I have some very deep feeling children. Maybe every mother says that? Do you also have deep feelers? My oldest feels IN LOVE when she meets a new friend and if I accidentally embarrass her there are tears for days. My toddler is a whole new world of emotions. When she got too angry a few months ago she would pull her own hair out and have full blown exorcist worthy shakes and screams on the floor. This same girl will cry every time she asks me to forgive her. She really feels terrible when she is naughty.
The problem is these sweet deep feeling children do not come with a manual explaining what to do when the red light is flashing and the sirens are wailing. In my college days I studied and graduated with a degree in Child Development. I have worked in developmental preschools and after school programs. I also have almost 6 years experience dealing with BIG EMOTION moments in my own house with my own children.
Here are a few tricks that have really worked with me and my munchkins.
- Get down on their level. Can you imagine looking up to every person who spoke at you all day long? Your children do it 80% of the day. When you take the extra time to drop to a knee and look your child in the eye you are showing them that your interaction is important to you. You are also making it more personal and making yourself, physically, more available. I have seen my children immediately open up their arms for a hug when I drop to their level. Sometimes that is all your child needs. You.
- Give your child a name for the big emotion they are feeling. This is a huge one! Say your child hits their friend out of frustration. You see the aggression and quickly say, “______ we do not hit. You need to apologize.” Immediately your munchkin starts to cry. This is when you would pull your child aside and help them figure out what is going on inside their little body. You might explain, “I know you were very frustrated when John took your truck. What did you do when you felt frustrated at John?” Let them help you in the process of naming and recognizing emotions and their actions. “When mom told you hitting is a big no no what did you do? Did you feel sad? Embarrassed?” Take a minute to teach them the important skill of labeling their emotions. Giving big feelings a name is powerful. It teaches your children that this is a feeling that everyone can have, in fact it is so common it has a title! How reassuring for a young child. Labeling their emotions also helps when you are teaching them appropriate responses to bit emotions. I mights say, “Remember when we feel frustrated we can stomp our feet or do 10 superman jumps but we don’t throw our toys.” Once our children know the name of the big emotion we can help them create tools to help self regulate. TIP: Sometimes you cannot label emotions when they are in the midst of a giant melt down. This is something you might chose to do after your child has calmed down. Or even the next day with a little older children.
- Justify their feelings. Emotions are not bad. Emotions are a huge part of all our lives. We don’t want to teach our children that they aren’t allowed to be sad or frustrated. We want our children to have feelings and be able to handle them. When you see your child is crying about spilt milk justify that feeling. “Oh I hate when I spill my drink. I always feel so sad to see all that good milk on the floor where I can’t drink it anymore. I can see you feel sad too.” Let them be in that emotion for a moment. If they throw their toys out of frustration when a tower falls justify that emotion. “I can see you are very frustrated. It is hard when something you worked so hard on falls over. That would make me frustrated too.” A few sentences can help your child feel understood and safe.
- Put yourself in your children’s shoes. This one helps me so much, I just have to remember to do it! I quite often feel frustrated at my children when their big emotions come at bad times. Our biggest trigger for big emotions is while we are trying to get out the door. Suddenly siblings are fighting and someone is crying and the toddler is insisting I find her blasted purple blanket for the car ride. Recently I started thinking about why she insists on her soothing item when we leave…then I suddenly realized IT IS MY FAULT. I turn into stressed-out-snappy-mommy when we are trying to leave. Imagine if you were sitting calmly on the couch reading a book. You are very into this book and plan on reading it for the rest of the day. Suddenly your friend comes over and starts yelling at you that you have to leave right now. She throws socks at you and says, “We are in a hurry. Did you hear me? Get those socks on now.” You suddenly realize you need to pee. You run to the restroom only to be yelled at by your crazy friend to get your tush in the car. You still don’t have your shoes on, you can’t get your undies up and you really want to just sit and read you book. If this happened to me I would want a comfort item too….or I’d start yelling at my friend to get her own tush out of my house. Well I am the crazy friend to my children a couple times a week. When you put yourself in your children’s shoes, and you really try to empathize and ask yourself how you would feel in a similar situation it makes it easier to do the above steps.
These are things I KNOW help when it comes to my children’s big emotions. I thought I was doing most of what was in my control. Then I listened to an interview with a pediatrician, Meg Meeker, and a family therapist, Joshua Straub. Both of them agreed that helping children handle BIG EMOTIONS starts with mom and dad. WHAAAATTT? A few of their ideas have really shined a light on big emotions in my family. You can listen to the full podcast here. I’ll just lay out a few of my favorite ideas.
- Label your own emotions in front of your children. Being able to label your emotions and recognizing them in others is a main component of great leaders. Having language for your emotions helps you know what happens next when you or another when someone is feeling an emotion. It is important to label your own emotions, and when possible, model that in front of your children. I often say, “Mom is feeling very stressed. I told a friend I could meet them at a certain time and I am afraid we will be late. Can you help me get there on time?” I hope that modeling me labeling and working through big emotions will help my littles be able to do the same.
- Have a wrap up of the day with your children at bedtime. This was something they quickly mentioned in their discussion. I have been doing this for about a year with my girls and have loved the discussions and things I have learned from having a wrap up with my children. I usually ask 2 or 3 questions. Ex. “What happened today that made you laugh?” “Did anything happen today that made you feel very frustrated?” I have learned a lot about my girls through these types of questions.
- Find a comfortable middle ground in having emotions. You don’t want to block emotions but on the other hand you don’t want to throw up emotions constantly. One idea I loved with handling emotions is to create an emotion log. Write down when you lose it with your kids. When did you shut down with your spouse. What set you off? Writing things down helps you label and take the power out of the emotion and into your own hands. It helps you regulate.
- Model empathy then your children will be able to use it. I believe very strongly in this idea! The problem with this is it can be VERY hard to empathize with a child SCREAMING about how you handed them the wrong colored cup. The natural tendency is to tell the young gremlin that they are crazy and that is not acceptable. If we wanted to model empathy, in this situation, we could put our arms around the child and calmly say, “Wow, I can see you are really upset.” That simple sentence and kind gesture has given them a label AND shown them some empathy.
- Make sure your house rules are TRULY house rules. One of my house rules is we do not take things out of others hands. This is OBVIOUSLY for my children because they are always ripping things out of their siblings hands. But wait…could I ever be guilty of this? YES! AH! When I am frustrated I have been known to yank a toy that is being used to tease a sister out of a child’s hands. It is completely unfair to have an important rule that only the children must follow. Dr Straub explained that having family rules or values that every one in the house follows can help when you need to help a child understand a rule.
Sometimes there is no way to label the emotion because your child doesn’t know what is going on, and neither do you! In this case you need to study your child and know what helps them feel calm and safe. My children often can start to calm down if we do a POWER SNUGGLE. When I notice my 3 year old is struggling, over EVERYTHING, I will put out my arms and ask, “Genevieve do you need a Power Hug/Power Snuggle?” She comes running into my arms and we take a moment to unwind. I love having a technique to use when words are not enough.