Responding to Big Emotions
Every parent has probably been there- you overestimated your super mom abilities and decided to pick up some quick groceries on the way home, even though it was already late for your daughter’s nap. Fifteen minutes later everyone in the grocery store wished you’d listened to that gut instinct, as your daughter screams inconsolably as she lays on the floor and you look on helplessly. Your perfect family outing at the amusement park disintegrated spectacularly with a tantrum over spilled ice cream in the line up. You try to rush your son out of the door and what ensues is a tornado of shoes, and tears, and school materials. Your children were playing so nicely…until they weren’t, and everybody is crying, including you.
Parenting isn’t easy, and there aren’t any cookie cutter, foolproof strategies to manage any emotion and behavior. We wish. But the truth is, every child is different, and we are all different too. As are our environments, lifestyles, cultures, and family dynamics. And so, I’m not going to give some secret strategies I learned while living in some remote village in the Amazon or anything, but I will share a bit about how children’s brains work, because I think understanding this can go a very long way.
One of the first things to remember, something I’ve talked about before, is that children’s brains develop from the bottom to top- from the brain-stem and out towards the cortical areas. Children’s cortical thinking, reasoning, areas are far from fully developed. In fact, men don’t fully develop their frontal lobes until they are 25 (think impulse control)! Children operate much more out of their brain stem than we do, and when they are overwhelmed, or scared, their brains jump right back into this primitive way of operating.
The brain-stem is responsible for survival- for organ function and fight or flight reactions- just reacting. The higher brain functions, developed later, regulate emotions, behavior, and far later, reasoning, planning ahead, and controlling impulses.
Ever tried to reason with your screaming two year old? Or even your 13 year old in a rage? It probably wasn’t very successful. If we remember that our child’s rational brain isn’t functioning very well, if at all when they are ‘losing it’, our way of responding will change drastically.
This is where a second thing to remember comes in. You’re not going to be able to change your child, fix a behavior, or reason out a change in the moment of a big emotion, but you can control who you are in the moment, and what message you are going to give your child by your response.
What message do you want to give your child? You want to let them know that you’ve ‘got this’, that you’re in control, that you know what to do, and that they’re safe. You want to let them know that their emotions are okay, that you can handle them, and that you love them, no matter what. I love what Gabor Mate says in his book ‘Hold on to your Kids’. He talks about how “The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child”. “Adults who ground their parenting in a solid relationship with the child parent intuitively. They do not have to resort to techniques or manuals but act from understanding and empathy. If we know how to be with our children and who to be for them, we need much less advice on what to do. Practical approaches emerge spontaneously from our own experience once the relationship has been restored.” (italics added). Gordon Neufeld, who wrote this book with Dr. Mate, has some great parenting strategies, particularly on how to parent strong willed children. He talks about this same idea- the attachment dynamic, and how, through language and particular responses, we can give our children the message that we know what to do and they can rely on us to handle any situation (even if, in reality we’re at our wits end and really feel like we have no clue).
An important thing to consider is that, if we're going to show our kids that we're in control, that their emotions are okay and we can handle them, then we actually need to be in control. Maybe not necessarily know exactly what to do, but we need to take care of our own mental health, use our own coping and calming strategies so we're ready to handle their outbursts and explosive emotions. This is easier said than done, obviously, and if you have 5 kids running around your feet and you're trying to get ready for a Christmas dinner with the extended family, it’s going to be hard to take time for yourself or manage your own stress. But remember that you're not going to be able to respond to your children with patience and understanding if you're at the end of your rope and haven't slept or eaten properly in months.
Some things you may be able to implement to take care of yourself are: have regular planned 'nights off' where you get a babysitter,and have a night to yourself, or a date night with your husband. Try to implement "quiet times" once a day, where your kids go outside or to their rooms and you have a moment to sit down. Join parent groups, where you can meet other parents, and share in each other's joys and frustrations, and support each other. Eat healthy- try to plan ahead simple, healthy snacks and meals to have on hand so you're not adding to the stress of your body with junk.
Have a consistent routine each day so your kids know what to expect and you can have less stressful transitions out of the house and to bed. Make sure your kids have a bed time, and not super late either, so you can have a moment to yourself in the evening. Try to get outside or get active once a day- either when the kids are at school, or when your husband comes home, get a babysitter for an hour, or join a gym with child care. Movement and exercise is super important for your mental health. Practice your own calming techniques during quiet times- learn breathing strategies or grounding exercises and practice them so that during a crisis you're able to use them to get your head in the right place.
Some other strategies to try, keeping in mind that our children aren't very rational at the best of times, are strategies that use the body, routine, or visuals rather than language to help our children gain control. Try to limit language as much as possible during a meltdown. Speak in simple sentences in a calm voice, and as much as possible, use means other than language to communicate when your child is overwhelmed. Often people think of visuals as something for children with special needs, but I think they're great for most kids- try having pictures of calm down tools, or a hand signal to indicate a 'break'. Use body based or environmental strategies- a calm down space where the child can hide, go under something heavy, or punch something; give a bear hug, squeeze a hand, wrap in a weighted blanket, hug a weighted or a vibrating stuffed animal, go somewhere quiet, get down to their level and just sit there, being a calm presence.
And then, obviously, the best strategy is to prevent the meltdown before it happens. Sometimes they're unavoidable, but there are some things we can do that can go a long way in preventing big emotions. Keep a structured routine- children thrive on routine, and it helps them when they know what to expect. Visual schedules are great for this, so your child can visualize what’s going to happen, and you can also show them when a change in schedule is going to happen so they can anticipate it. Give yourself enough time- have spaces in the day for the child to just do their own thing, and give enough time so you don't have to be rushed, stressing both you and your child. This is especially important after school- often school is stressful or over stimulating for kids,and having them go go go to all kinds of different activities after school, or asking them all kinds of questions about their day can sometimes be overwhelming. Give them a bit of time to themselves, to do something quiet, to have a snack, before moving onto the next activity or conversation.
Have calming activities integrated throughout the day- movement and using the body against resistance are calming for children. Get them moving, playing, pushing, pulling, carrying, throughout the day to help them overall be a a bit more calm. Keep a healthy diet- trans fats and sugars actually stress the nervous system and make emotional regulation more difficult. Reduce screen time- screens are dysregulating for children and studies have shown that excess screen time is correlated with emotional and behavioral difficulties. Learn the signs of when your child is starting to become overwhelmed, and use proactive strategies such as holding something heavy, having a snack, taking a break, running a lap.
And most of all, remember, you're both human. You'll both lose control. Meltdowns will happen,and you won't always handle them well, and that's okay. Take those moments and learning opportunities, and learning experiences to do better next time.