How one mom used her son's love of cars to teach him to how to navigate bad moods and angry moments.

kid driving car in desert at fork in road
Credit: Elwood Smith

Until recently, it seemed as if our middle son, Dylan, age 4, would come downstairs feeling out of sorts almost every morning. Minor complaints were expressed as major catastrophes.

"You didn't make me cinnamon rolls!" he would cry.

The next day, even if cinnamon rolls were ready and waiting, he'd still feel like something had gone wrong. "You didn't wait for me to help you make cinnamon rolls!"

Some mornings he'd be cheerful, filling me with hope that he'd have a great day. But then the grumpiness would reappear. Whether it was "I don't want anyone to color with me!" or "Why won't anyone color with me?" he seemed to have a knack for giving any situation a negative spin. My husband, Edward, and I walked on eggshells, braced for the next time Dylan would break down and ruin a family game or meal or party or trip to the store -- or just about anything.

Clearly, we needed a strategy to help us tackle Dylan's unhappiness habit, and I wanted a solution that didn't involve catering to his arbitrary demands. First, I sought some advice from our pediatrician. She told me that it can be extremely hard for 4-year-olds to manage their emotions, and that the old advice of letting them "vent their anger" by hitting pillows or stuffed animals usually made the problem worse. She suggested we look for ways to help Dylan calm himself down, such as listening to gentle music* or sitting in a favorite rocking chair. I stashed away this advice for a rainy day.

A short time later, Dylan and I were at the toy store to buy a birthday present for a friend. Despite my attempts to prepare him for the situation and remind him that we were buying a present for someone else, he boiled over with anger.

Driving to the party afterward, I thought to myself, "We're on a highway to hell."

The thought stuck with me, and I realized that we could just as easily be on a "road to success." An idea started forming in my head. Could a story featuring Dylan's favorite things -- cars, trucks, and other vehicles -- be the way out of the land of grumpiness? I jotted down a few ideas, and during a quiet moment the next day I decided to share my made-up tale with him.

I told him about a little boy driving a car down a road. When the little boy got angry, shouted, or hit his brothers, the road got bumpy and grumpy and was not fun to drive on at all. But when the little boy took a deep breath, said he was sorry, and asked his mom or dad for help with a problem, the road was smooth and fast and lots of fun to drive on.

Dylan appeared to enjoy the story, and over the next few weeks, I brought it up gently whenever he started to get upset or angry. "Do you remember the story I told you about driving down the road?" I would ask. "What road do you want to drive on? You're in the driver's seat."

Edward was skeptical about how well this approach would work in the heat of the moment. "I don't know that I'll have the patience to bring up this whole road story," he said. I sympathized. A cute story didn't seem like much help when an argument was escalating fast.

*Elizabeth recommends the soothing tunes on Enya's Shepherd Moons as ideal calm-down music for kids. "Dylan listens to it enough to know that his favorites are tracks 2 and 9!"

Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan's family

Learning to Drive Emotions

Still, we stuck with it, and soon it became apparent that our tactic was working. Each time we pointed out that Dylan had a choice about which road to take, he'd stop and think. His attitude didn't change instantly, but just bringing up the story gave us a chance to sit and talk quietly. It helped to suggest ways Dylan could get back on the smooth road. For example, I told him to picture a stoplight. "What do cars do when they come to a red light?" I asked.

"They stop," he said. We talked about how pausing at a light is like taking a break and calming down.

Another time we discussed asking for directions when we're lost. "What do I do when I need help?"

"You call Dad," he answered. We talked a little more about how someone who loves you can help you when you're traveling down the wrong road.

I knew we'd made real progress about four weeks later, when we were driving to preschool. Very seriously, Dylan told us about how that morning he started to drive down the bumpy, grumpy road, then realized he didn't like that road.

"I decided to look for the smooth road," he said.

Even Edward was impressed. Clearly, the vision of a bumpy, grumpy road made sense to Dylan. He liked the idea of being in the driver's seat, in charge of himself.

One day not long after that, I got angry about some trivial matter. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I snapped at the boys. Dylan came up to me and asked me if I was on the bumpy, grumpy road.

I was shocked into speechlessness. He was pointing out that I too needed help keeping my cool at times! He told me to take a deep breath so that I could find the smooth road. I was amazed that this simple metaphor had become so important to him -- and to all of us. He believed in his ability to control his reactions and wanted to help me achieve that, too. I felt proud of him, proud of me, and truly calmer. It was a powerful moment.

Now my family uses the road story often. It works like a code. When one of us is struggling and brings up the bumpy, grumpy road, it lets the others know we're not at our best, and it serves as a subtle request for support and patience as we try to get back to a smoother path. Not only are we able to share our feelings, but we can regain some control of our emotions, too. It's so much better to acknowledge when we've hit a rough patch and so good to know that it's only a temporary detour.

Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan lives with her family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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