In this post, I’ll answer a question I received from a parent on Instagram.
“My 1yo smacks her face when she gets strong emotions of anger or is upset. This usually happens when we need to leave the house or do something she doesn’t seem to want. I’m afraid there’s something wrong with her or that we might be failing her in some way. Any advice?”
During this stage, children not only feel tons of strong emotions but also have the developmental need to express them. When it bubbles up, they release it – unlike many of us adults. It’s natural that the body doesn’t want to hold it all inside, and it can be quite scary for children when emotions come out with all that intensity – just like it is for us when we witness it, but the big difference is that our brain is mature and capable of controlling impulses.
Imagine how children feel when they are working on something, experimenting and testing things to make sense of the world (aka playing), and suddenly they are interrupted by us – not questioning our reasons for interrupting just bringing it to our awareness. I’m sure you know well the feeling of being interrupted leaving unfinished thoughts, and tasks behind. The transition is extremely difficult and children may find themselves feeling a lot of frustration not knowing where to channel it.
Most of us, adults, are still learning how to identify and manage our own frustration, right? And the thing is, our little ones have been around for a short period of time in comparison to us and they have no idea about our expectations of their behavior – what society sees as appropriate and not – and they will act out of instinct – which is what we’ve been trying so hard to bring back as parents (our instincts and intuition). We have been taught out of our instinct for so long!
So now that we see beyond the behavior (kicking, hitting, head banging, biting), we can start to focus on taking off our socially shaped lens, including the fear we feel that our children will have a hard time adapting to society in the future if they continue to behave in ways that are not socially accepted. When our fears and frustrations arise, it is hard to have a perspective about what’s happening. We end up adding more layers to the issue, feeling threatened and personally attacked by that tiny little person that brings up so much of our unresolved emotions to the surface. More commonly than not, we feel that we need to be firmer, punish or even teach them lessons to regain control.
Responding this way may look effective, considering that we are big our children are little and they have a natural fear of us (physically and emotionally) even when it may seem that they don’t, but over time it may become a power struggle especially when we use attachment to bargain compliance. When children see us uncomfortable leading them, they can’t settle in the boundaries we establish. Many of us have had this experience before, this feeling of unsettledness when the person leading doesn’t seem comfortable in their role.
At this point, when it seems like nothing works, some parents may resort to punishments. Unfortunately, this is the shortest way to distrust and even worse, the feeling that they cannot count on us for what they need the most: understanding.
When our children show us their big emotions (and impulses), they need understanding more than a fix. The fact that they trust us to share what they may also be scared of, it’s a huge thing – way more than we credit ourselves for.
The best way we can help is not by fearing our children’s emotions, or projecting our own. Many times our children’s behaviors triggers thoughts of a future that doesn’t yet exist, leading many parents to feel anxious about who their little ones will become if a certain behavior is not ‘controlled’.
Shifting the perspective helps us not take things personally, or in a way that we need to fix, stop, or change as soon as possible. We understand that it’s part of human development to feel all sort of emotions, and that’s when we are able to share our calm and help them move through the big emotional storm, sailing in calm waters instead of adding even more big waves to mix.
When our children hit us, we can block the behavior by firmly and, as much as possible patiently, saying “I won’t let you.” But when they are hurting themselves, it requires a lot from our developed pre-frontal cortex to recognize our impulse, control it, and trust what our children are communicating.
We want it to stop because that’s uncomfortable for us, we fear they will get seriously hurt and sometimes we may feel shame and guilt seeing our children struggling with their big feelings in this way.
Answering the question: “My 1yo smacks her face when she gets strong emotions of anger or is upset. This usually happens when we need to leave the house or do something she doesn’t seem to want. I’m afraid there’s something wrong with her or that we might be failing her in some way. Any advice?”
We can say something like “Oh you are smacking your face. Here’s something you can smack”, maybe a pillow or stuffed animal that’s near in a way that’s natural. The goal is to avoid that our children continue to hurt themselves offering an option to channel the emotion that’s coming out through aggression.
Keep in mind that we can’t fix emotions and impulses. You would do the same thing with head banging, sliding a pillow under their head so it’s safer.
This way we communicate that we are open to their emotions, that they don’t need to stop feeling what they feel to make us more comfortable, but we will keep the guardrails up so they don’t seriously hurt themselves or anyone else around.
I know this is not easy! The way I approach child development and emotional intelligence is not from a cookie cuter standing point but more so a reflection, so you can find your own words and ways to help you feel comfortable in your role of leading respectfully.
I hope this helps!
July 10th, 2021
Hi! I’m Mariana. A mom to three, published author, Early Years Consultant, and 4x Certified Sleep Specialist (having worked with thousands of families over the last 7.5 years). My background is in Child Development and Psychology, specializing in Infants and Toddlers. I’m here to support families slow down childhood and simplify parenting.