Help! My son is emotional and distracted

Kinderling News & Features

Have you ever tried to get a four-year-old boy out of the door by 8am? He’s like a small puffy white cloud - difficult to pin down and constantly raining on me.

You see, my boy is a bit of a dreamer. He can’t sit still for five minutes before he’s wandered off to water his pet dinosaur in the bathroom. But if you do get him to sit down, he might explode into a fountain of tears because I put the Weet-bix in his bowl (instead of letting him do it himself). 

He never seems to hear my instructions, even when they’re repeated often and loudly. Or he will start doing as I ask (getting dressed), only to be distracted by a motorbike with one wheel he left in the toy room.

It’s very perplexing. And yes, I need help. Because at this rate I’m not going to make it until the end of September, let alone till Christmas time.

Anthony Semann is a passionate early learning researcher and educator at Semann and Slattery, and he has some pointers on how to manage my dreamy, teary son.

Dealing with distraction

Make meal times visible

Anthony says that children love to take control of their lives, and that food is one area where they can exercise their control - an example of this is when they refuse every food you cook for them. When it comes to getting my little one to sit down and finish his meal in under three hours, Anthony suggests using a timer.

“Place a large visual clock at the table with clearly marked finish and start times. It’s a great way to indicate the household timelines.”

Relate instructions in three stages

Anthony says that while four-year-olds are developmentally able to follow instructions, it’s all about how you relay them.

“At the age of four, it is expected that children can follow instructions that have three stages to them, so verbally making these clear to children helps them maintain focus. For example, ‘Once you have finished your bath, stand on the mat, dry yourself, then I’ll meet you in the bedroom to help you put your clothes on.’ Re-stating these can assist in children developing focus and see the task to the end.”

Understand that you and your child have different priorities

When we’re getting ready in the morning, my priority is to get my daughter to school on time, and to be at work when I’m needed.

My son’s priority is to win the nerf gun battle with his sister. Whether he is wearing underpants or not is beside the point.

Anthony says that once we recognise our different priorities, we can try to meet our kids halfway. An example of this is taking a moment to connect with them in their world, by saying, 'Every warrior needs to eat, perhaps now is a good time to call a truce so you can have your breakfast?' You might find you reach your end goal with fewer obstacles.

Hear Anthony Semann talk about little boys with big emotions on Kinderling Conversation:

Understanding their emotional outbursts

Recognise their pain is legitimate

If you’re going to raise a child with only your perspective in mind, life is going to be one long list of frustrating and ridiculous situations.

I am never going to truly understand why me putting the Weet-bix in my son’s bowl is so completely soul-destroying for him. But I can understand that he is feeling pain.

Anthony says, “It's not for me to judge where that pain is coming from or whether it's worthwhile. Attunement means we enter that space with that child. We look them in the eye and we say, ‘This must be really sad for you. I can remember how I felt like that once.’”

The key, Anthony says, is not to try and placate them. After all, most times you won’t be able to solve the problem (mainly because you won’t even understand what the problem is to start with!). Our long-term goal is to help our boys learn how to self-regulate. Teaching them what their emotions are, and that it’s OK to feel them, is the first step.

Telling a child to stop crying is not going to work

Last time you had a good sob, if someone came along and told you to stop, would it have worked? How about if someone told you that your tears were an overreaction? That it wasn’t worth crying about, or that you were being a baby to cry at all?

Harsh, right? If you’re going to recognise that your child is feeling pain (for whatever reason), getting frustrated and telling them to stop is not going to work. Be with them when they’re upset, and pick a time – that night or the next day – to talk about what happened. Try to find solutions when they’re not so upset.

Talking about emotions with boys is really important

Humans experience a range of emotions, not just happy or sad. The more words we give our children to understand what they’re feeling, the easier it will be for them to self-regulate.

For example, understanding the difference between fear and anger. Anthony says fear can be about challenging negative thoughts, whereas anger is about self-regulation.

“If we can teach young boys to figure out the difference between how we deal with fear and anger, I think we go a long way to raising some very healthy young men. And it could be as simple as saying, ‘You know you look really scared. Talk to me about what you're scared about.’

“Feelings are real but they're not a reality. Just because you're scared doesn't mean something bad is going to happen, but it's okay to be scared.”

Anger, on the other hand, is another emotion to be identified, explained and talked through.

Teaching children about all of their emotions (not just anger and fear) is key to their growing emotional literacy. One of the most effective ways to do this, Anthony says, is through picture books. Point out different characters and ask your child what they might be feeling.

Identifying what your son is going through will help you both deal with how he’s feeling.

Remember you’re not alone

There’s a short moment of silence between when I strap my son into his car seat, and when I climb into the driver’s seat. Most mornings that brief moment is full of recriminations of how I could have handled the morning better. I often wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

The truth is, little boys (and girls too) are challenging creatures. They’re learning about the world and their place in it, and that can translate into some bloody frustrating behaviours. Many of which leads to one running late for work.

Anthony’s final advice is to stay calm, “Know that what you're experiencing is happening simultaneously around the world. Fifty thousand other parents right here, right now, have the same little boy on the ground melting down over something else, so stay calm and composed. Connect with him. Normalise his feelings rather than making him shut it down.

We want to shut down emotions and we shouldn't. Just sit with them. I know it can feel uncomfortable, but this little young boy has to learn to be the master of his own emotions. He can’t do that if we try to stop the emotions.”