When discussing respectful parenting, many people give the advice to do ‘time in’ vs ‘time outs’ and other punishments. Time in is generally used to describe a parent staying with the child and talking through the emotions with their child.
The problem that arises for some is that all children are different and what comforts one, won’t comfort another.
Regardless, children are deserving of respect and comfort. But comfort isn’t comfort if it’s not what the child finds comforting.
This is something that I experienced with Lucy. Suddenly the way I comforted her older brother (by hugging him, validating his emotions and talking through solutions) was met with really negative reactions from Lucy.
She didn’t want to be held while she processed how she felt. She didn’t want to work together towards solutions at the height of her emotions. She wanted me to give her space and STOP TALKING.
Initially I would respond with things like “you’re feeling so frustrated, I’m sorry this is so hard” and at best she would look at me incredulously like “did you not hear me?!”, at worst she would yell and run away feeling further unheard and frustrated.
How I approached it
What is comforting and respectful in these situations is NOT universal.
When I realised that for her, respecting her and showing her my support meant holding the space for her without cuddles or chatting; it made such a difference! Sometimes ‘less’ is what they need.
That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for me. I was used to my embrace being comforting and my words being helpful. It took a lot of biting my tongue and intention!
At a time where we were both not processing any strong emotions, I approached her honestly and said that I was sorry I kept making the mistake of trying to cuddle or talk when she was frustrated.
We discussed what I can do next time and agreed that next time I will stay close and that I’m always here if she does want to talk or hug.
She typically needs to really feel the emotion and truly be upset. She needs that space and freedom to express herself before actually coming to me and wanting to talk or cuddle.
Some children need to initiate the empathy cycle THEMSELVES.
Any attempts to force our own hopes for our ideas of comfort and support are actually disrespectful in this case.
Using a codeword
Another helpful thing for those children who are NOT keen on you talking to them when they are angry or upset, is to have a codeword.
The codeword needs to be discussed and agreed upon together otherwise it’s meaningless. They have to find the idea helpful in order for it to be. A codeword can be helpful outside this scenario too!
We tried this initially and it was helpful as we worked together through this different dynamic.
We agreed that when she was feeling really overwhelmed with an emotion, I would say [codeword] which means that I’m going to give you space if you want it but am here if you need me, always.
Ultimately, the core of the expression is the unmet needs and emotions behind the behaviours. If and when they do come to us it’s so important they feel we hear them and don’t belittle their feelings. This includes respecting what is comforting for them.
Do you have a child who doesn’t enjoy hugs or talking when they’re very upset? What would you add?
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This is so my son right now! He went from liking to be held and comforted in his toddler years but now at five just doesn’t want me around when he’s processing the really big emotions. It’s also SO hard for me too. I want to be able to comfort and hold him close. It really does take so much intention. I’m so happy I found this blog post. I felt so alone or like I’d done something wrong at some point to make him feel like he couldn’t come to me. Great post!
How would you recommend giving space to a prelingual child without letting them feel like you are neglecting them? I would feel more comfortable if I could be 100% sure that was what he wanted and I wasn’t just misreading his cues! And also be sure he knew I wasn’t just ignoring him! 14months xx
My 2.5 yo can be similar, she often refuses comfort from me if I am the one who has upset her by setting a limit. However, if my partner is around, she will immediately seek out Daddy and want cuddles from him. This can be difficult as he often works from home, so it disrupts his work day and makes it feel like I can’t ‘cope’ on my own. Any thoughts on what this behavior is about, whether it’s ok to let it continue or if I should be firm in trying to settle things myself?
I would appreciate thoughts.
When my almost 3 year old grandson got hurt at the park, I asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?” He replied, “Babies make themselves feel better”.
My 5 year old is very hard to read, sometimes hugs and calm words help, other times she’ll lash out and push people away, even her friends. I still haven’t worked out how to tell the difference. But your suggestions are good for the times she’s clearly not interested in a hug! Sometimes though she can be so out of control that I need to hold her to keep everybody safe – I wonder how this can be done in a loving and respectful way?
Kate Machin says
I’m curious about that too, Bec. My 5 year old son often becomes so angry that he starts being physically aggressive (usually just to me, but sometimes my husband as well and never to other kids). We’ve tried talking about how it’s ok to be angry, but not ok to hurt someone and suggested other solutions (like hitting a pillow or screaming to vent his anger) but so far this hasn’t changed his behaviour. In the past, I’ve offered hugs and calm words, but have come to realise that he needs to, as Rachael suggests, ‘initiate the empathy cycle himself’. Because he does get so aggressive, at home I’ve been explaining that I will remove myself from the room until he’s ready to stop hurting me and have a cuddle and, so far, this seems to be working. But I’m not sure how to respond when he gets aggressive away from home – like he did in the shopping centre last week. Obviously, I can’t physically separate myself from him – I need to know he’s safe and he just follows me, hitting and punching, if I try to stand a short distance away. Does anyone have any respectful ways of managing this while keeping both of us out of harm’s way?
Oh wow yes! I read so MUCH parenting advice about this that I LOVED, but in the end, this was more what I needed to do!
Yes! My oldest sounds very like Lucy. As a panicky first time parent I kept trying to be a good parent and ‘fix’ things as fast as possible. It took a good 3-4 years for me to understand that my fussing over her and getting in her space was not what she needed and was stressing her out more. Often, what she needs most is for me to do something about the surrounding situation, or remove her from the situation, and give her space and time to process. My second is the opposite – comes straight for cuddles and comfort, although I have learned from her older sister that for her too there are times I need to stop talking and just be available.
Lydia purple says
I am actually like you describe Lucy. I can’t stand to be touched or talked to when an emotion overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel the way I feel and don’t even know myself why. So if somebody tries to say some comforting words that doesn’t work… Because how can the other person know what I feel and why if I don’t even know… Does that make sense? My kids also are each different in this area. Still learning sometimes how to give each what they need at the moment.
By the way I am really blessed by your blog lately. I tried to parent respectfully since I can remember but my last (4th) pregnancy I had a real struggle I think the hormones messed with me good. I was so angry and easily aggressive and this turned into an ugly atmosphere. Your blog really is encouraging and helpful in getting me back on track! My 4th baby is 7 months now and I finally feel like being more myself again, not that crazy hormone ridden lady who yells to much 😩
this is soooo the dynamic of my 2 kids (older brother, younger sister also). It was nice to read your piece as validation that a) we are not alone and b) how what we found to work for us makes sense and is still quite respectful.