It’s Wednesday morning, your 4-year-old has done everything he needs to do to get ready for his day. So, he asks to play video games for a little bit. You remind him the rule in your house is, No video games on school days. The tantrum ensues. How do you respond?
It’s Thursday afternoon, you pick your middle schooler up after practice and almost as soon as she shuts the car door, she begins an emotional meltdown. In between sobs, she tells you some of her teammates are talking about her behind her back. How do you respond?
Whether we are running late, in the middle of making dinner or whatever, we tend to minimize those big feelings so we can move on. However, people, including children, need to feel heard, validated, accepted, and understood by those closest to them. They need a safe space to express those big emotions and they need to learn how to manage them in a healthy and adaptive way. Here are some things to remember when dealing with your upset child.
Don’t Take it Personally!
Don’t make these feelings about you. Often during an emotional moment, our children may hurl insults at us to get us to feel what they feel. Remember, your child is having a tough time and you are supposed to be their safe space. However, when we see our children struggling with a big feeling, whether in response to us or not, we might get triggered by it. You are no good to them when you are in your own emotional response. Try to stay objective.
Many of us parents and grandparents weren’t taught how to hold space for those big feelings for ourselves and therefore have a hard time doing it for our kids. Start by listening quietly and attentively to what your child is saying. Acknowledge their feelings with sounds or short phrases, “Oh… Mmm… I see.” If necessary, give the feeling a name, “You sound frustrated.”
Don’t manipulate it.
Because we don’t want our kids to be upset, we tend to inadvertently minimize our child’s feelings. A classic example of this is when a child falls off their bike and begins crying. The response is often, “You’re okay.” Although meant to encourage, this response teaches your child that their feelings are wrong. Feelings are OK—even if you think they seem out of proportion. In most cases, they just need an acknowledgement of their experience and then they move on.
Don’t judge them for it.
Let’s be honest, some kids have more pronounced emotional responses than others. Some kids cry in response to any big feeling, whether it’s anger, sadness, disappointment, even happiness and joy. Our children naturally tend to be more empathetic. They feel the stress and overwhelm around them all day long. It can be exhausting, and they need to release some of the pressure.
Don’t label them for it.
Emotions are a natural and essential part of the human experience. They are meant to tell us about things that we need to pay extra attention to in our lives. Labeling our kids creates shame for them. It teaches them that their feelings are invalid and unimportant. It tells them that their experience is weird and abnormal, that something is wrong with them. And, in many cases, these pronounced emotional responses are indicators of deeper concerns like anxiety and depression.
Our complex emotions are what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s what gives us the ability to be both creative and destructive. However, none of us were born knowing how to control big emotions and our children will take a while to learn. It’s our job as their parents and caregivers to teach them to experience and manage their emotions in a healthy way.
Back to those scenarios, would you respond differently now?