Between my friends, clients in my therapy practice, and the Parents with Confidence Facebook community, I’ve seen a strong reoccurring theme these last few weeks with kids. There’s a good chance you’ve seen it with your child too.
“I feel sad and angry sometimes and I don’t know why.”
“He keeps freaking out on me ALL THE TIME and I don’t know what to do.”
“Little things that never bothered her before are causing her to completely fall apart.”
While there doesn’t seem to be much everyone can agree on right now, one thing we surely can is that we’re all living in a stressful time. Have YOU been feeling unsettled, unfocused, and overwhelmed lately (I can’t be the only one)? Now just imagine how your little people feel, as they are way more dependent on consistency, predictability, and stability to provide them with a vital sense of safety and security. When the child’s sense of safety is threatened, it activates their brain’s emotional center, or amygdala, cueing more emotional outbursts.
Everyone’s emotional house is crumbling a bit right now, which isn’t all that surprising, is it? So what’s the first and more important thing a parent can do when dealing with their child’s emotional outbursts? Stop acting like they shouldn’t be having an outburst.
Here’s the thing. Your child will have a very difficult time successfully working through (aka getting done with) their emotional outbursts if you’re not creating an environment that allows and welcomes emotions (and especially big ones).
I know it’s uncomfortable when your child cries and I also know that your brain goes into panic/stress/anger overload when your son whacks your daughter with a piece of his Hot Wheels Track. This happens because you are a good parent and you are HUMAN. You want to protect your child from pain and discomfort and care about them so much that you become emotionally overwhelmed right alongside them!
While this may be our instinctive (and learned in many cases from a childhood where our emotions were dismissed) reaction, it’s not a helpful or healthy one when it comes to raising an emotionally intelligent child. Because emotions are actual physical-chemical responses in your child’s brain, Resisting, and trying to force them away does not work. When it comes to calming an emotional child, the only way out of an emotional outburst is through.
We are certainly good at acting as if we have the power to stop the emotional fireworks from being set off though aren’t we?
“You’ll be ok, you’re not going to die from it!”
“It’s not that big of a deal, you’ll be fine“
“Knock it off, that’s enough!”
Take just a quick second to think about how you’d feel if your partner/friend etc responded to your tears or anger with those phrases. Pretty eye-opening isn’t it? Not to mention epically disrespectful AND unhelpful. Your child’s dismissed and invalidated emotions aren’t going anywhere good (ignoring them enough will send them to the subconscious mind where they can fester into anxiety and depression) so it’s time for you to ‘suck it up’ (see what I did there?) and learn how to get a little more zen when your child’s emotions start to fly.
Reflect on how you show up when your child’s emotions become escalated. Do you become emotionally heightened right alongside your child and begin to yell? Or do you tend to shut down and move away from them?
This is likely your default mode for responding to stress, or how you react when your limbic system starts to activate the fight, flight, or freeze mode. Knowing your tendencies and reactions when you become overwhelmed, will allow you to explore whether or not that pattern is going to be helpful for your child. When it comes to fostering your child’s emotional regulation skills, coming alongside them as a calm steady guide is always the most helpful approach.
Reflect on where your patterns or reactions come from. When you were young did your caregivers quickly shut down your emotions communicating they were intolerable? Many of us heard the common phrase “Stop crying!” “Just deal with it” “Tough it out” and learned that emotional expression needs to be extinguished. Perhaps by nature, you’d consider yourself a very emotional person.
As a highly sensitive person (or HSP), I’ve learned that I’m affected more deeply and intensely by the big emotions of my children. Exploring both nature and nurture will help you better understand yourself and become more intentional about the way you react to your child in stressful circumstances.
Count to 10 and repeat a helpful mantra in times of stress. When your brain is stressed, it likes to default to old (and oftentimes unhelpful) habits. You need to steer it in the right direction and the best way to do this is with your thoughts.
Give yourself a phrase or mantra to repeat often such as ‘Pause, and let it be, ‘I can handle this, ‘breathe and allow their emotions to come’ etc. Remind yourself that the only healthy way ‘out’ of emotion is going through it. Emotions are meant to be noticed, felt, and listened to as they communicate so many helpful things to us! These 10 seconds will allow your brain’s stress reaction to calm down and will model for your child that emotional expression is healthy and acceptable and that their emotions are not too big or scary for you to handle.
Only when you successfully make space for their emotional expression first can you move into the ‘hands-on’ part we all like to jump to, talking to your child and helping them to cope. A simple phrase that validates their emotion will go far to help them feel seen and heard, “I see you’re very upset and I’m here” is a great validating phrase for many situations. In situations where your child is expressing their emotions in ways that are physically or emotionally unsafe a limit is still needed.
It’s possible to provide both reassurances of their emotions and set a limit on their behavior at the same time. “It’s ok to be mad but it’s not ok to hit your brother. I’m here to help”.