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How to Deal With a Stone-Faced Child

Photograph by Twenty20

I have two children. One of them is the king of tantrums. He’s 5 now, so the tantrums have settled down some, but he's still my most dramatic child. When he's upset or being disciplined, he tends to protest loudly. There can be tears, screaming, whining. It’s exhausting, but I’ve mostly figured out how to deal with it. I feel that I have a pretty good handle on his tantrums and know how to get through to him.

My other child is the exact opposite.

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When she’s in need of a lecture, I'll kneel down to her level and try to speak calmly with her. But whether I’m stern or sweet, for some reason she shuts down completely. I'll ask her a question, and she'll refuse to answer. I'll try to get her to tell me why she thinks she is in trouble, and she will not respond. I ask if she understands what I’m saying, and she won’t even nod her head, much less look me in the eye.

Her behavior has always had me at a loss. What is she doing exactly? Why won’t she respond? I’m not even yelling at her! What’s the deal? If she at least cried or something, I think I would know what to do.

My daughter’s stone face had me scratching my head. I began to wonder if other parents had children like this. Children who would go silent rather than throw a tantrum.

For some reason, I never made the connection that my daughter was actually feeling overwhelmed.

So I reached out to parenting expert Emily McMason. What she told me was simple but actually blew my mind. “Think of her silence as the inverse of a tantrum. They are both communicating the same thing—being overwhelmed. One shows it on the outside, and the other expresses it on the inside.” Talk about an a-ha moment!

She continued, “In either case, we want to help our children come back to being grounded. So, rubbing her back, humming a lullaby, giving them a hug. Letting them know, ‘You are having big feelings right now, and I’m here with you,’ are all ways we can connect with them and help their self-regulation.” For some reason, I never made the connection that my daughter was actually feeling overwhelmed. I took her silence to mean indifference, when in actuality she was feeling quite upset on the inside.

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Since learning this new information, I've tried to give my daughter a hug when she goes stone faced. At first she was resistant, but soon she melted into my arms and it became much easier to get her talking. We'll see where this new technique will take us. I do worry about coddling, but at her age I think a hug before (and after) discipline isn't unreasonable.

Who knew that a little hug could go such a long way?

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