Helping Children with Big Emotions
This post is a part of my Lunch Break w/ Laura series, which airs each Wednesdays at Noon CST.
Many parents I work with feel as though they can appropriately handle small emotional upsets and disappointments. But when it comes to really big emotions they often feel lost, stuck, and powerless.
Let me know if this sounds like you:
Your child has just lost it, and you feel SO powerless to help them. It seems like nothing you do helps. Everything you say is wrong, and they seem so overwhelmed by their emotions that it’s almost like they are “lost” in them and you don’t know how to reach them and pull them through.
Or what about this? (And this is so me.)
You know exactly what you are supposed to do, but you just want the screaming, the kicking, the hitting to stop! Right now!
It can be so difficult to find a balance in establishing limits and boundaries without minimizing a child’s feelings. It can feel as though you don’t have options when faced with name calling or hitting when you are trying to move away from punishments, threats, and time-outs. You may feel as though you know what you DON’T want to do, but you’re not sure what TO do. All you know is you’re worried you’ve created an out of control monster-child.
Isn’t it wonderful to know we aren’t alone? Many parents are experiencing the same thing, even so-called “experts” like me! It’s really hard and I’m not going to lie, I don’t have a magic wand to make your child meltdown proof.
And honestly, that isn’t the goal.
We want our kids to have rich emotional lives, to participate in the full range of human experience. It’s not that we want them to not have these big emotions, it's that we want them to learn to REGULATE these emotions appropriately.
In this post I want to offer you some powerful perspective shifts to help you navigate these tumultuous years with confidence and ease. I am a really big believer that most of the time it is the parent that needs to change, not the child, and that most of the time that change needs to start in our minds and our hearts and that our behavior will follow.
You will still be setting limits and boundaries but they won’t feel punitive anymore, because the place where YOU are coming from will have shifted.
Let’s focus first on the things you can do NOW to prepare for these inevitable moments of big emotions.
Be Open-Minded and Solidify Your Goals for Challenging Moments
If your goal is to get your child to stop having these big feelings, no matter the cost, things aren’t going to go well and you’ll end up feeling even more disconnected. Big emotions are a natural part of life, they aren’t going anywhere and if they make you uncomfortable, or it hurts you to see them hurting so much, or you’re simply exhausted since it's the 10th nuclear melt down of the day, those are all things that you need to take a look at and take steps to resolve outside of these moments.
IN the moment, your goal can be to be present with your child’s emotions, to be calm and compassionate, and hold space for them. But you can’t do that authentically if your true goal is to get it to stop. Get really clear on your goal for those moments and see if your behavior is lining up with that goal.
Understand Your Child’s Current Capabilities
Knowing where your child is in terms of brain development is key to understanding why things can seem so hard for our little ones, and even our big ones. Executive functioning, like the ability to make rational decisions and control impulses are all higher order processes that continue to develop into adulthood. So young children, and even teens, are still gaining in these skills, so it is incredibly important that we have reasonable expectations for our children.
When our children are stuck in big emotions, those executive functioning systems are completely offline and they are likely in fight-flight-or-freeze mode.
Now, maybe you’re like, “Yea, I know this but it doesn’t make it less infuriating”
This is when your head knows something, and you need to let your heart know this information too. Let yourself fully see and connect with the idea that, in that moment, they are quite honestly doing the best they can. Have they done better other times? I’m sure they have! Could they do better if they were better rested or had full tummies? Absolutely! But in this moment, right now, this is all they’ve got and it’s our job to recognize this and support them through it. When we tap into this, it is SO MUCH easier to approach our children’s behavior with compassion and empathy. With this mindset we can really connect with the idea that they aren’t giving us a bad time, they are HAVING a bad time.
Ask Them What They Need and TRUST Them
If your child is verbal enough I highly recommend finding a time where things have been going well, they are well rested, full tummies etc. and take a chance to discuss and problem solve a bit.
For example, this morning my family went around the table at breakfast saying what helps best when we are having big emotions. My older daughter said she likes to be taken to her room and when she feels better to be snuggled. This blew me and my husband away, because honestly, there are times when we feel like we are torturing her when we take her to her room when she is upset. But it’s what she always asks us to do when she is calm, she says she feels safe there, she can calm herself down and then have snuggles. So we just trust her and we recognize that this calm version is her true self and she is able to recognize her own needs. The version of her that is present in the moment of a meltdown isn’t as capable of making those decisions because her regulatory system is offline. So we are choosing to trust her calm, centered self, rather than when she is completely dysregulated and screaming, “NO NO NO!” as we carry her up the stairs. And that takes some self soothing on our part, saying to ourselves, “This is what she needs, this is what she has asked for, this is where she feels safe.”
