in mind all of the time. I’d fallen into a dark trap I’m not proud of where I’d allowed Pixie’s worsening behaviour to undermine and damage our connection: I was so exhausted that I was reacting instead of taking a breath and responding with a clear head.
I reminded myself constantly that if I was feeling cut adrift from my daughter, then she was feeling it too, and that in itself would explain her behaviour. She was literally screaming and lashing out for me to reestablish our bond.
This new perspective alone enabled me to find the energy to give Pixie what she needed. Here’s what that looked like on a practical level:
1. Time In
While I strongly believe that time outs are counterproductive and teach the child nothing positive, that’s not to say that I’m a pushover. If Pixie or Elfin are behaving inappropriately, they’ll get a warning, and then they’ll be removed from the situation.
But there’s one huge difference between the scenario in our home and a typical time out: they are never left alone.
The time is intended to help them calm down, away from whatever the stressor was. But it’s done with tenderness and compassion rather than with disapproval or discipline.
Depending on the severity of the meltdown, Pixie will sometimes resist. She’s very much like me, and when she’s feeling sad, she often pushes me away. But knowing her as I do, I’m painfully aware that these are the moments she’s most in need of my love and reassurance. This leaves me in a predicament, because alongside trying to provide those things, we’re also trying to teach body autonomy and respect.
So, I now pull her onto my lap, and unless she’s trying to hit, I allow her to climb off. If she does, I gently remind her that I’m there, and I want to look after her so I’m going to try again, but that her body is her own and if she resists then I’m going to stop.
Nine times out of ten she either collapses into my arms as I lift her, or she actively climbs into my lap.
The surrender into a cuddle leads into this next point. What she really wants is connection, and so I tend to just hold her for a while. I don’t try to stop her from crying, I just keep her close, stroking her hair until she’s done, and that in itself somehow strengthens our connection.
Once Pixie has moved through her hurt/anger/frustration and is calm, then we’re able to talk.
Sometimes these chats can be productive. For example, during one of these talks I was able to establish that she was becoming increasingly fed up with her little sister always wanting to play with her, which I totally get.
Pixie is three years older than Elfin, and she sometimes needs to be allowed to play alone. So once she’d articulated this need, I started to make big efforts to ensure she gets that time.
3. Observe and Preempt
Based on the above issue, keeping an eye on my girls’ play is one of the ways in which I observe and preempt a problem from occurring. Often I’m able to head off a conflict by separating them before Pixie loses her temper.
Not that I endorse disallowing upsets from ever taking place. Because while it feels natural to prevent our children from ever feeling sadness or other negative emotions, they’re nonetheless a valid part of the human experience. And the only way to teach our little ones to become resilient when they’re faced with disappointments, is by allowing them to be exposed to them, and holding their hand through those uncomfortable feelings.
4. Calm Down Kit
When Pixie is feeling very cross*, she’s also directed to her calm down kit. This is something that we put together for her for when she’s feeling stressed. These are the items inside hers, but you could add any number of things to encourage mindfulness and calm:
I’m also a huge advocate of journaling, and while Pixie has been fairly reluctant until more recently (she’s still really learning to write), it’s something I keep coming back to and encouraging her to do.
Journaling and writing gratitude lists are such an incredibly powerful tool for helping to identify and work through feelings, and promote positivity and appreciation. My kids journal also includes plenty of space for colouring and drawing too for when she’s less receptive!
6. Model Appropriate Behaviour
It’s all too easy to have higher expectations for our children than we’re capable of ourselves at times.
I try to behave in ways I’d be proud of my girls emulating. I’m not perfect of course, far from it. So one of the things I’m careful to model is apologising when I mess up. My hope is that this will teach them that perfection is a myth, and it’s okay to make mistakes if you learn from them, apologise when appropriate, and try to always do your best.
Yes, I mentioned this already. But there’s seriously nothing more important. And as well as the reconnection when feelings are running high, there’s another element to this one too:
General day to day connection.
It’s vital to make the time for this regularly, because you can be sure that behaviour begins to deteriorate when that precious time slips because life gets in the way. If Pixie becomes highly sensitive and irritable, I can almost always trace it back to the fact that she’s missing that connection. I don’t for a moment think it’s something she’s consciously aware of, but when she feels secure with us, her behaviour is vastly improved – and when she’s not then this is how she protests and lets me know she needs us to reconnect.
I’m sure as Pixie gets older I’ll be faced with many more challenges I’ll have to navigate. But in the meantime this strategy seems to work for us, and I really hope it helps you too.