Feelings and faces

This is a very valuable activity, yet it needs no planning — just some time when you are together and the opportunity occurs. In it, you use facial expressions to teach your child about different feelings. ‘This is a sad face. See, my mouth is drooping. My head is leaning forward. My eyes are looking down. I might sniff or cry. Can you do a sad face?’ ‘This is an angry face. My eyebrows are pushed together and down. I’m staring hard with my eyes. My teeth are tight. My lips are pushed together. Can you make an angry face?’ ‘Now I’m scared. I’m biting my bottom lip. My forehead is crinkled. My eyes look about quickly. My shoulders are hunched up. Can you make a scared face?’

This is a happy face. My mouth is smiling. My skin is soft. I might even be laughing. Now you show me happy. Sad. Angry. Scared.’ ‘Now you guess which one I’m showing you.’

Benefits: This speeds up the process whereby children learn to read, in a person’s face and behaviour, what that person might be feeling. It leads on to helping them to know the most useful ways to act around a person who is having strong feelings. It encourages children to be sensitive and helps them to be good with people. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps them to understand and express their feelings. .

You say ‘no’, firmly. Johnny has never expe-rienced this before and he doesn’t wait long before responding. The ‘wanting energy’ in his body builds up rapidly and he is off. He is on the floor, screaming and hitting at your legs, the trolley, the whole bit. He is having his first public tantrum.

What do you do} It doesn’t really matter — whatever is necessary. Smile sweetly at the check-out operator, pay your bill, pretend you are always this shade of purple and hope that he will stop eventually. Or grab him and take him screaming to the car, leaving your groceries behind. Or hold him firmly and tell him repeatedly: ‘I’m waiting for you to stop and talk normally’ until he does. All of these have been tried successfully by parents we’ve talked with. What matters, though, for future life is the aftermath — it’s this that decides whether this is the first and last tantrum or the beginning of a life of embarrassment.

Think about what little Johnny has done. He has taken the discomfort he is feeling and shifted it to you. This isn’t planned — it just works that way. You feel embarrassed, mean or unnerved by his reaction, and (he hopes) you may think: ‘Well, one packet of sweets can’t do any harm.’

For the prepared parent, this isn’t a crisis — it’s a learning opportunity. Johnny is learning how to handle a little disappointment — to take ‘no’ for an answer from time to time and to contain his feelings in consideration of others. These are some of life’s big lessons.

So the way you help him is by not letting him get away with it. Give him back the discomfort he is trying to put on to you. When you ignore him or walk away, he realises nothing is going to happen in his favour. Don’t ever give your child the sweets or other reward which was the whole point of the tantrum.

If you scruff him and drag him to the car, you are giving him back some of the discomfort you felt. Not yelling abuse, not hitting or being cruel or cold, but some tough talking. It’s fine to sound as angry and loud as you feel at the time, but choose your words with care — you’re not supposed to have a counter-tantrum. You could say something like: ‘I was embarrassed and angry. I don’t feel like being nice to you right now’ or: ‘I don’t feel like I want to take you shopping any more. You need to think about what you did and fix that up with me.’ Even at three years of age, the message will get through: ‘Mum is not happy.’ The aim is that Johnny’s discomfort continues, until at the very least he: 1. says he is sorry and/or 2. tells you what he should have done differently. Make sure he knows what to do next time.

With children of two, the aim is more often for them to:

– Calm down.

– Take ‘no’ for an answer.

– Find something else to do.

This all takes repetition. You need to be capable of a little drama. A strong voice and a stern face are very useful. So is the grit to ‘hang in’ there until a child gets the message: ‘Oh, boy! That just wasn’t worth the trouble.’ Once you and little Johnny understand each other, your relationship can go back to being friendly and fun. No leftovers; just a problem solved.

Most of us have trouble early on with discipline, because it is one of life’s big ones. It calls on all kinds of qualities in us which, before parenthood, may never have been needed. Rate yourself on the following qualities (1 = not very good at it, 5 = brilliant).

You can be angry, but stay steady and safe at the same time. 1—2—3—4—5

You do not mind having someone (your child) hating you intensely for brief periods. 1-2-3-4-5

You are willing to hang in with something and not give in. 1—2—3—4—5

You are able to think well under pressure. 1-2-3-4-5

You believe that your feelings and needs are important, too. 1—2—3—4—5

You can be a bit of an actor — tough on the outside, while staying basically loving on the inside. 1-2-3-4-5

These all come with practice. Your own child-hood will influence how you react and you may have to perform some therapy on yourself. Per-haps your parents were hitters or withdrew their affection or used guilt and shame or were marsh-mallows who always gave in to you. If that’s so, you will want to find a better way with your children. Welcome to the club.