Kicking, screaming, red in the face, silent, tearful, pacing or breathing heavy. Do any of these sound familiar in a child that you care for and love? Children, just like adults, experience a wide range of emotions and can be triggered by things throughout their day, lack of sleep, hunger, family dynamics or upcoming stressors such as a sporting event or a sleepover. Just as you work to handle stress and manage difficult emotions, your child is learning to do so and could really use you as an asset in learning to manage anger, anxiety, sadness and the many emotions that he or she may be feeling throughout the day. You may be asking yourself, but how do I help them especially when the kicking and screaming sets me off as well! Don’t fret! You have the tools and skills to help your child and in doing so can model self regulation and positive coping skills that will be life-long lessons for your little one.
Be present– Our natural response in these times of stress may be to shy away or to avoid. This may give the message to the child that he or she is too much to handle or that their emotions are wrong. Your shift to be away from them may be well intentioned, such as “I want to give them time to cool down,” which may be what they need but first check in and sit with your child in their emotion. It is a powerful message of care and solidarity to be present with others when the are hurting and this is true for children as well. If you need a few calm down minutes first, especially if you are becoming triggered by their outburst, you can take those minutes but when ready come back to your child and sit with them. Listen and be present. A tight hug, scratching their back or holding their hand may be more of what they need in that moment than words.
Reflect what you see– This tool helps children learn the connection between their internal emotions and their external display of those feelings. Reflecting basic statements such as “you look really sad”, “I see that you are red in the face about this,” or “it seems hard to catch your breath right now”, in a soothing, non-blaming tone can help children feel understood. This can also help kids learn to better understand their own emotional responses. As adults we can recognize our own signs and symptoms, such as “my cheeks get hot when I am angry” or “I breathe faster when my anxiety increases”, but those are learned things about yourself and without reflection and teaching it can be difficult for kids (and adults) to learn this self awareness.
Be okay with being wrong– Part of the learning process in reflection is that you will be wrong. Now, no one loves to be wrong but let me tell you that when it comes to a child correcting my reflection, I am so glad to be wrong! This allows the child to self reflect, recognize that he or she disagrees with my assessment and then correct it. For instance, asking your child how they are feeling will most likely result in a shoulder shrug or an “I don’t know” response, but saying “You seemed really sad when Sarah wouldn’t play with you” can either result in your child agreeing and feeling understood or your child correcting the emotion to something else, such as “no, I felt mad when she did that” which is much more helpful than a shoulder shrug if you ask me! It will take work, but don’t become defensive if they correct your reflection. This is useful information and part of the process of teaching emotional identification and regulation for your child.
Offer help and wait– We can often want to help but also in that help want the emotion to go away or “get better” quickly. Emotions like these can’t be rushed. This is when all of the other tools in your toolbox come to work to help you sit with your child in their emotion, reflect and listen. Be patient here. This is a time when you can share your own experiences of emotions and to share calming and coping strategies that have worked for you. Sharing it from your point of view helps normalize feelings for children. These examples and stories can be anything you find useful and are willing to share, such as “when mom gets sad, she wants to sit in a comfy spot and drink coffee” or “when I get angry I have to walk away and take 10 deep breaths”. You can ask to do the skills with your child or model them for your child to use when he or she is ready. An important part to this is not to become forceful or have your child feel as though he or she is in trouble for their emotions. It will take some practice as you work to move away from statements such as “calm down”, “stop crying” or “take 10 breaths right now”. Those statements may be well intentioned as you do want your child to calm down and you know that breathing deeply or using coping skills can help, but the message to your child is that you don’t have time or understanding for their emotions so they must go away. You can even say “it is hard for me to see you like this” or “I want to help you”. Again, any time you can reflect emotion and share your own feelings helps your child.
Time in instead of time out– If you are in a situation where the tantrum or reactivity requires you to set a limit, I would encourage you to find “time in” responses rather than “time out”. When we send our children away for time out, we are teaching them to go away or withdraw when feeling intense emotions. In adulthood, that can begin to look like an ongoing pattern and make communicating feelings with friends or a future partner more difficult. Have your child stay with you whenever possible, remove yourselves to a neutral location and work to calm down together. Co-regulating can be a useful tool in teaching children how to calm down. Work to calm your own reactivity to the tantrum or acting out behavior and in doing so you are giving space and time for your child to do the same. Once calm, you can reflect the areas where the reactivity may have been unsafe or against family rules, such as “it is okay to mad but not okay to be mean”, “we don’t break our toys when we become sad or angry” or even “it scared mom that you were kicking the floor so hard, I didn’t want you to get hurt.” These statements reflect the need for a behavior change without punishing the emotional response. I know you may be thinking that you wouldn’t have time to do this step, but the impact is worthwhile. Over time it can result in fewer tantrums that resolve themselves more quickly and a more emotionally self aware child (and possibly even a more self aware caregiver).
These are just a few steps that can create a big impact in your relationship with your child and in the adult your child will grow up to be. Give yourself time to practice these and space to mess up. We are all learning! Use real life examples when possible and any time that you are able to reflect emotions, sit with your child when they are having a hard time or practice calming skills together is a great step. You can do it!