Seven out of ten families had children (mostly under the age of seven) who were unhappy upon arriving. The power struggles were real, y’all.
Two out of ten families arrived with grandparents or friends and the children were eager to share happiness instead of grief.
The other family had either hit the random happiness jackpot (that day) or, more likely, had bribed their child into happiness in order to get through the evening.
I remember those days all too well. When I had children under the age of seven I’d constantly wonder, “Does parenting ever get easier?” It seemed like everything with young children was a struggle.
They cried a lot. They said no too often. They seemed generally moody and unhappy.
Of course, when I began to pay close attention, I realized they were happier much more than I felt they were. It’s just that the tantrums, power struggles, and tears take such a huge amount of time and energy that it can easily feel as if young children are always unhappy.
If the kiddos ain’t happy, then mama ain’t happy and if mama ain’t happy then . . . well, you can see the terrible cycle that families end up repeating day after day.
Why Your Kids Are Unhappy and What To Do About It
Why is Everything a Struggle with Kids?
Why don’t kids roll out of bed happy? I mean, they’re living the life, right? No bills, they don’t have to deal with traffic, no big, life-altering decisions they have to make.
Why do we have to start the day with a toddler who refuses every breakfast choice offered? Why do kids fight brushing their teeth, getting dressed, cleaning their rooms?
Why must everything be a tantrum-and-tear-filled struggle?
Well, I’m going to tell you why and what to do about it, but first I want you to do this for a few days: Keep track of the struggles. By writing down the time, length of tantrum/struggle, what the struggle was about, and how it was resolved you’ll see a few important things.
First, you’ll be better able to tease out any issues that might require help from a professional. If you’re dealing with ADHD, health problems, sensory issues, autism spectrum concerns, mental or emotional health matters, or developmental difficulties knowing the patterns of your child’s behavior can help a professional to get a better picture of what’s going on.
Secondly, you may find that your children aren’t as unhappy as you feel they are. As I said before, dealing with unhappy children takes so much time and emotional energy in contrast to dealing with happy children that you may have an inaccurate picture of the amount of time your children actually spend in tears and tantrums.
What we give our attention to tends to increase. When I discovered that individually my children were actually happy more than they weren’t, I realized that I wasn’t focusing enough on the easy moments. I certainly wasn’t giving enough gratitude for those moments! Changing my perspective helped me to focus more on the good times and feel less overwhelmed by the difficult times.
Lastly, if you have more than one child under the age of seven you’ll probably feel like the tantrums outweigh the peaceful moments. That’s not because any one child is unusually frustrating. It’s because you’re outnumbered, mama. You’re playing a game of whack-a-mole. You might get one child calm just seconds before another one is set off. Or, as is often the case, they all break down at once. This is one of the reasons that having my children close together was one of my biggest parenting regrets.
You’re not alone when you feel like moving through the day with children is more difficult, in part, because of their tendency to protest over things you often feel are silly. Of course, their reasons for being upset are certainly not silly to them. Here are some of the reasons that children create struggle. Thankfully, this information makes it easier for you to soothe the struggles and help your children find contentment as you move through your day together.
HALT When Your Child is Unhappy
This one should be obvious, but sometimes our busy schedules cause us to forget the importance of HALT.
What is HALT? HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. If your child is misbehaving, tantruming, or generally making life more difficult for himself and for you there’s a really strong chance he’s feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired. (Or, some combination thereof.)
You won’t get cooperation from a child (or even many adults) who is hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Deal with these core triggers before trying to get your child to cooperate. Don’t plan outings during meal, snack, or nap times. Be aware of your child’s emotional triggers to head off angriness and loneliness.
Sure, your child has to learn to function in the real world. Sometimes that means moving forward despite feeling badly, but that’s a skill that many adults fail to accomplish. Your preschooler isn’t yet proficient in this important life skill.
So, what can you do about it? Again, plan well, keep snacks on hands, cut out activities that keep your children from getting enough sleep, deal with small emotional upsets before they have a chance to grow or compound. In other words, be proactive so you don’t have to be reactive.
Childhood is a Hostage Situation and Children are Powerless
In my opinion, the first step to being a good parent is to remember what childhood felt like. No matter how awesome your parents were you were still at the mercy of their executive decisions. Of course, it should be that way. Adults have to call the shots because we’re . . . well . . . the adults.
However, just because that’s the correct order of things doesn’t mean it feels great. Sometimes it feels like a burden to us and oppressive to our children. I’m not asking you to stop being the adult. I’m asking you to remember what it felt like to have someone decide for you. That sort of empathy makes anyone a better leader.
When you empathize with your child you learn to pick your battles. Maybe everything you’re asking them to do isn’t completely necessary. Cut out the requirements that aren’t truly worth fighting for. An example is wearing a jacket in cold weather. You may insist that your child wears shoes. You don’t have to insist that they wear a jacket. Bring their jacket along. If they get cold, they’ll put it on. This teaches them to listen to their body and gives them choice and autonomy. These are important skills that will serve them their whole life.
