Yesterday my six-year-old son was faced with the choice of walking to the store or staying home to rest since he wasn’t feeling well. What to me seemed like a simple decision quickly became overwhelming for him. He started crying and wailing and became unable to communicate. This is a common emotional pattern for him these days, and having to make a decision between two things is the trigger that ends up in big emotions and lots of tears.
I hate to admit it, but I have had a hard time meeting this behavior with anything resembling patience. In the past, I would typically react by becoming impatient with him, acting dismissive of his feelings, counting him down, or walking away and expecting him to follow. I had the expectation that a child of four, five or six should not be behaving like a two-year-old. He should be able to regulate his emotions and act reasonably. Unrealistic expectation.
The Gesell Institute’s Your Six-Year-Old says that:
“Your typical six-year-old is a paradoxical little person, and bipolarity is the name of his game … In fact, sometimes just the choice of some certain object or course of action immediately triggers an overpowering need for its opposite.
In addition, at the age of 6, he is still living primarily in the emotion center of his brain. What we know from brain research is that when a child is having a tantrum (adults, too!) the brain floods with cortisol in an attempt to regulate the brain. The child is unable to access the higher brain, the decision-making center, and is stuck in the alarm center—in fight, flight, or freeze mode—physically incapable of being reasonable.
The more I practice peaceful parenting with my children, the more I am able to take these developmental truths into account so that I can meet my child with empathy. Yesterday, instead of responding as I have in the past, I held on to my son, rubbing his back and saying, “It sure is hard to decide between two fun things, isn’t it?” Very quickly he calmed down and was able to tell me why he was upset. Then, my husband and daughter went to the store while my son and I stayed home for a cuddle.
Just by becoming aware, and conscious, in the moment I was able to support my son through his big emotions and developmental changes. And I was able to build a closer relationship with him rather than tearing it down.