Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dealing with Children's Big Emotions

A few weeks ago a friend sent me this video from Facebook and tagged me on it saying: “You need to see this. This is black belt level parenting”. The video (below) portrays a father who calmly keeps safe his two year old daughter who is caught in a 20 minute full blown meltdown. The video, I thought could be used as an example for understanding the difference between the child's feelings (distress, anger, frustration, tiredness, sadness) and her behavior (yelling, kicking, stomping, slamming and eventually hugging and cuddling). She moves herself, with a little help from her father, through the storm and back into control and calmness. It is astounding that throughout the whole ordeal the father does not speak one word to the child.


It brought to mind the many conversations with parents I had during our recent parent conferences where they shared struggles with me about helping their children through big emotions and tough behavior situations.

Children and their Feelings

Children are not miniature adults. And to demonstrate that point, one does not have to look far on the Internet:

(from a slide show called REASONS WHY YOUNG CHILDREN CRY)

One of the key differences between adults and children is that children have not yet developed emotional regulation. They are not yet able to easily manage emotions to reflect a situation at hand, to calm themselves when they angry, to handle frustration without big outbursts, or to resist having highly emotional reactions to things that upset them. It's not easy for them to deal with change. Never mind children, how many adults rate well on this emotional regulation scale.

And out of all skills that one could pick like a fairy for one's child, wouldn't this be a great one to choose. Emotional regulation is what allows us to function in a community, to maintain close relationships, to work towards goals, delay gratification and deal with the unpredictability of life. It is considered to be one of the main predictors for a happy, healthy and successful life.

One of the ways children learn is is by being allowed to feel their feelings without censure, or threats, or distractions. Practicing moving themselves through emotion and to see that the feelings are impermanent helps outbursts become less frequent and gradually less intense. It is a skill they have to learn as they move towards emotional health.

By the time they are spending their mornings at school, children have come some way in their emotional regulation development. A five year old is typically better equipped to handle frustration than a two year old.

There are many elements in the Montessori environment that support this development. The “snack waiting chair” for example, is a place where one child may sit and wait for the two other children sitting at the snack table to finish eating and have their turn next. Waiting for someone to finish eating so that you can go next (waiting for your turn) without an adult there to police you builds emotional regulation. The fact that there is only one of each material in the classroom also makes it so that if you want a turn with a material but someone else has it, you must wait. The “Silence Rug” for sitting one minute in stillness is another example. When a child wants to say something to a guide, they are taught to come and place their hand on her shoulder and wait for acknowledgement (often the guides are busy helping other children). The calm atmosphere of the classroom, devoid of stress and threat helps as well.

The adults in the environment observe children and can tailor lessons to help with managing feelings (giving specific words that you can say when you are angry about something for example). The are patient with children's feelings, acknowledging them out loud and without a need to fix or change them. The routines in the environment also help children by giving them a sense each day of control over how the day unfolds.

While the children are at school practicing all these things that are meant to help them develop regulation, their tiny battery of it is slowly depleting. By the time they get home after school it is often there that children let loose and present challenges for the parents or caregivers. After school restraint is a very real thing. Which means parents and caregivers have a wonderful opportunity to help their children with their developing emotional regulation.

Understanding can lead to love, and this case, understanding what may trigger the big meltdowns in children can give you a better sense of why the ugly mess is occurring and hopefully help you not to take the meltdowns personally.

Common triggers that may set off big feelings:

  • Basic Needs Not Met
    Is your child tired? Hungry? Feeling unsafe?
  • Order-Routine- Transitions
    Has there been an unexpected change to the routine?
    Has their sense of order been triggered?
    Is it a moment of transition (transitions are notoriously hard for little ones)
  • Over stimulation/ Excitement stress
    Is there too much going on?
    Is too much expected of the child?
    Is there too much novelty and excitement in the environment?
  • Disconnect
    Are they needing a moment of connected attention with you?
  • Too much Screen time
    Screen time is known to affect the self control centers of the brain as it often stimulates the brain's addiction centers (opposite of delayed gratification)
  • Toxic Stress
    In cases where the child has been subjected by too much constant stress, there is a chance that the brain becomes dis-regulated and cannot help itself out of the “fight or flight” response.

