You’re ready to get out and enjoy some time with your family. You make a plan, get organized, and prep everyone for your outing and then—there’s a stick thrown in the spokes. Maybe it’s a small thing you can manage quickly, like a poopy diaper or a shoe tying battle. Perhaps the trouble starts once you’re already out and your child complains about the plan or hates their lunch options every.single.time. For those days you want to throw your hands up—perhaps due to one of these top five struggles—I’ve got your back with solid strategies for coming through the other side with connection and grace.
1. Stalling and distraction
If you have a child that is slow to warm up to the idea of a transition, it can mean trouble getting out the door. This happens EVEN WHEN IT IS SOMETHING FUN THEY WANT TO DO. Don’t ask me why. I mean, you can. But my answer will be something vague like, “temperament.” Once you know this happens with your child, plan for it. Give them a 20 minute longer heads-up on departure than seems necessary. Go over to their body and put your hands on their shoulders when it’s time to take the next step toward leaving (e.g., find shoes, put on shoes). Give a verbal reminder along with a steer in the right direction. Children who are easily distracted and prone to dawdling need extra scaffolding. A little more support helps them gain the executive function needed to complete the tasks required to get ready.
2. Defiance and refusal
Who’s to say what sets off a child and triggers them to literally refuse to go have fun? Maybe it’s not their idea of fun? That’s one avenue to consider. However, just because they don’t think it will be fun doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Try for a connection and lend a listening ear to their perspective. You don’t have to change your plan to hear them out. Nonverbal messages that let them know you are listening are important. Try eye contact, physical closeness, or a hug. Keeping yourself calm in the face of their upset and “lending” them your calm can help. For younger kids sometimes silliness, role reversal, and humor can soothe the strife.
3. Sensitivity and discomfort
Sometimes your child just can’t get comfortable with the plan. Literally. They are too hot. Their lunch isn’t quite right. Their shoe is rubbing their toe. It could be any or all of the above. Try contextualizing these problems in a concrete way. Don’t minimize their upset or tell them “it’s no big deal,” because to them, it might be. Instead, acknowledge their discomfort and offer a vote of confidence that they can withstand it. Instead, validate their experience whole-heartedly and then (only after you’ve validated) offer to problem-solve. Say, “That sounds so annoying.” Pause—let them say whatever they need to say—”Is there something we can do to fix the problem?”
4. Melting down and tantrums
Sometimes kids just lose it. It’s important to know that kids—whether they’re 2 or 12—can get so dysregulated in their emotions that they “flip their lid” and lose touch with their “thinking brain.” The other vital thing to know is that when a person of any age slips into their “downstairs brain”—the part that is focused on survival or belonging—they cannot think or learn well. This means you need a different approach for those times, because talking and teaching are not very effective. Try this recipe: maintain safety, use less words (no words is also OK), relax your shoulders and face, and if you do talk, keep your voice calm and quiet. Your child’s emotions will eventually recede and you’ll be able to move on.
5. Whining and complaining
Sometimes our kids embody and express their very human negativity bias. Negativity bias is our tendency to see the worst in any given situation. The theory behind this behavior is that if you’re expecting the worst, you’ll stay hypervigilant to any danger and it will help keep you safe. These behaviors can be very annoying, but they are not coming from a place of total and complete upset. A child who is whining and complaining is still able to think and communicate somewhat effectively. Validation and listening, which were both already mentioned, can be useful here as well. It can also help to ignore the behavior while still focusing on the child. Try not mentioning the complaining, but still engage them around something else. Sometimes in this situation a lot of attention on the behavior itself can make it go on and on.
No matter where you’re headed—to the beach, the playground, or just a walk around the block for a change of scene—you just want to enjoy your day. Hopefully, these suggested ways of pre-teaching, guiding, validating, and collaborating with your children will help everyone have more fun.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Parent & Family.
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the recently launched Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.