Children need help with their big feelings
Children, need help to manage their big feelings. When children have help to manage their big feelings, they grow into adults who can show and manage their big feelings. Do you remember being a child and having your feelings validated? Or, do you remember being a child and not being heard or understood, perhaps shunned or shamed for having big feelings such as anger, sadness or fear? Children need caregivers to be their co-regulators, meaning they need their caregivers to see, hear and understand them when they are experiencing feelings that are too difficult for them to manage.
We can struggle to help children with big feelings
Sometimes it is really difficult to have empathy for our children when they are having big emotions. This can happen for many reasons. For example, when we are stressed, tired or overwhelmed, it can be very difficult for us to have the patience required to take a step back and evaluate what is going on for our child from a calm place. One reason for this is because of our own childhood histories. Sometimes as children feelings aren’t cared for in nurturing and empathetic ways. If we haven’t had the experience of being co-regulated by an attuned caregiver, it can be very difficult to know how to co-regulate someone else, especially a child during times of stress. As adults we can then get triggered by our children’s big needs and feelings, especially if those needs or feelings were not taken care of for us when we were children.
Benefits of co-regulation
There are many benefits for our children and for us as caregivers if we can learn to step back and co-regulate the feelings of our emotionally reactive youngsters. The most important benefit is that they will feel valued, understood, and connected to us, which translates into their emotional needs being cared for and ultimately better behavior. Co-regulation disarms the defensive response that comes with emotional dysregulation. Remember that children who are reacting and acting with big feelings aren’t using the thinking part of their brain. As their protective caregivers, our job is to help them get back into a state of calm.
Steps for caregivers to take to help children regulate their emotions
There are several steps that a caregiver can take to help a young child become co-regulated.
1) Calm your own self.
- Imagine using a remote control and pressing the pause button.
- Focus yourself and get into your own body by taking some deep breaths.
- Remember to be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind. We are so much bigger and powerful than our children. Our sheer size shows that this is true. As well, our brains are so much more developed in terms of the ability to rationalize and understand what is going on. Children need us to be the bigger, wiser and kind part of the equation when their feelings are too big to manage.
- Don’t’ take your children’s behavior or emotions personally. We personalize what’s happening based on our own histories. Children are emotionally reactive because their brains are not developed in terms of cognitive capacity. When we personalize their feelings or behavior, we are not accounting for our own histories or making the connections to our own past which has a huge impact on the way we view situations.
- Send your brain strong thoughts. For example, “ I know what to do….my child needs me to be present and calm”
- Remind yourself that this is an opportunity for growth in the relationship with your child.
2) Create safety
- Children who are reacting with big emotions and behaviors require a caregiver to help bring them to a feeling of safety.
- If you are out of control, your child will be out of control.
- If you need to calm yourself first, let them know you need to calm yourself and you will be back to help them…..
- Once calm, you can help create safety with gentle touch, closeness, a neutral calm tone of voice, getting smaller than them so they don’t feel threatened.
- If they wont’ tolerate any of the above, you can tell them that you are there with them. If you breathe deeply and slowly, your child will be more likely to synchronize to your breath. This calms the brain and the central nervous system.
3) Empathize with your child
- Reflect back to the child the child’s feelings. “You seem really angry!” Or, “I see that you are so sad”. When we feel that someone else understands our internal state, there is no need to escalate.
- Stay with your child through the storm. Welcome the feelings. Reflect them.
- Resist the urge to tell your child that their feelings are inappropriate.Rather, stay with the child emotionally and tell him/her “You must be so angry to be talking to me that way…I am here with you. Tell me what is happening”.
- Acknowledge your child’s perspective. “You wish you could have that extra snack before bed” or, “this isn’t how you wanted it to go”
4) Don’t impose your thoughts about the situation onto your child.
- Remember that their experience is different than yours, and leave space for them to express whatever they are feeling.
- Remember they are separate beings from you.
- When we impose our own thoughts or feelings, our histories are impacting how we are viewing our children’s experiences.
5) Validate their experience and feelings.
- Validation doesn’t mean that you agree, but that you can understand why they are feeling or behaving in a particular way.
- Remember that all behavior has meaning.
- Remember that all behavior meets a need.
- Remember that unmet needs can lead to misbehaviour.
6) Fill up their love tank with whatever it is they are searching for.
- Set limits as needed but let them know that you are there to help them sort the problem out.
- When feelings are validated, and children know their feelings (regardless of how big) are okay with us, and they feel valued and understood, children are more open to work together with us to problem solve the situation to make it better.
- Sometimes children just need us to hold them and let them know it is going to be okay….that we are with them no matter what the storm. Knowing that they have a kind, caring adult to weather the emotional storms of life can be a very powerful and transforming experience for children and adults alike!