Have you ever tried to reason with your child around big strong emotions?
‘You don’t need to be so angry…’
‘It’s no big deal…’
‘There’s nothing to worry about….’
Although you try your best to calm things down you simply go around in circles, and sometimes the emotions increase in intensity. At other times your child pushes you away, becoming silent and frustrated.
The difficulty with emotions is that the more you try to fix them or change them, the more stuck and resistant they can become. You can probably relate to this in your adult relationships. Consider how it feels when you moan about your day to your partner and they either dismiss your feelings or respond with a fix: ‘It’s probably all fine, don’t worry so much’, or ‘Why don’t you e-mail her?’ Rather than shifting and easing the uncomfortable emotion, it feels tighter and more stuck.
Well, there’s a reason for this. For an emotion to regulate (and by regulate, I mean steady and ease) you need to feel safe and understood, your experience needs to be expressed. When a child can’t express an emotion, they end up acting on it. They push or rage, they panic or pull away from things, the emotion turns into a behaviour.
So how do you help your child when big intense emotions come up?
An important thing to bear in mind is that emotions are contagious. When your child feels big emotions, you can’t help but also feel the same intensity and need to act. This explains why it can be so hard to respond calmly or openly. The good news is that this emotional contagion happens both ways. Just as you pick up on your child’s struggle and fear, equally they are influenced by your ability to be slower, more open and less reactive. In essence they can access your calm and use it to slow down, think and reflect.
Naming upsetting emotions helps your child to feel less alone and fearful. When a big emotion is around you might say ‘You feel frustrated’. ‘You wanted to go to your friend’s house, but didn’t get to’. ‘You need me to know how bad this feels’. Putting language to feelings has the effect of creating stability as your child learns to recognise their experience. Language helps to create space around the emotion and allows a child think through how they might respond.
Rather than fixing or trying to make your child’s emotions ‘go away’, think of your role as helping to ease the overwhelm and fear behind them. This is important. Your child needs to process the emotions in manageable doses so that they can build resilience and feel more competent and capable around them. Here are two examples of how you might respond to feelings of anxiety and tight, angry emotions.
When your child struggles with fearful, anxious emotions:
Anxiety feels frightening. Your instinct as a parent can be to try to fix the feeling. Perhaps you reassure your child that nothing bad will happen or maybe you do something to make the feared situation go away. The important thing to know is that anxiety is a normal human emotion that doesn’t need to be fixed. Rather than solving the emotion your role is to support them to recognise feelings of anxiety and learn how they can steady themselves. Here are three important steps:
- Slow things down and listen. When your child is very anxious sit near them and give them time to explain.
- Hold back from trying to reassure or solve things. It can be very tempting to tell your child that the bad thing won’t happen or to try and brush aside fears. But this can inadvertently pull a child into thinking more about ‘the fear’.
- Connect with your child’s emotions. Empathise with the feelings and gently guide their focus away from a frightening future or a worrying past and into the here and now. You might say ‘you have so many difficult feelings. You’re safe, here with me. This feels hard but I am here with you’.
When your child becomes angry and pushes you away:
Big emotions like anger and anxiety are emotions fuelled by uncertainty and overwhelm. They are disorientated and quick. They leave your child feeling like something urgent is happening and that they need to do something, and fast.
• In the midst of these big emotions keep things simple and clear. Set sturdy, kind boundaries, for example, ‘I can’t let you kick things, come over here with me’.
• Later, when things are calmer, you might say ‘You were having a really hard time earlier. Tell me what was going on for you?’
• Empathise with their experience: ‘That was frustrating, you wanted to save those comics and felt so upset when they had gone’.
• Reduce descriptions which might increase shame. You might swap ‘That was silly or thoughtless’ with ‘What can we do when something upsetting happens in future?’
Dr Anne Lane is a Clinical Psychologist and author of Nurture Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence: 5 Steps to Help Your Child Cope with Big Emotions and Build Resilience**** published by Welbeck Balance. Follow her on Instagram @dr.annelane