Comforting the Emotionally Challenged Child

Comforting the Emotionally Challenged Child

Comforting the Emotionally Challenged Child

From the time they were very young, my kids have been drawn to soft fabrics. Christopher wears his footie pajamas on the hottest summer nights. Sarah’s retinue of stuffed animals requires so much space I often find her hanging off the bed at night. (Getting her to sleep under the covers is a chore because, like the Princess and the Pea, she is hypersensitive to anything scratchy or binding.)

If you have a child with special emotional needs, such as autism or trauma or attachment issues, you’ve likely experienced frustration over the many outbursts and unexpected meltdowns brought on by an unexpected trigger (like a goose down feather end poking through some muslin). On an intuitive level, you understand that the comforting sense of touch and closeness is indispensable to the parent-child relationship.

In reality, this kind of connection can feel tenuous, and is frequently a source of frustration and dissatisfaction. This is especially true if, as mothers, our weaknesses and limitations collide with those of our children. It isn’t easy to hold a snot-spewing, red-faced tyrant . . . and it’s even harder when your own “inner tyrant” takes over. Yes, darling child, you WILL mind “She Who Is to Be Obeyed Without Question.” Or you will spend the rest of your natural life in your room.

What I’ve had to learn the hard way is that there comes a time when what the child most needs . . . is what, on a natural level, the opposite of what her behavior indicates. Not an etiquette lesson, but a laugh. Not a wagging finger, but a hug. Not a time-out, but a silly romp together on the rug. I’ve learned that more misbehavior (including inattentiveness and screeching) stems from anxiety and fear than from insolence.

One of the greatest answers to prayer I have ever received came this summer when the wife of a co-worker offered to watch my daughter Sarah. Meghann – a stay-at-home mother of four, including two special-needs children and a baby – became my hero overnight. Over the summer, I watched Sarah grow about two feet (on the inside) because of her role as “mother’s helper.” Under Meghann’s care, she blossomed. And as I watched her mothering style, I realized the reason why: Her primary role was not “keeper of the house” or even “teacher of the classroom.” It was “provider of what each child needs most to feel secure.”

In this week’s Gospel, from Mark 13, Jesus admonishes us to “learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Of course, reading the context, you soon realize that the tender shoots and sprouts are harbingers of something far less than warm-and-fuzzy: Saint Michael, poised to assist the Prince of Peace in a final showdown between good and evil.

So it is with us. If we do not do the hard work in the spring of our love, the winter ahead will be hard and cold indeed. In our domestic showdowns, we must always remember that the comfort we provide our children, even when we ourselves are stretched beyond measure, has a purpose: We are fortifying their souls for hard times ahead, and pointing to a love that is “stronger than death” (Song of Songs 8:6).

This kind of comforting presence is not coddling or passive, not indulgent or overly sentimental. It beckons, drawing the heart into an intimate exchange that will point them to an even greater exchange with the One who made us. By providing the comforts they need (often when we are least inclined to give them), we have an opportunity to nurture the unseen bonds of love in our children, both between us and between themselves and their Creator.

If you have a special-needs child (or merely a strong-tempered one), please weigh in: What are some of the techniques you’ve found helpful in re-directing emotional outbursts and tantrums? What are some of the most effective ways you’ve found to help your child feel safe and secure?

Copyright 2012 Heidi Hess Saxton


About Author

We welcome guest contributors who graciously volunteer their writing for our readers. Please support our guest writers by visiting their sites, purchasing their work, and leaving comments to thank them for sharing their gifts here on To inquire about serving as a guest contributor, contact


  1. Pingback: Crucial Parenting Concept: Helping Your Child Gain Confidence

  2. Jennifer Fitz on

    Oh my goodness, Heidi, this was the post for me — as I fled to the internet for a few minutes respite from our resident emotional pinball, who’s been bouncing off of every possible obstacle this morning. I think you’ve hit it on the head: An emotionally-induced explosion needs an emotional solution. (For ours: Making her stuffed bunny do a little song and dance usually calms her down. I kid not. She’s feeling “the world hates me” and bunny-dance is a sign the world does not hate her, and indeed there’s some joy to be had.)

    –> Over the long haul, of course it’s not all bunny-dances. We really try to work on helping her build the problem-solving skills, distinguish real problems from feelings-problems, and so forth.