Skip any battles that aren’t necessary and give your children choice in any situation where it is reasonably and safely possible. Then sit back and watch the power struggles magically lessen.
The World is Overwhelming and It’s Not Fun
When children are little every situation is new. Sometimes new is overwhelming. You know what you feel like during the first several days at a new job or the first months in a new city. Imagine being three and not yet being able to filter out what’s important and what’s not. You’ve got sights, sounds, and other sensations flying at you all the time.
Imagine being in daycare or school all day, with the sensory show that is, feeling excited to see your parents when they pick you up (high emotions), being driven to soccer practice where you’re stuffed into tights socks and cleats and shin guards further constricting your legs. Ugh! No thanks! Too much!
If your child is an introvert you’re going to have issues, mama. Even if your child is extraverted they may simply need a break.
In addition, many of the things we have to do each day simply aren’t fun. Kids like fun because they haven’t yet learned to be boring adults.
So, when you’ve got a child who’s overwhelmed and you’re asking them to do things that aren’t fun on a good day, you’ve got a tantrum waiting to happen.
How do you combat this perfect storm? First, don’t overschedule your child. My ideas about overscheduled children requires a full post, but simply put, if your child is in preschool or elementary school and under the age of 7, they really only need one after school activity outside of the home. That activity shouldn’t take more than two or three days per week to do. Give your children time to breathe and use their imagination. (Stay at home moms and homeschoolers, implementing a daily quiet time for children is very helpful.)
Be mindful that all of the demands of life (wake up, eat breakfast, brush teeth, fix hair, get dressed, get out the door – and that’s just the first hour of the day) are especially difficult for new, little brains to process and keep up with. Often children need a much slower pace than our busy adult lives will allow them to have.
As for things not being fun? I experienced a turning point in my parenting and my relationship with my children when I discovered the book Playful Parenting around the time my oldest was three. It was life changing for our family. Playful Parenting teaches parents how to make the boring stuff of life (brushing teeth, getting dressed) and the bigger stuff fun so that children become naturally more compliant in those areas.
You can get your copy of Playful Parenting here:
Children Lack Emotional Control and Regulation
I think that says it all. We aren’t born with emotional control and regulation. We’re born knowing how to cry – and cry loudly – to get what we need. Children who aren’t yet proficient in using their words to explain their feelings are going to have tantrums.
Children don’t know that they’re upset because they’re hungry or overwhelmed. They only know they feel bad and they only know how to communicate that through a show of tears and anger.
To help children learn to express themselves in a more productive way, reflect their feelings back to them by saying, “You feel angry because . . .” (if you know why) or “You feel badly and don’t know why.”
Understand that your children aren’t going to cooperate without threats or punishment (which should both be avoided) until they feel better. And that makes sense. The natural, biological response is to fix what’s wrong before moving forward. We, as adults, have learned to ignore that when necessary (sometimes to our detriment, however) or fix it quickly when needed.
You Have an Us vs Them Mindset About Parenting
If you went into parenting believing that being at war with your children was the natural order of things, you’re behind the curve on behavior management already.
Of course, there are going to be plenty of occasions when what you need your child to do is going to be different than what they want to do. The relationship you build with your child in the preschooler years is important. If you create an atmosphere of battle where the two of you work against each other and you win through threats and punishment, you’ll ultimately lose. You’ll raise toddlers who turn into “difficult” teens.
Use the parenting struggles of your preschool children to focus on relationship. Find ways to show them how to compromise (You must wear your shoes, but you don’t have to put on your jacket until you’re cold, for example.)
When safety and reason mean that you must enforce a rule they hate, empathize with their feelings about it – even when you can’t change the rule. This simple relationship practice builds a bridge and reminds your children that you care about their feelings even when you must stick to your guns.
You Approach the Situation With Impatience and Negativity
This reason that everything is a struggle with kids is related to the last one. If you go into difficult situations with your children expecting a struggle you’ll likely have your defenses up and respond to even their smallest objections with impatience and negativity.
Of course, this will only build more tension into the situation causing both of you to dig your heels in harder.
Instead of the knee-jerk reaction work on setting firm boundaries and predictable consequences for misbehavior. If you’re mindful of the reasons why your child may be struggling to comply or to be happy, if you’re being proactive instead of reactive, and if you’re responding to them with grace and empathy all that’s left is enforcing routines and consequences that they can expect. (You can find out more about that in my article “Sometimes Gentle Parenting Doesn’t Look Gentle“.)
Hang in There! Children Don’t Make Everything a Struggle Forever
Your little tantrum throwers will eventually leave that tactic behind. I know the days seem long now, but eventually children get better at expressing their needs. As long as you’ve modeled good communication for them and put in the practice the tips I’ve listed in this article, you’ll find that the tantrums lessen and your children become happier all on their own.
Remember, you aren’t responsible for your child’s happiness, but there are things you can do to help them find happiness on their own.
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