Our family is struggling with our 6-year-old’s behavior. Disappointment hits him hard (not getting a favorite candy at a birthday party, not being chosen first at the soccer game) and he expresses it with the kind of meltdown we thought he’d left behind at age 4. My husband and I are really frustrated and don't know how to handle this. We've tried positive reinforcement (a chart emphasizing and rewarding good behavior), yelling (when we’re out of ideas), and talking it out (giving him alternative ideas for dealing with disappointment). It's not getting better: sometimes I think it’s getting worse. Thanks for your help and insight, Terrie.
The other morning our dog was barking at a squirrel. Worried about annoying the neighbors, I tried all of my usual tricks to call him into the house. Nothing worked. I stalked outside barefooted, scooped him up, and flicked him on the nose. I could hear the Dog Whisperer’s words in my head: “Teach him to come when called. Barking is instinctive.” Our failure had been nine years ago when we’d bypassed dog training.
Raising kids is clearly more complicated than puppy training, but sometimes it does help to remember that some of our children’s behaviors are, likewise, instinctive. If his innate personality or genetic disposition is consistent with this recent behavior, it may be time to develop a new approach. That is, rather than trying to eliminate frustrating behaviors, it might be more effective over the long term to reframe your son’s strengths and challenges.
Based on what you’ve told me, I’d guess that your son also has a strong drive to achieve, pays attention to detail, and/or enjoys competition. These traits can be really helpful in adulthood and are—in some family cultures—promoted.
The life-long challenge for naturally competitive persons is to learn how to be a graceful loser. Imagine that a colleague who receives the promotion for which you also applied. After respectfully offering your congratulations, you might also duck into the bathroom to cry or call your spouse to complain. Children like your son are in the earliest stages of learning to use these more socially-appropriate strategies for handling disappointment.
How to help?
Label “Big Feelings” Some children experience emotions, disappointment and happiness with an added intensity. Letting children know that you understand they have “big feelings” can be helpful in explaining difference between children’s responses. It also can be helpful to let other shoppers hear you say (as your child is melting down in the middle of the store), “I know you have big feelings.”
Practice and reinforce handling disappointment. What is important is that your son’s skills at managing these situations improve as he ages. At age six, he can imagine himself in a situation, so role-playing and practice can help him prepare for managing his experiences differently. He also can benefit from helpful warnings “remember it can be hard for you when ____, so how can we help you?” Also, teach him acceptable ways or places for expressing his big feelings. “It is okay to cry when we get to the car.”
Make competition a choice. Children with “big feelings” can benefit from the choice about which activities in which they engage. If your son chooses to play soccer, then you can practice with him what his reaction will be if he is chosen first or wins and conversely if he is not first or loses.