Recently my four-year-old had a meltdown of thermonuclear proportions. I don’t blame him. If someone told me to turn off the TV while I was in the middle of my favorite show (for him it was “Work It Out Wombats” by PBS Kids) I would be angry too!
What happened next was the mother-of-all tantrums. It was enough to bring two fully-grown adults to their knees. Even my dogs were concerned! Despite helping people for a living (my wife is a mental health counselor and I’m an Executive Coach), there are times like this when we are left speechless.
Without a silver bullet, we did nothing but try to remain relaxed and calm, after first barking out a couple of orders that were promptly ignored. As the seconds ticked by, the tantrum got worse. I walked over to my son and knelt, not knowing what to do but fully prepared to use force to pry a small tablet computer from his hands and carry him to the dinner table for our meal. That seemed like a losing strategy so I paused for a second and pivoted.
Next, I tried to calmly and logically explain why I needed him to turn off his cartoon and come join us for dinner. Within seconds I realized that there was no listening happening, and he was completely captivated with whatever thoughts were arising in his mind. They weren’t pleasant thoughts, as was obvious by the tears streaming down his face (and the volume of his words!). It’s as if he was completely lost in another world.
What happened next occurred in a flash. I realized that I was taking his thinking way too seriously. I was forgetting that his tantrum was innocent – he was simply responding to thoughts that appeared very real to him. Instead of trying to continue reasoning with a four-year-old (good luck with that!) I instinctively asked him if it would be OK if I hang him upside-down from my shoulders (a daddy move we sometimes play around with) and shake his crying and tears out.
He sheepishly nodded his head “Yes” while still crying and visibly upset. With his permission, I flipped him upside down, gently bouncing him around a few feet off the floor, and carefully set him down on a chair. It lasted all of five seconds. When I asked how he was doing he said “Better“….and promptly walked over to join us for dinner of his own volition.
There was no demand, ultimatum, logical explanation or consequences needed. What was needed was an understanding that my son’s low mood was nothing more than some thoughts he was latched onto and couldn’t shake, so I “shook” them out in a fun-loving way.
By seeing the innocence of the tantrum (don’t we all have thinking we can’t seem to shake from time to time???) it became far less serious and I was able to allow some fresh thinking into the situation that would move it forward. For me, the fresh thinking was to “shake his tears out in a fun way”. I’ve never done that before, it just occurred as the right thing to do in the moment.
I suppose the lesson here isn’t that every parent should flip their kids upside-down when they are upset – that would be silly (and potentially dangerous!) – but that every human being is living in a world created by their mind. This is a world that appears vividly real. It’s a world that can have intense feelings. However, it’s all an illusion born from thoughts. Like all thinking, it’s paper-thin and ephemeral.
When we understand that it’s all created through the mind, we can see people’s attitudes and reactivity as nothing more than their response to thinking at the moment. The good news here is that thoughts are transient (incredibly so) and as thought flows through the mind even the most upset human being will eventually chill out. The more we remember that the better.
Furthermore, if you are trying to help others in any professional or personal context, you would be well-served to not take their (or your) thinking so seriously, let alone the behaviors those thoughts trigger. By seeing behavior (even disruptive behavior) as innocent (and a logical response to someone being reactive to their in-the-moment thinking) you improve the potential of creative solutions arising that move the situation towards a positive outcome.