There are few things that can derail a day faster than a child’s tantrum. And, boy, they sure can pick their moments! In the middle of Target, on the way out the door when you’re already running late, in front of the in-laws…We’ve all been there! Whether publicly or privately, all children have those moments and tantrums are certainly not a mark of poor parenting. Big emotions in kids are normal and, in fact, inevitable, yet it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless when our child is having a meltdown, especially when it happens in front of an audience.
So what’s a parent to do when confronted with their child’s big emotions? Here are 5 tips to help you keep your cool and support your child in those key moments:
1) Breathe, regulate, and remember- It starts with us. Before we can help our kiddos with their big emotions, we need to be mindful of our own. It’s important to respond to our child rather than react to them. While every parent has “lost their cool” at some point, reacting to our child’s strong emotions by unleashing our own is unhelpful in the grand scheme of things and only serves to escalate an already heated situation, so before reacting, take a moment to breathe. Honestly, one big deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth, does wonders. Count to ten. Take the time to get into a good headspace. Keep in mind that your child is just doing what kids do, and this is an opportunity to teach them how to manage their very normal emotions in a healthy way. It’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to calm the nerves and respond versus react.
2) Name it- As human beings, we have a need to be seen and understood, but kids don’t have the language to communicate what they’re feeling. Helping them identify and label their emotions teaches them that language. “You look sad right now,” or “It looks like you might be feeling angry.” “I wonder if you are feeling scared right now?” “It seems like you might be feeling hurt.” “I see that you’re crying and wonder if you’re feeling upset.” “I notice you’re stomping your feet and you look mad.” These are a few examples of how to help kids identify and label their emotions. Giving them the language to communicate their big emotions is one of the first steps in helping them develop the tools to regulate their emotions effectively.
3) Validate and relate- Validating someone’s emotional experience is a win-win interaction. When we validate others, we’re showing up with compassion and acceptance. It demonstrates respect and builds trust in the relationship. Let your child know their emotions are valid and worthwhile. Give them permission to have those emotions, permission to feel. Let them know you can relate to how they might be feeling. Share your understanding of their feelings. Validation is about acknowledging and joining. It helps de-escalate by allowing your child to feel seen, heard, and understood. And it’s modeling for your child how to do that for others, which is part of developing empathy.
4) Separate the behavior from the emotion- The idea that an emotion is not the same as the behavioral response to that emotion is something, frankly, even adults often struggle to understand. We can validate our child’s emotions without condoning certain behaviors. Emotions are what we feel on the inside and behavior is how we respond. Help your child understand that their emotional experience is valid, but not all behaviors in response to those emotions are. Being angry is ok. Punching someone in anger is not. Give your child healthy and appropriate options for what they can do when they are feeling sad, scared, or angry, for example. Give them some examples of what you do when you feel big emotions. Create a “Feelings Tool Kit,” or “Coping Skills Box” with your child so they have access to safe and appropriate ways to express their big feelings.
5) Teach them emotional regulation skills- Emotional regulation is the ability to manage our feelings effectively and appropriately. Talk to your child about healthy ways to do this, and practice those skills with them. Make it fun. Teach them various breathing techniques. Blowing bubbles is a great way to introduce the idea of controlling our breath. It’s something familiar that kids already have a lot of fun doing. Need one more? Have your child lie down with a stuffed animal or favorite toy on their belly, and show them how to move the toy up and down as they take deep breaths in and then exhale slowly. Help your child bring awareness to their emotions by encouraging mindfulness. Ask them to describe things using their senses. For example, using an orange or a piece of chocolate encourages them to eat the item very slowly. See how many words they can come up with to describe what they see, hear, smell, feel, and FINALLY taste as they enjoy the treat. Help children understand the intensity of their emotions using language they can relate to such as green, yellow, red. Talk to your child about how you experience your own emotions, what you notice in your body when you start to feel sad or mad, and ask them if they notice those sensations in their body too. Enlist their help! Encourage them to let you know what things make them feel better or worse as they learn these skills, and then make those things easily accessible. As we practice these techniques with our kids, we reinforce these healthy habits in ourselves as well.
While big emotions are inevitable, using these simple strategies creates emotional safety, provides tools and resources, and really helps set our children up for success as they navigate their world. Call us at (805) 842-1994 for more information.