Teaching Your Kids to Self-Soothe and Manage Big Emotions
Children's moods can change quickly as they are still learning to manage their emotions and reactions
How you manage your own emotions serves as a model to your children
Parenting coach Deborah Ann Davis offers some practical tips
It’s been one of those days. The cat bypassed the litter box in favour of your favourite shoes. Your kindergartner put a smile on your toddler’s face… with a permanent marker. Your middle schooler talks back when you tell them to finish their homework before watching TV. Everyone, including the cat, is waiting to see whether you’re going to react or respond. So, you reach into your bag of tricks, because you’re a grown-up with adult coping skills, and you handle everything smoothly. At least, that’s the Disney princess version. The reality TV version looks more like a throwback to when you were a door-slamming 15-year-old.
Whichever way you go, your kids have a front-row seat to the show, absorbing the process you model for them. If you want them to have coping skills instead of meltdowns, you have to teach them how. The built-in bonus is that while you’re teaching and demonstrating effective ways to self-soothe and cope, you will be turning the response-over-reaction choice into a habit for yourself.
- Select a strategy that will address the most common recurring problem when your happy home is not so happy.
- Pick a neutral time for a discussion, when nothing is at stake, and all emotions are in relaxed mode. This step is essential!
- Be transparent. Say, “I see that emotions get heated when ___ occurs, and I don’t want that for you/us. Let’s figure out ways to make things better when that happens.”
Conversation is the only way to understand how your kids see their world. Many of their processes are based on conclusions they’ve drawn when trying to make sense of things. For many kids, you have to begin by changing their thinking.
Black and white thinkers
Some kids think in terms of singular extremes. Either “everybody likes me,” or “nobody likes me!” “If we lost the game, it means I’m a complete failure!”. These black and white thinkers need to learn about the grey area. Find a book (like Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker) that will gently challenge their belief system. When you talk to them, redirect their angst. For example:
- Play a game. For example: “You have to jump as high as you can every time I name someone who likes you, and I have to jump as high as I can every time you name someone who likes you.” Then list their teacher, the bus driver, a neighbour, a friend’s mum, a relative, etc. The movement will create happy hormones, in addition to modelling that either/or situations can be looked at from another angle.
- Mirror what they’re feeling. Say, “losing the game must feel really bad. Is that how you’re feeling?” Then diffuse the emotions by redirecting the conversation...“I noticed you got the ball to someone who scored. That was cool. Why were you able to do that? Did you do that last game? What is another thing you did better this game?”
After repeatedly creating these types of conversation with them, their meltdowns will shorten as their brains rewire themselves. Eventually, as new neural pathways form, these dramatic moments will become less frequent, and they will learn how to better handle their disappointments. The common parenting mistake is trying to fix things by substituting a feel-good experience for their unhappy emotions. (Let’s get ice cream because that will make you feel better.) While it may change the mood by distracting them, they get robbed of the opportunity to learn how to handle situations that don’t go their way… a key characteristic of a resilient child.
Appropriate reaction levels
A tantrum isn’t something your child is doing to you. A tantrum is something happening to your child. While a tantrum may make your hair stand on end, it comes with two silver linings.
- You’re being provided a warning that your child isn’t coping well, so now you can address it.
- Every difficult situation is its own teachable moment, a lesson to be learned by your child - and you - when things calm down.
Youngsters feel BIG emotions that can overwhelm them. They need your help de-escalating, which can be difficult if your buttons are being pushed. Calm yourself first, and then help your cherub.
After you help them soothe themselves, discuss the problem and their reaction to the problem so they can gain perspective on the magnitude of the problem, the magnitude of their response, and another response that could fit the situation. For example, whether they’re Littles building a tower of blocks, or Middles playing Jenga, or Teens creating a house of cards, and it gets knocked down, the ensuing meltdown may cause you to drop everything to run to see what happened. This is not the time to judge them, or dismiss the unimportance of the event, despite your newly jacked-up anxiety level. It matters to them, and your dismissal will make them feel isolated and abandoned.
So, follow the Big Three:
- Calm yourself.
- Mirror their emotions.
- Discuss what happened.
When things are mellow, discuss how to make handling problems better for them. Explain that different reactions belong to different types of problems.
Red Alarm Problems: “What if it’s a really, really, really bad and scary/dangerous problem? What should you do?” Help them brainstorm things like:
- Call 999
- Run away
- Scream for help
- Get your teacher or another trusted adult
Yellow Alarm Problems: “What if it’s a problem that makes you uncomfortable, but you don’t know what to do?” Take their ideas, and add these:
- Ask a friend for help
- Ask an adult for help
Green Alarm Problems: “What if the problem bothers you but it isn’t scary/dangerous?" These are all good choices:
- Fix it
- Ignore it
- Walk away from it
Post your collaboration somewhere, so when the next eruption occurs, you can refer to it after the Big Three. Repetition is your friend. The more often you reframe the emotions that cause a tantrum, the easier it will be for them to regain control. Don’t forget to include modelling. If you get upset, following the Big Three, discuss the alarm level that the situation warranted, and compare it to what you did. Tell them you want to do better next time… because isn’t that what you want them to do? It’s okay that they understand we are all works-in-progress, and we spend our whole lives learning more.
Remember to enjoy the journey. You got this!
Deborah Ann Davis is a parenting skills coach and author