The bottom line is that children have feelings. In fact it's normal, healthy and expected that they have big feelings. Sometimes we can determine the cause of their feelings. It's important that they be allowed to feel their feelings because this can lead them to learn to self regulate.

And importantly, feelings are not misbehavior. Children's emotional responses are not something they are doing on purpose to annoy their parents. Their feelings are not something they are doing to their parents at all.

Their emotional response is not something they are doing TO YOU, IT'S NOT ON PURPOSE, IT'S NOT to annoy you, their feelings are not misbehavior.

The Adult's Role regarding Children's Feelings

Can you remember how your parents dealt with your expressions of emotion when you were a child? What would happen when you cried? When you were angry? When you were disappointed? When you were overly excited? Try to distinguish between their reaction to your feelings, and not their reaction to your behaviors (what you did about your feelings).

And now pivot to think about your own current strategies for dealing with your child's feelings. How do you handle their anger, sadness, joy or disappointment? Do you distract them? (“Look over here! Peppa Pig is on TV!”). Do you censor them? (“None of that crying now!”). Ignore them? Threaten them? (“If you don't stop crying right now I'm going to...”)

Often, our comfort with our children's feelings may have come from how comfortable our parents were with our own displays of emotion.

However, you are the adult in the relationship now. You have developed emotional regulation and there is a lot you can do to help your child develop this valuable skill.

Meeting their needs in the Short Term

Being a calm and steady physical presence, without talking, lecturing, or scolding communicates to your child that you are in control. The mirror neurons in your child's brain (that make them so readily imitate behaviors they see) see your calm presence and it helps bridge the gap of their development. During the storm is not the time to try to teach anything to your child. They are not in brain state able to learn just yet.

You can keep them safe, by staying close to them, and others safe from them which can sometimes even mean physically removing your child to a safe location.

When you can do these things you convey to your child the message that feelings are OK, that you accept their feelings and that you are there for them for when they're ready. (Even though internally you might want to just run away).

When you can be the calm and steady physical presence your message is : Feelings are healthy. I accept your feelings. I'm here for you when you're ready. (Even though the very thing you want is to get away from them as fast as you can). You make it safe for your child to have feelings and move through them.

Big emotions are stressful situations for adults and children. Escalating the situation by yelling or scolding may make things worse for you and your child. Managing your own emotions so that your child can regain control is one of the most difficult things an adult can do. It's worth trying, since it only helps matters when you can.
Accepting their feelings means you don't need to change them. Disappointment, sadness, anger, they are all OK to feel. On the same token, you don't need to give in to their demands, or reward them or punish them for how they are feeling. If you have set a limit and your child is having a meltdown because of what you have said, you don't need to go back on your word, they can have their feelings and the limit can still be clear and set.
Acceptance of feelings is not the same thing as acceptance of behavior though, and we will touch on the topic of behavior later on.

What does all this sound like in the midst of the highly charged moment:

“It's OK to be mad. Sometimes I get mad too.”
“You look disappointed. It's hard when you don't get what you want.”
“Wow, you're so mad you're saying some really awful things. I'm going to be here when you feel better.”
“I couldn't let you do what you wanted. That's hard for you.”
“I'm here for you when you're ready.”

Meeting their needs in the Long Term

What we are aiming at here is a well developed emotional regulation in your child. Don't worry that children don't listen to you, worry that they are always watching you. You are their model for healthy emotional responses. How you respond to the stress in your life is the best teacher for your child.

Showing your feelings in a healthy way is an enormous gift to give your child. Just as their expressions of emotion are OK, so are your feelings. Your sadness, your overwhelm, your excitement, your disappointment, your anger, they are all OK as long as you are expressing them in a healthy way.

