TRANSCRIPT: Your Parenting Long Game Episode 206 – When Your Child’s Upset Seems Completely Illogical
Hello, it’s Rachel and welcome to episode 206 of Your Parenting Long Game. Today I’m going to talk about something that I hear about from parents so much, something that often makes no sense, literally — and that’s when our children are upset about something, but what they’re upset about is totally illogical.
For example, maybe you give your child their favorite cereal for breakfast. They’ve eaten the cereal happily for the past three weeks, every day in a row. But today, not only do they not eat it, but they tell you you’re the worst parent ever for even giving it to them. And you’re thinking, “Wait, wait, what just happened?”
I hear parents tell me stories like this all the time. And when they do, they try to impress upon me just how illogical their child is being. So they may say something like, “Rachel, my daughter loves that cereal. One week I didn’t have it and I couldn’t find it, and she begged me to go to three different stores to find it. And now today out of the blue, she doesn’t like it? What the heck is going on?”
Parents want to show me just how irrational and frustrating their children’s behavior is, how much it doesn’t make sense. And I agree this type of behavior is common, and it doesn’t make sense. So I’m going to tell you today what’s really going on, and what you can do about this all-too-common (especially with kids with big emotions) behavior.
Before I get into it, though, I do want to remind you: If you’re confused about this and other behaviors that your big-emotion child displays, if you’ve tried strategies that you’ve read about (strategies that should work, but don’t), I encourage you to check out my free video series that I created specifically to help you understand why what you’ve tried isn’t effective and what to do instead. In this video series, I even talk about what to do when your big-emotion child’s illogical behavior affects other people in the family, affects their siblings, affects your family’s ability to go out to dinner or to have stress free times together. So if you want to know more about this, you can check out that video series at rachel-bailey.com/longgame.
For now, though, let’s talk about what is going on when your child’s upset seems completely illogical. And there are actually three things about this I want you to know.
The first — and this is something you’ve probably already noticed — is that when a child is emotional, that logical thought isn’t present and it’s not welcome. This is actually because when a child is upset, their brain senses upset as a threat, and it turns on an alarm: their fight or flight response. And one of the actions our fight or flight response takes is it turns off access to the logical, rational part of the brain. So when a child is upset, they truly can’t be logical. They can’t access that part of the brain. In that moment, if they’re just not in the mood for the cereal, they’re not thinking, “Oh, I had this cereal earlier in the week, so I should like it now as well.”
And here’s the other important part about this: when they are upset or they’re off in some way, they won’t respond to logic. When a child is flooded with emotion — yes, even from getting a cereal that they’re just not in the mood for that day — when they’re flooded with emotion, they won’t be able to hear your logic. They won’t be able to hear you say, “But you’ve liked that cereal for the past three weeks.”
When you try to speak to them logically, it’s basically like you’re speaking a foreign language to them. But it’s actually worse because they want you to speak their language, and you are speaking something else. So they get even more upset. More lack of logic, right?
It’ll actually be easier to understand when I explain the other two things that you have to know. So again, first you do need to know that when they’re upset for any reason, they’re not going to be logical, and they’re not going to appreciate your logic.
But the next thing you need to know — and this may help you a little bit more — is to understand that when they are upset., they’re often not upset about the thing you think they’re upset about.
I’m going to tell you a story of something that actually happened in my family. This situation happened many years ago now, but what came from it is a phrase that my husband and I use all the time, even now, to remind ourselves that our kids’ upset is usually not about the thing that we think it is. The phrase we say to each other very often is, “It’s not about the bacon.”
Here’s where that phrase came from: when my kids were about seven and five, my husband made some bacon. He asked the kids if they wanted some, and my older daughter came immediately and ate the bacon. A few minutes later, my younger daughter came in to eat the bacon, but it was cold and she started crying. My husband, ever the fixer, said, “Aw Hon, don’t worry. I can put the bacon in the microwave. It’ll taste great.” But that only made my daughter more upset.
He tried again. He said, “I promise it tastes just as good as it does when it’s fresh. I eat it every morning for breakfast, and I make it in the microwave. It’s really great.” Well, she just kept getting more upset, and he kept trying to convince her to let him microwave the bacon and that it would be fine.
So she never ate the bacon and he felt totally defeated. But as we were talking later, he said, “You know what? I’ve heard you talk about this before in your videos. It wasn’t about the bacon, was it? Nothing I said in that moment was going to make her feel better. I was using logic to try to cheer her up and convince her to see things differently, but that was never going to work.”
And in reality, it wasn’t about the bacon. When kids are being illogical, it’s rarely about the thing we think it is.
My daughter was actually upset because she saw her sister getting bacon first. And at that time she was actually really jealous of her sister. Her upset was about how she felt about her sister. It wasn’t about the bacon not tasting good in the microwave. It was about something bigger and more important to her.
So if we actually got into her world, what she was probably thinking was, “I don’t want that bacon. I want my sister not to have to get everything first. She’s older, and she always gets so much more than I do. She gets to do everything first, too. She got a bike first. She gets to stay up later, and now Dad’s telling me that the bacon tastes just as good in the microwave. I don’t want the bacon. I just wish I could feel like I was as good as my sister at anything.”
