Tips to Help Your Child Manage Big Emotions
Children might get overwhelmed by big emotions that they struggle to name and control; as a parent, this can be distressing
Dr Anne Lane offers 5 tips to help you help your child
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As a parent, watching your child’s emotions can be tough. It’s hard to know how to help. You see your child struggle, caught up in and often distressed by a whirr of emotions that both you and they don’t fully understand.
It might be that your child becomes very distressed over seemingly small things. They become panicky and anxious and it’s hard to find a way to settle their feelings or stop things escalating. Maybe they are quick to anger and their behaviour causes upset and distress.
When your child’s emotions are difficult, tense and hard to understand, the strong temptation is to try and fix them, to make them go away through distraction or by providing solutions. But when you step in too quickly it can be hard for your child to learn to manage emotions themselves, they either become dependent on these distractions or look to you to fix situations which are beyond your control.
So what’s the best way to respond to help your child navigate big emotions?
When we think about how a child learns to understand and navigate emotions, it can be helpful to think in terms of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and respond effectively to the emotions we experience.
Your child develops the basis for emotional intelligence through two important skills.
The first is emotional awareness: Their ability to recognise and reflect on their emotions, to make sense of these and decide how to respond. This awareness if very different from your child’s instinctive reactions: The reactions that are direct and unfiltered and experienced rather than understood. Emotional awareness begins when you help your child to pause and recognise their emotion and to get to know the feelings and thoughts that come with them.
The second is emotional regulation: For a child regulating emotions means having the ability to slow down and feel safe around fast, loud, demanding or fearful emotions. Learning how to work through and steady them so that they can get on with things of value (for example building friendships, learning and playing, growing and independence).
Here are some ideas for supporting your child to develop both emotional awareness and emotional regulation:
1. Model sturdiness and security
The basis of emotional intelligence is feeling safe around emotions. Your child will pick up on how you are feeling long before they hear your words, so slow down your movements, lower your voice and lean in. If your child is acting in an unsafe way, set clear boundaries but also show kindness.
You might say: ‘You’re having such a hard time. I can’t let you shout at your brother but I am here for you. You’re safe with me.’
2. Connect with the feelings
When you connect to your child’s feelings you are letting them know that their emotions are safe, that they can be made sense of and that you are there for them. You can do this even if you feel frustrated or baffled by your child’s reactions. Start by watching and listening and then summarise what you see in open, gentle terms.
You could say: ‘You want me to know just how frustrating the homework is’ or ‘You’re having a really difficult time with that friend’.
3. Help them process the emotion
You want your child to become more able to recognise and observe their own feelings, rather than just reacting. To help them move into that observer role, describe an emotion with the word ‘feel’ in front: ‘You feel cross’, or ‘You feel sad and worried’.
By adding the word feel, you help your child see the emotion as temporary and passing, rather than permanent and stuck. The feeling comes and goes but they are safe and secure with you.
4. Be receptive to their feedback
It can be easy to think we know what our child’s emotions mean, but your child will have associations to particular words that you won’t be aware of and this can make them feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. If a particular phrase doesn’t sit well with your child, listen to their feedback and find an alternative. The most helpful descriptions are those that make sense to your child. If their insistence on calling a feeling ‘sad’ when they seem angry is confusing you might say: ‘Can you help me understand why sadness feels like the right word?’
5. Reflecting later
Helping your child work through emotions can be tough. You struggle in the moment and your child pulls away or their emotions intensify. If a situation between you and your child has felt difficult or confusing or just hard to manage, it can be very important and emotionally helpful to both you and your child to be able to return later to what happened. Make sure all of the tense, upsetting emotions have settled. You could start by saying: ‘I’m sorry things were so hard earlier. I reacted when really I wish I had just been able to listen. How are you feeling now?’
When you reach out to your child after the event with the intention of giving them the time to express how they felt, the emotions that were so heated earlier are soothed and it is easier, the next time your child is struggling, to reach out and connect. Try to use this time to open-up understanding and connection rather than becoming caught up in lecturing or telling your child off.
Working through a child’s big, difficult emotions can be exhausting. Perhaps there are multiple demands on you or you worry the situation will escalate. Maybe your child’s emotions bring up intense feelings from your own childhood or life situation; times when you weren’t listened to or allowed to be vulnerable.
Take heart. Helping our child to become more emotionally intelligent can be a bumpy ride. Your child doesn’t need perfect parenting, they need good enough and that means plenty of mistakes and repairs and do overs. The important thing to know is that every single parent is learning on the job. By noticing your own feelings, talking them through with others and beginning to understand why you are having difficulty, you slow your own sometimes painful reactions down. You bring kindness and compassion to yourself and you begin to find ways through with your child.
Dr Anne Lane is a clinical psychologist and the author of Nurture Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence: 5 Steps to Help Your Child Cope with Big Emotional and Build Resilience