Helping Little Kids Through Big Emotions
“It’s just ice cream! We’ll get you another! Stop crying!”
“Your hair is a disaster, stop screaming and let me brush it. Now!”
“Are you seriously crying over Legos? You have so many! Stop throwing them, or else!”
“No, for the 10th time, you are not getting that toy with behavior like that.”
All parents are faced, at some point, with children who are seemingly not able to control their emotions and are acting in socially and culturally inappropriate ways. One expects young toddlers to do this, but as kids grow older, say 3-6 years old, we hope that they are able to start recognizing their feelings more objectively (instead of just feeling those feelings) and respond more maturely. This can be very frustrating when a parent doesn’t know how to help their child deal with their big emotions–usually negative. When children do not understand their feelings they are unable to problem-solve the issue at hand and help themselves out of emotions that might not be serving them.
Self-regulation is the processes that allows people to appropriately respond to their environment. It goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness which is the ability to recognize a present-moment thought or feeling without judgment because both are about insight and awareness of oneself. It is important for people to have the ability to notice what emotions one is feeling and how intensely one is having those emotions so that they can respond appropriately instead of a quick and thoughtless reaction. Self-regulation is important for people all ages and learning it begins at birth. To teach self-regulation, parents must model appropriate self-regulation, give their child hints and cues on how to appropriate self-regulate, and give their children practice by gradually withdrawing their support. Babies regulate by “co-regulating” or attuning to their caregiver and the process evolves as the child becomes more independent, develops more self-awareness, and develops a vocabulary. It is a slow process that develops over many, many years.
An important first step is to get your child to start recognizing the physical sensations of their emotions. Without awareness of how the emotion presents in your child’s body it seems more overwhelming and helpless than it actually is. To start this in your home, parents should attune themselves to their own physical sensations of big emotions and start noticing their child’s. Take cautions not to judge physical reactions, but just notice them. Find a safe and quiet time to debrief with you child after a big emotional outburst when they (and especially you) are calm and in an accepting state of mind. Talking to a child in the midst of a tantrum will not be productive because their brain is unable to receive and process complex information in that heightened state. In the middle of a tantrum parents should first keep their child safe from himself or harming others and then respond lovingly and empathetically to their physical sensations (ex. “I see that you are sad because your ice cream fell. I would be sad about that too. Can I give you a hug?” or “I know you are frustrated that your brother keeps taking your Legos. It is annoying when people just take things without asking. Can I sit with you while you calm down and then we can figure out a solution”.)
Next, help your child label their emotions (aka. “name it to tame it”). Start this by reading stories to your children about kids who have similar big emotions. You can also hang up an age appropriate feelings chart in some common area of the home. An age appropriate feelings chart for little kids, who are more concrete thinkers, is one with pictures of actual human faces and only exhibiting 10-12 different emotions, or else it will be too overwhelming to use. Many adults will appreciate having an adult version too so that they can get back to identifying the nuanced feelings throughout the day, becoming more attuned with their own emotional landscape, and role-modeling naming the feelings.
After recognizing and naming the emotions, it is important to help your child calm down. When your child is experiencing a big emotion, a part of their brain called the amygdala takes over and tells them to fight, flight, or freeze. This has an important function in helping people respond quickly to danger but children need to learn to control this impulse and take a moment to choose a better response. Helping your child to learn how to relax can be done in a variety of ways, some examples include: taking them away from the chaotic space to somewhere quiet and private, talking to them in a softer voice, getting at or below their eye level, slowing your breathing, listening to music, and many mindfulness practices geared towards children.
Finally, by helping the child to focus on something good–the sunshine, a cookie, a parent coming home soon, not with the intention of distracting the child but rather to remind them of something positive is a great way to diffuse attention away from the big emotion and onto something happy.
Coaching your child through these tough times will be difficult but children need their parents to be the calm, unconditional leader to help them mature through their developmentally normal emotional outbursts.
Resources to learn more:
The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Dr. John Gottman
Printable Feelings Chart for Little (2-5) and Bigger Kids (6-11):
Great for little kids (2-5 y.o.) because it uses real human faces to show emotions which is more concrete for little learners.
To further this lesson with your children: have them look through magazines and cut out pictures of faces and then label them with the correct emotion.
Once kids are able to read a more advanced chart without pictures is appropriate. This one is great because it allows users to identify and accurately label the intensity of the feeling.
Feelings Chart for Adults who want to improve their Emotional Intelligence (EQ):
How many of these words do you use to describe your day-to-day emotional world? How would being more specific with your emotions help you interact better with your children, spouse, co-workers, or other close relationships?
(c) 2017, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance, nurturefamilyeducation.com