Be the Container Your Child Needs: The Importance of ‘Surviving’ Your Child’s Intense Behaviors

A child’s job is to resist, assert their autonomy and push against boundaries in order to learn about their own power. A parent’s job is to survive them doing this – in all the forms it takes. When their nervous system is in fight/flight mode, sometimes it takes the form of intense or explosive expression of emotion. Or it may include an inability to be safe with people or property. Maybe your child is more likely to express their anger with potentially or intentionally hurtful verbal rages. Whatever it looks like – your only job in that moment is to survive it and keep everybody/everything safe. 

Yelling or trying to talk them out of their feelings isn’t effective when your child is in this state, and may escalate things. What’s effective is to just be with their feelings and with your own. Stay as calm as you can and resist the urge to resort to retaliation or helplessness. This is a time to try to slow your own breathing and heart rate. This is a time to acknowledge to yourself that this is a hard moment you’ll get through together. And when you do this, you’re helping them learn to do it for themselves. You’re also communicating to them: “All of you (even the messy/difficult parts) is welcome here. I can handle you. You’re not too much for me. I’ve got you.” You’re communicating that there are no conditions on being loved by you.

Your child will be overwhelmed by their emotions on a pretty regular basis – although it may look different at different stages of development.

Can you find a way to regulate your own emotions, so that you can tolerate your child’s intense aggression, resistance, neediness? Because it’s inevitable, so it makes sense to expect it. It’s how they express what they cannot clearly verbalize.

What if you could accept and parent the child you have? Attend to the needs of the child who is standing in front of you in this moment. Not the child who has disappointed you in the past or the person you fear they’ll be in the future.  You can learn to work with who they are showing you that they are rather than against them. Because if you’re not on their team – who else do they have? When you view your child through the lens of the past or the future, they feel unseen in the present.

It’s not always possible to meet their need for kind, but firm boundaries. You’re not always in enough of a well-resourced place to meet their big feelings with calm confidence. That’s okay. Repair with your child when you aren’t able to hold space for their feelings. Go to them and take responsibility for having lashed out or not being what they needed at that moment. Apologize and make genuine and intentional efforts at doing better next time. Because that’s how they learn to apologize and take responsibility for their actions. That’s how they learn that relationships include struggle but they’re strong enough survive.

I invite you to be your child’s container. More often than not, be the safe and tolerant place they can pour all of their rage into as they learn that their feelings can be big and powerful – but never so powerful that you can’t handle them together.