    We also pick activities that will build up her emotional stamina without weighing her down with new problems. Specific example: One-on-one piano lessons with a teacher she adores, rather than a group class (cheaper) where she’d have to deal with all the different peer relationships, question her own progress compared to others, etc. She needs a chance to learn a skill and experience competence, but without all the peer pressure. For group activities, we try to pick ones where there’s heavy mom-presence and a generally positive atmosphere. For b-day party, I go for a luxurious treat with one best friend, rather than the usual room-of-chaos method. She’s not a sink-or-swim kid. Needs those emotional floaties for now, until the stay-calm muscles build up a little.

  3. Wow. I know certain people in my life have been trying to tell me that my youngest (age 5) just wants my attention, but this whole emotionally induced explostion needing an emotional solution is hitting over the head with a large two by four. I have three kids: a girl who is almost 9, a boy who is 7 and a boy who is 5. My 5 year old still throws tantrums and hits me when he doesn’t get his way. He does not do this for my husband. My husband stays at home (and does all the things any stay at home mom would do) and I work as a nurse 36 hours a week and I am continuing my education to hopefully have a master’s degree in nursing some day. That doesn’t leave much time for my husband or the kids so I am sure they all want a piece of me anyway they can get it: yelling, misbehaving, picking fights, etc. There are days I get so discouraged and overdrawn and I will act like a 2 year old myself. It is so frustrating. I am definately interested in hearing how others respond emotionally to a child who has no sense of delaying gratification. Thanks.

    • Jennifer Fitz on

      Kim – I know that desire to run and hide, or to explode back! I have to remind myself to actively seek opportunities to affirm my hard-to-love ones when I catch them not being bad.

      One thing that came to mind when thinking about solutions for you: With your little boy, since he’s a boy and since physical aggression is a problem, look for physical outlets that let you affirm him. Playing soccer, or going for a run, or whatever it is. He *needs* to be made tired through physical work. It’s a genuine boy need.

      You do have to draw a firm line and not permit physical attacks on others, including yourself. If need be, get yourself some training on how to restrain an aggressor (this is something social workers / therapists who work with troubled teens get classes on — look into it). But, my experience is that head-to-head aggression just fuels the fight — boys are made to fight back, it’s hard-wired.

      In contrast, push-ups as a discipline response can be positively awesome, because boys know that real men get push-ups when they misbehave, and they respect being disciplined and treated like a real soldier, and they get a chance to do something physical to work out some of their anger. Also, you can freely assign push-ups at first sign of disrespect without worrying that you over-reacted. Start with just one or two, and pay attention to form so you don’t injure the poor kid; your only goal is to interrupt the mood and reset it. Better one small half push-up than over-doing it to start. He’ll get strong fast!

      And stay calm and collected — boys don’t do emotional complexity. They do clear rules, tested until it’s easy to know what is acceptable and what is not. And they expect to test the line, discover the line via your firm but unemotional response, and be forgiven as soon as they come back into compliance.

      Anyway, just a few thoughts, pick through what helps, and what doesn’t help, leave right here in the combox. Every boy is different, so keep working at it until you find your personal solutions.

      • What a great idea, Jen — thanks!

        Another thing I’ve found helpful is to find ways to engage Sarah through all the senses. For example, a pretty-smelling lotion rubbed on her arms and legs, followed by painting her toenails a pretty pink. The “girly” Sweet Sarah emerges, and Snarky Sarah disappears. When we start the day with a lotion rub, the whole morning goes much smoother.

        Kim, my heart goes out to you. You are carrying such a load right now. My advice to you is: Make sure you are tending to your own needs. Eat well. Exercise. Get the rest you need — even if you have to engage a sitter or mother’s helper to do it. Don’t forget to feed your soul as well — even if it’s just listening to a Rosary tape while you’re in the shower.

        I was struck by your comment that your son acts out for you in ways he doesn’t for his father (his regular caregiver.) No doubt your son is picking up on your stress level. Mothers and Fathers are both important in a child’s life, but they are not interchangeable. This means that you do need to build into your daily routine some nurturing time with each of your kids. With older kids, it might be a funny note tucked in their lunch. With youngers, cuddle up and read, get down on the floor and play, make funny soap patterns on the bathroom shower wall. It might be a morning ritual of cinnamon toast and tea. Whatever.

        When we first got the kids, I continued to work out of fear that, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to get back into the industry. I put so much unnecessary pressure on myself, simply because I thought it all had to get done RIGHT NOW. Ask God to show you how to pace yourself well. We all have different chapters in our lives. What chapter are you in right now? God bless you!

Leave A Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.