How to Shepherd Your Over-Reactor

Last week I heard the howls from the backyard. My precious 4yr-old was running up to the door, wailing. A brother had bumped him and his life was over.
I knew that scream. He wasn’t really hurt. He was mostly just angry. One little bump or bruise derails him. He can no longer handle life.
I have an over-reactor.
The hardest part about parenting an over-reactor is knowing when to comfort and when to discipline. I want to comfort my son when he is hurt, but his response is inappropriate. I need a litmus test to see if he’s actually hurt. I need a way to comfort him without reinforcing his bad habit of overreacting.
Enter secret weapon, “Naptime.”
When my son came in last week screaming like it was an emergency, I decided to treat it like an emergency. I helped him to his room where I examined his (non-existent) boo boo and comforted him. Then, to his great surprise, I started getting him ready for a nap. I fluffed his pillow, laid him down, and covered him up. By this point (about 60 seconds later), he sniffled and looked confused. “I’m not tired.”
“Yes, but you are so hurt. I know because I heard you screaming. If it hurts enough to scream like that, then you need a nice long nap to rest your boo boo.” My son looked a little sheepish. I said, “I’ll check on you in a little bit to see how your boo boo is doing.” I went out and closed the door.
Silly? Manipulative? I don’t think so. This strategy helps me shepherd my son’s heart in three ways:
     1.     It Reinforces Natural Consequences
When our kids are tiny we protect them from natural consequences with our discipline. But as they grow we look for more and more ways to connect their behavior to natural consequences. For example, I give my over-reactor a nap instead of a time-out. A nap and a time-out are essentially the same thing, but he doesn’t know that. It’s all about my approach. When he gets a time-out he feels like he’s in trouble for getting hurt. When he gets a nap he feels like he is getting what he asked for – and he will think twice about asking for it again next time.
Isn’t that what consequences are – getting what we asked for? Natural consequences help our kids hear what their actions are really asking for. When natural consequences step in they have no one to blame but themselves.
     2.     I Care About his Pain
It’s tempting to tell an over-reactor, “Buck up! Get over it!” But our kids need to know we care about their pain. When I jump straight to discipline I miss something. I miss a chance to hear what my son is saying just because he said it in the wrong way. He’s telling me he’s hurt. I need to deal with that fact, whether or not he is expressing himself correctly.
The naptime strategy releases all the tension in my own heart about whether to discipline or comfort. I get to do both. Sometimes our kids overreact to test whether or not care about their pain. This allows me to say, “Yes, I care about your pain. I take it seriously enough to act on it.” That brings us to the third point.
     3.     Self-Control is Possible
When my son knows I will always take his pain seriously, he will think seriously about whether or not he’s in pain. He will see a choice. A meltdown about a scraped knee might seem insignificant, but it tells me something about my son’s heart. It tells me he thinks there are times when self-control is impossible. That’s scary. I want my son to learn that self-control is always possible. Always.
Think for a moment how an attitude like that translates into adulthood. It translates into adults who don’t take responsibility for their actions because they think it’s okay to be a slave to their impulses.
Here’s how the naptime strategy concludes:
I go back in to check on my son after a few minutes. I say, “How do you feel?”
“Really? I’m so glad! That sounded like a really big boo boo. Do you feel like you can play?”
(Sheepish grin) “Yes.”
“Great! Don’t forget, anytime you scream like that I will take care of you. You will take a nap and miss your play time, but you will get the rest you need to heal your boo boo. Let me know if you need another nap.”
Now when a brother knocks him on the ground in a game of tag and I can see the wheels turning. The scream is there, ready to bust out, but he considers the consequence. He gets up, brushes himself off with a few grumbles, and jumps back into the game.
Other Strategies
Our naptime strategy has gone hand-in-hand with lots of other conversations along the way. Here are some other strategies that can help an over-reactor:
       –      Show you are always willing to listen. “I want to hear how you feel, but I can’t understand you when you scream. Go rest in your room and think about what words you want to use. When you have some words for me, you can come tell me how you feel.”
     –        Give your over-reactor a replacement for screaming. “I know you are hurt. Let’s choose a word to say when you get hurt instead of screaming.” My kids love any excuse to choose a silly word. We just say, “Ouch!” We practice ahead of time. Then, when my son starts to scream I say, “Is this an, ‘Ouch!’ boo boo or is this a naptime boo boo?” It reminds him he has a choice.
     –       What about overreacting to disappointment? Teach thankfulness. “I know you are upset that ________ (your toy broke, you are disappointed, etc.) I would like to help you fix this situation, but first let’s think of something to be thankful for.” If my child continues to overreact about a disappointment sometimes I say, “You are showing me that you are not old enough for this privilege. Rather than try to fix the situation, we need some time to practice contentment. When you are calm and thankful, I will know you are ready for me to help you.”
      –       Tell a story. My kids LOVE “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” This story addresses exaggerating, which is related to overreacting.
     What are some strategies that have helped you shepherd your over-reactor?
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    Looking for more practical discipline strategies that get to the heart? Check out For the Love of Discipline: When the Gospel Meets Tantrums and Time-Outs


         Grab your copy of “The Gospel-Centered Mom” – a MUST-READ for moms in the trenches!
“I thought her best chapters were on how to discipline pointing to the grace of God instead of just disciplining to get desired behavior.” – Jane
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