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Why does my child make such a big deal out of such little things?

They can’t find their favorite shirt. Someone wouldn’t share their ball today. The photo of them on Instagram was not very flattering. Their sibling joked that mom or dad was going to give away their iPad. BOOM. The world is over. Tears. Anger. The sky is falling. 

Why are they making such a fuss over nothing? What’s the big deal? Get over it, right?

Let’s press pause. What makes something a “big deal” vs. a “little deal?” Importance is a pretty relative term. Food, shelter, and breathing aside, what constitutes important depends on who’s doing the constituting. And when something is relative, we would probably say it depends on your perspective. Good, perspective. Let’s get some perspective on this issue. 

Maybe we think about perspective in terms of art - angles and viewpoints. A lot of perspective also comes from distance. With your face smooshed right up to something, it’s a little difficult to say you have perspective. We literally have to get some distance to see the larger picture. 

A child’s world is right up close, not a lot of distance for any proper perspective. Their worlds are simply smaller than ours. In terms of what they know, have known, and have control over, it’s a limited microcosm. We all had it. It’s part of why little people can seem so selfish, like the whole world revolves around them. Without being able to see much farther than the very small radius around them, everything sure seems to orbit them - and they are clearly in the center. Developmentally it’s pretty normal. It’s a naturally limited awareness and subsequently limited perspective. 

The world can seem terrifyingly large and mysterious to a child because of their limited view. In a little world, everything has a large effect. A little cup of water isn’t so insignificant to an ant farm. Scale, fragility, and precarity. There’s not a lot that your under 10 year old (or even older) has any real control over. You provide and they depend. It’s quite a vulnerable position if we think of it in that way. Perhaps you feel they’re too entitled or demanding, but in the end the providers have the reigns. We pay the grocery and internet bills. We provide transportation. That’s a lot of dependency. 

In contrast, we adults probably hardly realize how much bigger our worlds are and easily forget the miniature world we once navigated. We’ve been alive two, three, or four decades longer than them. At this point, we know hundreds more people than our children. We’ve been driving our cars and our lives longer than our dependents have been saying the word “car,” let alone living. 

I’ve picked out what shirt I wanted to wear at least 13,000 times. I’ve had a couple decades and some fabulous therapists since I was excluded from schoolyard games. I’ve learned I like to take photos more than be in them, and I just never worry someone is going to take away my devices unless I leave them somewhere, and then I’ll figure out replacing them. I have history, strategy, and agency in my toolbox. Our kids are building up those tools through experience, but they haven’t done anything 13,000 times except maybe blink, and there wasn’t a ton of choice in that action. We have tons of practice and immense control over things in our lives that our children do not. 

“Getting some perspective” is really something we adults must do. What may seem like trivial matter to us may indeed be a big deal to them because it’s enormous in the small scale they live in. It can’t really be otherwise, not yet. 

We’ve all chuckled at how big we remember the hill from our childhood seeming, the one that’s actually more of a gentle slope. While one of my aunts does have a nice-sized backyard, my cousins and I remember it as being at least an acre. We all commented upon return in our adulthood that it must have shrunk. Did she sell off ¾ of it? We were little people. That yard was huge. 

Coping is a skill

A shirt is a big deal from their vantage point. Add to the fashion distress the complication of the associated lack of experience with coping skills that comes from the reduced number of times one has had to cope. Coping is a skill. Anyone remember holding an inconsolable infant? Baby didn’t come with a bunch of self-soothing skills. That takes time and opportunity. Hopefully we can also recall times in our lives when we were convinced that all was lost. We get to the other side again and again, hopefully picking up tips for coping along the way.

Our children are hopefully building those skills, but they don’t just appear for them because we have them nor simply because we want them to have them. They take time and more time to cultivate. There’s nothing wrong with them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a feeling. We all have feelings, and not one person, of any age, likes those feelings dismissed or minimized.

Take a quick moment to remember the last time you felt overwhelmed. Got it in your mind? Would it have been supremely helpful at that moment for someone to look at you with exasperation and say, “Geez! Why are you making this such a big deal? Don’t be such a baby!” Please try not to fantasize about harming that imaginary person. 

You, like your child, probably want a little empathy and solidity while you’re feeling big feelings that have you shaken up. Not “You poor thing” or “Tell me who did that and I’ll punch them.” Those don’t seem to help the situation, but are understandable knee jerk reactions. 