Now, let’s talk about what to do in the moment during an emotional tantrum.
1. Check In With Yourself
Your emotional state is absolutely critical to handling this well and being able to hold space for your child’s emotions and coach them through these hard times. If you’ve been hit/kicked or if you are feeling overwhelmed or seeing red or feeling rage-y, that’s ok! There is nothing more rage inducing than our children sometimes. But, children NEED us to be calm in order for them to be calm. Our emotional state helps regulate their emotional state. In these moments they need to feel safe. And for a child, nothing feels more UNSAFE than an out of control parent. Now, I don’t say this to cause guilt or shame, because we have all been there! But actively practicing taking a break to calm down is wonderful because it rewires your own brain, making it easier to calm yourself in the future. It also models healthy self-regulation for your child.
Now, I know you may be thinking, “But I can’t just let him hit me or his sister and just walk away! He needs to learn that’s not ok!”
You’re right, that limit does need to be set, but if your child is in full meltdown mode, this is not the moment to teach that lesson. They aren’t capable of learning and they won’t be ABLE to learn until they have calmed down, and feel seen, heard, and validated. Only then will they be able to learn. And they can’t get calm if you’re not calm. And they can’t get empathy and compassion if you’re not able to give it. So you HAVE to take care of yourself first. Put your own mask on first!
2. Keep Everyone Safe
In the moment you may need to block hits or move your child to a safe place. You may also need to step away from them to keep yourself from being hurt. You can use calm boundaries, such as, “I won’t let you hit me.” Be sure that if you touch your child to move or block that you are doing so with love and gentleness, not anger. If you have a younger one, it is ok to take them and remove yourselves. This is where talking about things before hand is key. Your child isn’t in a place to hear rationale for why you are picking them up and carrying them to their room, or putting up a baby gate to keep little brother safe. If you’ve discussed it a lot ahead of time, and gotten their perspective if you can, it won’t be a surprise and you can do these things with compassion and confidence. This doesn’t mean they will like it. They don’t have to, it’s ok for them to get really mad about these boundaries, but hold them nonetheless, because it sends a powerful message around safety, that you will keep him safe from hurting people he loves. Same is true for name calling. You can try to validate the feelings underneath, but ultimately you can set a boundary around how you’d like to be spoken to.
3. Lend Them Your Calm.
If they are fully in fight-flight-freeze mode, they are not ready to hear your empathy, validation, or feelings words. So instead you can actively regulate your own system with the intention of regulating theirs. It works! If you’re holding them, do your own deep breathing. If you're in the room with them while they calm down, engage in a light mediation or maybe just sit and send them compassionate thoughts. Keep technology and screens shut down for the time being because kids often read that as their parents are disengaging.
4. Drop Your Agenda. Empathize and Validate.
Once their nervous systems have calmed enough to talk you can start empathizing and validating. Many parents make the misstep here of trying to go too fast or of having the intention to solve the problem or teach a lesson right away. Drop those agendas and instead simply listen and paraphrase back without attempting to change the emotions or correct their version of events. Just accept and validate and label the emotions that you hear them expressing to you.
5. Set Limits and Problem Solve.
Only after your child has had a chance to be fully heard and validated will they be open to hearing you set limits and problem solve. In fact, they often start doing it naturally when they have felt heard and understood. “It’s ok to feel angry, I would too if someone took my toy and broke it. Hitting is not ok, it hurts. What could we do next time?” My kids also respond well at times with practicing where I am the misbehaving child and they are the parents setting the limit. They love seeing me fake cry and act out and get “in trouble” and I love getting to see my parenting reflected back. (Well, most of the time. Sometimes they say things that make me aware I need to make a few shifts!)
It is also incredibly important that we offer ourselves the same compassion and grace that we offer our children.
Yes, we have more self-regulation skills and we should have high expectations for our ability to manage our emotions in the face of our children’s. But, we are still human and we are just as deserving of empathy, compassion, and gentle treatment. And sometimes when I say that to my clients or even to myself, it is almost painful to hear, because we have spent so much time in shame and guilt and doubt. But we need to say it to ourselves everyday, and not just because it helps us show up better for our kids and our partners and our friends and our work, but simply because we are human and we deserve it.