Some of you aren’t there yet, some of you are in the midst of this, and some have come through the other side with a whole new set of skills and experiences: That moment when your child refuses your comfort when they are upset. That moment they are upset and instead of coming towards you, they are getting away. To be clear, this isn’t about infants, for if they are arching away when upset they are likely picking up on your distress or are in pain and trying to move around to relieve it. No, this is about your toddler or perhaps preschooler.
The child who would get upset, frustrated, angry, or hurt and would cuddle in your arms until the feeling passed. You could feel like you could ease all the hurt in the world so long as he could just snuggle in while you held him tight and stroked his hair or face or just simply sat with him. No longer. Suddenly you find yourself reaching for your child in his moment of upset and instead of turning towards you, he turns away. In that moment, you feel the air leave the room and the panic set in.
What have I done? Does he not feel attached to me anymore? Have I not been there enough lately?
Every negative thought you have of yourself as a parent is rushing forward like water after a dam breaks. You look at this child – this love of your life – who is in pain and struggling and you so want to help, but she won’t let you and of course the only reason that comes to mind is that you have failed somehow. You have done something wrong, so wrong that she refuses to allow herself to feel better by being with you. You may try to reach out for her with force, knowing that if you could just get her to your arms, everything would be okay.
But she refuses.
Too many parents find themselves in this situation. They feel helpless and as if they have done something “wrong” with their child. What is missing from the discussion, and why this discussion is based solely with toddlers and up and not younger children, is that this is very normal and actually quite healthy. Not all children will do this (after all, outside of normal bodily functions, there’s almost nothing universal about how children express themselves), so don’t panic if your child doesn’t, but for those going through this stage, it’s essential to better understand it and how to cope.
What is going on?
In short, your child is trying out self-soothing. We’ve been so misled to believe that children master this skill early in infancy that we ignore that that is a far cry from what is biologically normal or even possible. The first real stage of emotion regulation that infants’ show is seeking out a caregiver for assistance in their ability to soothe themselves (see here for a review), but as they develop, they learn new skills that help them self-soothe. Of course, to see how these work, a child needs to practice them. Without practice, he doesn’t know how it will work or even if it will work.
What age does this start?
The age will be highly variable depending on a variety of factors. Of course child temperament will be a huge factor, with many highly sensitive children likely demonstrating this later than their less sensitive peers. Research on children who are highly sensitive shows that they seem to require much more responsive parenting in order to thrive (see here) and this can include longer bouts of needing the modeling of responsiveness before they can attempt to self-soothe on their own.
Other factors that may influence when this change occurs include: the amount of time spent away from the attached caregiver, such as when a child enters a daycare or preschool environment, as she realizes that she needs to have certain skills for when that comforting person is not physically present to help; the individual child’s degree of reactivity as greater distress will inhibit the ability and effort to self-soothe as this can only start to happen at lower levels of distress; presence of older siblings, as older siblings often model things for their younger siblings unintentionally and so younger siblings have often had more modeling experience than older siblings; and more.
How can I best respond?
Sometimes the frustration a parent feels in these moments overrides everything. Feeling hurt and hopeless can lead to anger and resentment or simply giving up, yet none of these responses actually help our children in this moment (or you, the parent, for that matter). Hopefully when we can realize that our child is attempting a new skill – like tying a shoe or getting dressed on one’s own – we can approach it with the same level-headedness and responsiveness that we would these other developing skills.
This means that we need to focus on being present without being pushy and being ready to offer comfort when or if it is needed. Giving our child their space to try and self-soothe is essential, but letting him know that we are here if needed is equally essential. If we walk away from him in a huff, we simply add to his distress, lowering the likelihood of him being able to self-soothe, but also taking away the safe place he has grown to know and rely upon. If we jump in and try to force him to take our comfort instead of trying on his own to calm, then we are telling him that he is incapable of this task, lowering his self-esteem and sense of trust in himself as to when to try new things.
The middle ground is simply being there. I often recommend to people to let their child know you’re there verbally and to be in a spot where she can see you if needs be. It may mean putting whatever you were doing or going to do on hold for a while as you sit by and wait for her to come to you, but this is part of what helping our children develop their independence – and in this case, self-soothing – looks like. You may end up waiting 2 minutes, it may be 30, but being there and ready is essential.
What happens after?
This will likely depend on the degree of success that your child has had in self-soothing. If your child couldn’t soothe and had to come to you, you should first and foremost focus on the act of soothing and comforting. Once she is calm, it is important that you acknowledge her efforts in self-soothing in a positive way and let her know that sometimes it is hard to calm down on our own and that you’ll always be there when that’s the case. If your child was successful, she will still likely come to you after. This is the moment you can acknowledge her efforts and success while still letting her know that you’re always there if sometimes she needs a little help calming down.
How do I talk to my kids about their efforts?
Sometimes our issue as parents is how to talk about these high-level concepts with kids in a way they understand. Talking about “self-soothing” or “emotion regulation” is clearly not the way to talk about it. Some families find success talking about having some time alone to calm down or just because one wants some time alone. Some families find success talking about having one’s own space, or special space, to go to when one needs it. However you discuss it with your child, you just need to make sure it’s in words and using constructs that he will understand and that you can incorporate into your daily lives. This incorporation will make it easier for him to think of his efforts first when in mild-moderate distress and being aware of how others use their own private time or space to calm down too. Modeling our self-soothing is often even more effective than simply discussing it with our kids.
Of course, as mentioned above, one of the critical elements of discussion is finding the fine line of acknowledging and supporting their efforts while making it clear that you are there when necessary. Parents can get too caught up in over-praising the effort which can make the child feel as though they have to do this self-soothing thing each and every time, even when they may not be ready. Obviously no one wants that.
Remember: Emotion regulation is an ongoing process that our children will be learning for years. It starts with simply seeking us out and then eventually trying some skills on their own, but even us adults need help now and again. Expecting too much or too little will only pose problems in the long-run. Follow your children’s lead and know that they will get there in their own time.
An important note: This type of self-soothing practice applies to children who have a secure attachment with a caregiver. Insecure attachment will manifest in a child being resistant to comfort, starting in infancy and continuing on into the toddler and preschool years. Children with insecure attachment struggle to develop proper emotion regulation and the attempts to “get away” signal anxiety and distress at being with the caregiver, not a developmentally normal stage by which they are practicing the soothing skills they are learning from an attached caregiver.