Our kids get distressed. While we don’t need to solve all their distresses (in fact it’s best to not solve as many as possible), we can be a solid presence that neither dismisses their dismay nor crumbles along with them. Once again, I highly recommend Between Parent and Child for practical ways to empathize without enabling or infantilizing. 

Learning to cope by watching us cope

Can the whole day stop because of a clothing crisis? Is a bad day on the playground license to spew angry words at everyone else? We can recognize that a problem feels seriously significant without giving it the right of way to run the show. We must all learn to make it to the other side of our disappointments and dilemmas, but, again, it’s a learning process. It doesn’t happen automatically. Being sensitive to feelings doesn’t mean we are slaves to those feelings and our children learn that first by watching us.

We adults get to model frustration tolerance and quick recovery times from setbacks. That will do much more than scolding or shaming. They are always watching us to see how we handle this big crazy world. Every parent is a teacher and we mostly teach through our everyday example.

We empower our children with opportunities to self soothe - not in the face of mortal danger, but in the precious low stakes moments life gives us a lot of if we can appreciate them. We all must learn to calm ourselves, console ourselves, even counsel ourselves, making distressing times our stepping stones to more quickly-found solid ground and showing our children the path forward.

What would we want said - or not said?

We can model our own emotional regulation while we embrace emotional dysregulation. I find it helps to think what I would want as an adult. Let’s imagine a morning where the hot water didn’t work. We are understandably frustrated, and cold, but have learned to still show up for work and not take it out on unsuspecting coworkers. While we don’t expect the whole office to rally around us with sympathy and blankets, woe to the colleague who hears and retorts, “Suck it up. There are people in the world who never have hot water.” (I’ve also worked in Haiti and even I would never say that and expect to remain friends with the person). Let us not be that annoying coworker to our children.

“I can’t believe you’re worried about that. That’s so silly.” Those are more words from the imaginary person you no longer plan to speak with. Our struggles are real. So are our children’s. Their disappointments and dilemmas are also very real for them. Even if we cannot totally grasp what it means to them, clearly it means something. They probably need to solve it themselves, and we actually help them do that by first appreciating that it’s something hard for them to solve. 

Becoming an ally is awesome

Not having to solve their conundrums while recognizing the validity of the concerns is actually pretty awesome. You get to be on their side, not trying to push or pull, not diminishing or destroying the obstacle, but standing on their side while they figure it out, or simply let it pass. I’ve had plenty of panics that I realized myself were false alarms and was glad there wasn’t anyone giving me the “told you so” look when I came to that conclusion. 

There are many great practical ways to apply this idea of taking them seriously without seriously taking over. Sometimes just a hug. Or “Ug, I’m so sorry.” We may have to retrain our eyes if they’ve become accustomed to rolling a bit. 

Sometimes our lack of empathy can simply be the collateral of hurry hurry rush rush. Trying to get myself and three kids out the door isn’t typically the peak of my emotional availability. It really takes a conscious effort to remember that my children’s crises are not a plot to thwart my day and they’re not just “being drama queens,” as much as that does come to mind at times. 

I have to remember that I can model and scaffold the advanced planning that helps prevent the last minute crisis. I often have to watch them go to school a bit disheveled or without papers that seemed to disappear overnight. Berating them is really quite tempting, I’m not gonna lie. And the less sleep I get the less zen and compassionate I know I am. I know I must try to align myself with them as much as possible. We all know frustration and we can feel for them in those moments, while still getting out the door. They’ll watch us for how we deal with our daily crises as well as how we deal with theirs.

Children: The Challenge

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the bedrock of my own parenting education. It’s an older, unassuming, and often-referenced book by Rudolf Dreikurs called Children: The Challenge. I think it’s gold. It held my hands when I felt ready to throw them into the air. More importantly, it invited me into a mindset of freedom from constant frustration and a practical pathway to empowerment. I see the premise as respect for both the parent and the child and how that can play out without compromising order and growth. I’ve heard there are updated versions, but in the version I have I still love the scenarios where “mother sits down to write a letter” both for how quickly that language became quaint and also for how relevant those scenarios described still are (when I substitute letter with text message). I recommend mentally updating the language and mining the wealth of wisdom. 

We don’t have to convince them their crisis is trivial, nor should we take it over as our own mission. We can look with new eyes at the importance of things in their scaled-down worlds and recognize their feelings for the real feelings they are. They probably can’t understand why things as meaningless to them as stock prices or insurance premiums gets adults all in a tizzy. 

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