So when our children are being illogical, we need to remember it’s rarely about the thing that it seems to be about. If a child cries because we gave them the wrong cereal, it’s almost certainly not about the cereal either. It’s that they’re tired or they’re annoyed at us for something else, or they’re just not in the mood for cereal that day. And they don’t really know what they do want, and they’re annoyed that they’re feeling that way and we can’t fix it.
And that brings me to the last point that I want you to know about. The last piece of this puzzle is that when kids are upset and illogical, often they’re confused themselves. They don’t always know why they’re upset. That’s why when we ask them and they say they don’t know, they really don’t know. (And if you think about it, there are times when we’re upset and we don’t really know why either.)
Kids’ natural tendency when they’re upset and especially when they’re confused is they don’t want to be upset alone. They don’t want to be alone with those big, uncomfortable feelings. And this is especially true with kids with big feelings, who often feel really out of control inside.
So they may do illogical things. It may be because they don’t know what they want, or it may be that it also feels better for them when they know they’re not the only ones feeling bad at that moment. Or it may be a combination of both — that they don’t know what they want and they just don’t want to be alone in their discomfort.
Your child may say to you, “I want a hug,” but then you try to give them a hug and they push you away. And then you walk away because they don’t seem to want you there, but they get even more upset.
None of this is logical. It’s emotional. They’re hurting, and they don’t know what they want. Often their only instinct in that moment is they just don’t want to be alone with their confusion and their big, uncomfortable feelings. And so, yes, they do try to put us in that place, too.
So remember the three things that you want to keep in mind when your children are being illogical.
- Number one, when a child is emotional, logical thought isn’t present and it’s really not that welcome.
- Number two, they’re usually not upset about the thing we think they are. That’s why talking about that thing doesn’t work.
- And number three, when they’re being illogical, they’re usually confused by their own feelings, and they can’t tell you what they want. They don’t know what they want, except they don’t want to be alone with this feeling, and they want it to go away. They want you to take it away, and they get frustrated when you can’t.
Here’s the action I suggest you take when your child is being illogical.
First, remember, it’s not about the thing. Literally. I want you to say to yourself, “It’s not about the _____.” And then fill in the blank. It’s not about the cereal, or the bacon, or the fact that you’re making them go to their cousin’s party. It’s more likely that they’re tired, or feeling left out, or feeling like no one cares what they want.
Then in that moment, when they’re being illogical, do not engage with the Yuck. You are not going to get anywhere. Certainly don’t try to logic their Yuck away. Don’t tell them that the bacon is going to taste great in the microwave. It will. You’re right. The bacon will taste great in the microwave, but being right isn’t going to get you anywhere when they’re being illogical.
What’s more effective in that moment is to do what I always suggest you do when someone is in Yuck. Let them travel the Yuck Curve. Remember, the Yuck Curve represents what happens when someone is in Yuck over time. Their Yuck gets bigger, it reaches a peak, and then eventually it comes down. And when someone is on that Yuck Curve, they do not have access to the logical part of the brain. They don’t even really process language very effectively. What they process is our energy. And if they feel that you’re trying to convince them out of their feelings or their point of view, it’s going to make them more upset.
Once they travel the Curve — they’ve gotten through all those feelings and released that Yuck that’s inside — that’s when they can re-access the logical and language parts of their brain. That’s when you can speak to them more rationally.
And I encourage you to take this last tip as well. While they’re traveling the Yuck Curve, focus your attention on something other than your child’s illogical behavior. Because if you’re thinking about how illogical they’re being, you’re going to go into Yuck and you’re going to try to convince them more, or you’ll get frustrated and that situation is not going to go well.
So focus on your breath, or do a rainbow search where you’re searching the room for different colors of the rainbow, or count backwards from a hundred by twos. Focus your attention on the fact that you can handle their emotions, or focus it on something else entirely so that you can get to the place where you are regulated. You can share that energy, and they can travel the Yuck Curve and they can reaccess the logical parts of their brain again.
Because if you stop convincing them out of their feelings and you let them release those feelings without getting sucked in, you will waste a lot less energy. And if, instead of convincing them out of their feelings, you let them release those feelings without getting sucked in, they will see you as less of a threat, and they’ll be able to travel that Yuck Curve and return to logic much more quickly.
And if you stop convincing them out of their feelings and let them release their feelings without getting sucked in, you’ll actually become more of a positive influence, not only in that situation, but in the future, including when you want to teach them coping skills so they aren’t as illogical to begin with.
Now, of course, there are unique challenges in raising children with big emotions, especially if you want to use your parenting long game. So it may take a while before you remember not to engage with the Yuck and convince them out of their feelings.
I’m happy to help you with all this, and as I mentioned earlier, I’d love you to watch my free video series that will show you how having new tools can have an impact not only on you and your child, but your entire family. You can find that video series again at rachel-bailey.com/longgame.
And I would also ask if you enjoy this podcast to subscribe, rate, and review it. I read every single comment, and I really appreciate them — including this newer one about the shift to the focus of this podcast on raising children with big emotions.
Listener Altisimago said, “I have a 13-year-old with big emotions. I’ve been doing it all wrong all along and was wondering why anything I was doing was not working. Rachel breaks it down how it truly is. She takes you into the mind of this big-emotions child and makes you see how you can help them be a better person. Truly recommend.”
Thank you, Altisimago, for that comment. When I know these tips are helpful, I hear this from you, I will absolutely keep them coming. So I will be back again soon with more tips to improve your parenting long game, especially as you raise children with big feelings, I’ll see you again soon.
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