Tantrums and Talking with Children about Covid – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Last night’s call was so rich; thank you to those who called in! I love that the conversation included questions and comments about infants, toddlers, and even older children, along with honest conversations about how we, as adults, are coping. RIE is an Approach for a lifespan, just as parenting is a lifelong journey.

We are just about three months in to this…experience, and while there’s no end in sight, there’s surprisingly more gray now than at the start… some daycares are opening, some schools for older children are planning to open (albeit, both with some very different procedures)…and yet parents are still struggling to find ways to talk with children about what’s happening. That’s okay, I think we’re all still struggling to understand what’s happening now. Three months is a long time to be holed up at home, and if everyone has been healthy, you can start to wonder: is it necessary to still stay confined? *I don’t know the answer to that.* And I don’t think there really IS an answer…it is dependent on each family and their circumstances, who is in their house, who is in their circle of family and friends, and what does each family need to do in order to keep functioning, financially, mentally, spiritually.

But this is exactly WHY it can be challenging to find the words to talk to your children. I did and do suggest reading Not forever but for now because it can open the door to your child’s mind: what are they thinking about and worrying about. You can also simply chat, as you go on a walk: “Oh there’s the playground we used to go on. I remember when we went there every day.” [Pause]…or in the mornings: “Remember when we used to eat breakfast before going to school in the car? Now, we just go play in the living room.” [Pause]…or after a zoom call with family or friends: “It was so good to see Nana, but I miss hugging her.” [Pause].

In that pause, wait for the words, the sentences, the glance or the body language…wait for what your child shows you and use that to guide how you talk about things. It may be that you tap into something that has been bothering your child and you can respond…or it may be that you find your child doesn’t really respond* and perhaps they are not struggling the way you may think they may be. Back when I was a teacher, I often had to discourage staff from frequently resetting/restaging the toys in the room…I would ask them…are the children ‘bored’ with this set up…or are YOU? So ask yourself, is your child looking for answers about things, or are you?

*I will also say that sometimes you will not get a response right away: just like us, sometimes they need to think a little longer and they may need a little more time to process. Keep your ears and eyes open for what your child is communicating to you throughout the day, and especially in play. Remember that play is an outlet for children’s fears and worries, as much as it is an opportunity for joyful expression and creativity. For example, it’s SO normal to see a new big sibling to be very rough with a baby doll…to bang it, to pull it’s hair, maybe even to say things like “NO BABY!!” and be rough…this can alarm parents, and they may want to say “oh no, be gentle with the baby doll” in hopes that a child who learns to be gentle with a doll will be gentle with their sibling. But the doll is the best and most safe thing possible to bang around. Instead, use that as information about how your child might be feeling about their sibling, and in a quiet moment you might say “it’s hard to have a new baby in the house” [Pause] and go from there.

Oh my…I had more to say on that than I was expecting! That was just a snippet of a varied and full couple of hours. We also talked, interestingly in just about every conversation, about how children are human mood rings…they sense our vibe, our energy…they are incredibly empathic. So that may well be leading to more epic tantrums. Ah yes, those between 2 and 3 are seeing a lot of them, and yes, they may be amplified by the stress you are feeling, but they are also so incredibly normal and will pass (thank you, Mamma of a 7 year old for signing off last night with a heartfelt, They DO pass, I promise!). Once a child is in the midst of a tantrum, the best you can do is simply be there…don’t try to fix it, don’t try to end it, don’t take the blame for it (even if you’re pretty sure you’re ‘at fault’…just chalk it up as a lesson for next time (and apologize LATER)): your child needs you to be calm and the one who’s in charge. The sooner you are able to get yourself back to a state of calm, the sooner your child will, too (YMMV depending on sleep, hunger, hormones, full moons, lucky rabbit’s feet, and temperament…oh, and how your child is feeling, too). But seriously: it goes back to your little mood rings…if you are calm and relaxed, you are transmitting a message of “everything’s okay, I’mnot worried or upset. I know that this will pass.” That’s such a comforting message and will help ease the tantrum.

Now, we also talked about certain challenging behaviors…for example, a child who has been hitting and scratching his poor Mother and caregiver black and blue and red all over. As we talked, we keyed into the fact that this behavior came out when the child was feeling frustrated…ah, so the key to helping this behavior go away is to give a healthy outlet for the trigger. So, punching pillows used to work, but this kid is over it…so maybe stomping will be a more acceptable outlet….or beating his chest! When I talked to his Mom, I mimed some of this and we laughed…and honestly, that’s not necessarily a bad tack… I’m in no way saying you should cajole a child out of her feelings, but sometimes a well-timed joke or silly sound or gesture can help to arrest the feeling, get back in tune, and then get you onto the path of delivering your message (“When you’re frustrated, I won’t let you hit or scratch me, but you can beat your chest or stomp your feet or growl like a tiger!!”). Frustration and angst are fine; hurting is not. (This is another little preview of Beyond Behaviors…)

And I’ll just end with another reminder about slowing down and telling your children what you’re going to do (or what you’re going to do with them) before you do it. Our worlds have gotten smaller and our routines have gotten simplified in a lot of ways, so when we break out of the routine, it might feel jarring. Go slow, give them a heads up and a little time when you can. From babies on their backs to 2 year olds to 7 year olds to pets (Again, YMMV) to spouses: Communication, slowing down, being heard and seen…in other words: respect…this is RIE and this is what we all need.