Ever notice your child seeming to shut down or completely switch off and not listen to a single word coming out of your mouth?
This has been a relatively new scenario for me…not due to any stellar parenting skills on my part, but rather because our eldest poppet is so expressive and demonstrative. Shutting down isn’t something she does. She will either burst into floods of tears or have an epic meltdown if there has been some kind of relationship breakdown between us.
Our spirited and fun three year old does the “shut down”. She stops listening, avoids eye contact, doesn’t answer questions and becomes an even wilder tiny human hurricane. She tips contents out of baskets, throws blocks, physically lashes out at her sisters and anything else that feeds the destructive mood she’s in. Once I realise what’s going on, my heart breaks for her sweet, passionate little soul.
Apparently we need to hear at least five positive comments for every negative, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.
When our girl shuts down and becomes destructive or aggressive I can backtrack events and the words I’ve spoken and realise where it all began. I will have addressed every single negative thing she’s been doing with an increasingly frustrated tone. She seems not to care; she acts as if my words don’t touch her as she continues on her merry way. My words, tone of voice and body language has had an impact though. They’ve broken a tiny piece of that part within her that seeks out fun and new discoveries. They’ve hurt her heart. They’ve tainted our otherwise healthy bond.
The other night, after a particularly rough day, I asked her how she was feeling. She wouldn’t answer. I told her I had felt frustrated and used grumpy sounding voices. I apologised and told her I would try to stay calm and kind next time. Each time I broached the topic of how she felt, she closed her eyes. She literally squeezed them shut. It was a light bulb moment for me. I realised it was all too uncomfortable and upsetting for her. Her response, while we were chatting and snuggling that evening, was to close her eyes and basically draw a curtain on the whole conversation. Similarly, during the day’s events, she did the equivalent. She desperately needed some reconnection. As she fell asleep that evening, I held her on my lap, wrapped my arms around her and stroked her face. Some loving connection can wipe the slate clean and reset everything.
So while she sometimes appears untouched and uncaring, this couldn’t be further from the truth. She is simply doing what we as adults still sometimes do. She’s going into self-protection mode. She’s trying to shut out my disapproving words. She’s presenting a front that doesn’t care in order to save face.
It’s also worth remembering that she doesn’t even know how to fix the problem or repair the angst between us. Nor should she at the ripe old age of three! She has almost zero impulse control when it comes to acting out, throwing toys, tipping things over and so on. It’s up to me to take one of four courses of action…
Whether it’s through cuddles and a story, some roughhousing, building a cubby together, playing outside and so on. Fresh air always does wonders for us.
Get down low and be with her to channel her behaviour. I can sit with her and build a tower to knock down instead of throwing the blocks all over the place.
When I’m unable to fully engage with her I can try to redirect her without even mentioning the negative behaviour. If I draw her attention to it by asking her to stop, she will likely focus on it even more (purely because that’s what a three year old’s brain does). She may or may not go for this. Depends how enticing a distraction I can come up with on the fly.
Realistically this is one I often do, providing no one is at risk of getting hurt. Right in this moment for instance…I’m completely occupied breastfeeding our three month old to sleep. Our Fudge, as we call her, is taking wooden blocks from her basket and throwing them across the room. My initial thoughts are that it will most likely be me picking them all up later on, or that someone might step or fall on the hard, wooden, scattered objects that hurt almost as much as Lego pieces.
But I know I probably can’t stop her behaviour. If I try, it will just be more negativity for now. So ignoring is my best option in this particular moment. It’s then I notice, that in doing what I perceive to be “messy and destructive”, that she is counting. She’s practising one to one correspondence as she counts higher than I’ve heard her count before. The silver linings!
It’s hard, but I’m going to endeavour to protect our relationship, as well as her heart. As much as I hate clutter and mess, I think I can let go of some toys strewn around the house until I have the chance to do a quick tidy up. I’m going to pay more attention to whether or not my three year old is starting to shut down and disengage. If she is, it’s probably time to do some self reflection and to reconnect.