Written by: Melissa Pinn, LFMT
So you want to help your child weather their emotional storms? The world can be a big, confusing place for our children who are learning that there are many times when they can't control what other people do or say to them. Your child wants to go to the park to play but it's raining outside, you tell him "when the rain stops we can go to the park," but that was not the answer he wants to hear. Before you know it, a dark gray cloud of anger is passing over your child. He is lying on the floor kicking and screaming that he "wants to go to the park NOW." Our job as parents is to allow our children to feel all the feelings on the emotional spectrum, even if those feelings may be uncomfortable for us or our children. Having our children experience what it feels like to have a white, fluffy cloud of happiness pass overhead is just as important as learning to let the clouds of jealousy and embarrassment pass by too.
The analogy of storm clouds as feelings is useful when thinking about our children's emotional states. Imagine your child getting frustrated that her brother won't allow him to play with her new Lego set. She begins to yell "it's not fair." She may angrily stomp over to you and start crying. That's the dark, grey, angry, jealous cloud moving over your child. Clouds tend to not linger for too long. The storm clouds pass by as your child sees her watercolor set sitting on the table and she happily walks off to do some painting. The fluffy white cloud of happiness returns. Just like clouds moving in the sky, feelings come and go. They are temporary. On average, feelings last for 90 seconds and we tend to feel 1,000 different feelings over a 24 hour period. That's a lot of feelings to manage! Here are five tools you can use to help your child better cope with those big, uncomfortable feelings.
1. EMPATHIZE AND IDENTIFY
Every child is born with a desire to be heard, to feel significant, and to feel that they belong. When your child is upset because he can't have screen time until his homework is complete, let him know that you hear that he feels angry about not getting what he wants. It is important to zoom in, listen to his tone of voice and his words, and observe his nonverbal body cues. Be an interpreter by identifying and labeling his feelings.
"Wow, you are feeling really sad about not getting a goal at your soccer game today."
"You're feeling angry that your brother ripped your paper."
" I hear how frustrated you feel that you didn't get the part you wanted in the school play."
2. BE PRESENT
Allow your child to feel upset, to feel sad, to feel excited. When your child is having a tantrum, there is nothing we can do or say that is going to make that feeling cloud magically disappear. It's natural to want to make your child's uncomfortable feelings go away. Feelings don't need fixing, changing, or to be pushed aside. We CAN'T fix or try to control another person's feelings. We CAN be present and sit alongside them while they work through their discomfort.
"You're feeling so unhappy that I woke you up to go to school. I get it. I hate being woken up too. Would you like to come sit next to me?"
"You're feeling worried about going to the dentist. I also get worried about going to the dentist. I'm right here if you want to tell me more about your worries."
"You're feeling so angry that you just want to scream and hit. I feel that way too sometimes. I'm here to help make sure you're safe. Let me know if you need a hug."
3. HELP YOUR CHILD UNDERSTAND THEIR TRIGGERS
If you can help your child identify what makes them have uncomfortable feelings, then you'll be on your way to helping them regulate their out-of-control behaviors. A trigger is a situation that makes your child upset. When our children are aware of their triggers they will start to recognize them and begin to use tools to help manage their triggers.
Observe and pay attention to warning signs and notice if patterns begin to emerge. You may notice that when your child sits down to do homework after school, she becomes more whiny and fidgety. Maybe when your child is out in a crowded area she bites her shirt or grinds her teeth. Communicate with your child what you have observed by saying, "I've noticed that when you think something is unfair, you begin whining and become argumentative." Keep a running list of your child's triggers and the physical symptoms that accompany the triggers (e.g. fast heartbeat, clenched jaw, stomping feet, biting nails).
Create a cue to help alert your child that he may be triggered in that moment. A cue is a behavior technique where you and your child come up with a simple hand signal or a phrase or word. When you notice a trigger present, you flash the signal or say the word. These cues can be used at home or in social situations to help your child self-correct with minimal help from you.
Help your child problem-solve after a triggering moment and explore what could be done differently next time he feels triggered. Next time he feels triggered or approaches a potential trigger situation. he will know what he can do in that moment to avoid out-of-control behavior.
4. CREATE A COPING SKILLS LIST
When you and your child are calm, create a list together of ways to manage his or her big feelings. Just as children need to be taught how to read and write, they also need to be taught how to create a toolbox for those hard-to-feel feelings. Let your child create the list by doing the writing, typing, or adding pictures or colors to the coping skill list. Make sure to post the list in a visible spot in your home.
Buddy breathing: breath in for 3, hold for 4, breathe out for 5. Practice this by placing a stuffed animal or pillow on your child's stomach while laying on the floor so he can see the animal or pillow's movement as he breathes.
Get a drink of water
Turn on a favorite song and sing and dance along
Go outside and throw or kick a ball
Draw a picture
Squeeze and release the muscles in your body starting from the head and working down to your toes
Go for a bike ride around the block
Think about some good news or something to look forward to in the near future (trip, gift, fun outing, school event)
5. SHOW, NOT JUST TELL
Children look to their parents to model healthy expressions of feelings. You can't find your keys. You yell "WHERE ARE MY KEYS!" You stomp through the house looking for them, slamming doors behind you. Your children are watching your reaction. When we yell we are teaching our children that yelling is an appropriate tool for feeling upset. When we walk away and breathe until we can use our calm voice in respectful ways, we are teaching our children how to resist acting from impulse. Be aware of our own tantrums and model the use of the tools in the Coping Skills List to teach our kids how to regulate their own emotions in healthy ways.