Talking about your feelings in your day to day conversations, noticing other's feelings and the possible causes for them, noticing the feelings of characters when you read books all bring light to the language of feelings and the message to children that feelings are normal and OK to experience.

Children have situations that trigger them, if you know them ahead of time you can help them prepare: “We are about to go into the grocery store, it might take a long time, if you feel tired you can sit in the cart and eat a banana”. Adults have emotional triggers too: take a few minutes and see if you can think of some of the common things that trigger your biggest emotions. For me, in the classroom it's damage of materials. It's like going from zero to one hundred on an emotional scale, it makes me nuts. I can now recognize that, so before I intervene in a situation of materials being damaged I take a breath and recognize I'm being triggered. I may even say to myself, “it's just a material and can be fixed”. Sometimes just being aware that you are triggered will bring change, even if you do nothing else.

You cannot be the calm steady presence for your child if you are in survival mode. Self care has nothing to do with being selfish. The work on yourself is very important. It means you get the rest, exercise, nutrition and attention to yourself that you need so that you can be there for your child when they need you. Sometimes it means lowering the bar on standards so that you can remain sane and in control. This work takes a lot of patience and it does not really help us get better if we are constantly criticizing ourselves. Celebrate and acknowledge the small successes. If you have a partner or a care giver, self care also means tag teaming and communicating with each other so you can give the best of yourselves.

Figuring out what are calming strategies for you, whether they be doing some mindful breathing, listening to music, or going for a walk are also important and model for your child what you would eventually want them to be able to do too.

The part about Discipline

The second part of developing emotional regulation has to do with what to do with out of control behavior. This is the part where teaching is involved. The best time to do this part is either after the storm has passed, when your child is ready to use their learning brain, or before in anticipation or preparation if you know there is upcoming stimulus that might be triggering for your child.

Setting limits with your calm and steady presence means you are comfortable with your role as parent when you say: “I can't let you...”. It may mean your child will have to remain by your side for a while, or that you may have to remove them from a place or situation. It may mean you might have to take something away (that might get damaged, or an object which is causing the issue.)

Logical consequences are outcomes that make sense given a situation. For a child that cannot come to their parents at the gate when it's time leave the school may have to wait on a bench close to the gate and not play until their parent arrives (“You are showing me that it's too hard for you to come to the gate while you play so today you can sit here and watch the play instead until your parent picks you up.”) It may mean losing the opportunity to use an electronic equipment (“We made an agreement that you would watch it 30 minutes but you didn't turn it off, so today you may not use it.”) Logical consequences means they have something directly to do with what has happened. A child who hits another child during play may be showing you that he is not yet ready to play or may need you to stay close to prevent it from happening again. Making a prior agreement about the expectation for your child really helps when you have to implement the consequence. It's powerful when you can say “We agreed...”

Children don't always understand what is expected of them in a given situation. If you practice a desired behavior prior to the event, it may help them understand it better. They love pretend play, and practicing behavior out of context is like a game for them. Many are more likely to do what they practiced with you, plus they associate a positive feeling (the feeling of having pretend played with you) with the action. “Let's practice what to do when we cross the street.” “Let's pretend I am a child at school who does something to you that you don't like.” “I'm going to show you what to do when we go into the dog shelter.”

Young children think in pictures, and often, telling them a story with a purpose in mind may be helpful for teaching them positive behavior. “I'm going to tell you a story about a girl who would not hold her mommy's hand when she crossed the street.” “Instead of reading you a book tonight, I'm going to tell you a story of when someone took a toy from my house without asking.” You can get very creative and your child may ask you to tell the story over and over. Cautionary tales have existed for hundreds of years for a reason, they work.

Giving them feedback on recurring issues can be helpful too. Whether things are going better or not, taking some time to review something you've been working on with your child sends a message that things can be in process and you can work on them to improve. “I noticed that today when your sister took something from you without asking you stayed calm, that's so difficult and you did it so well!”

Finally, having realistic expectations of young children can ease some of your tension regarding difficult situations with your children. They are three or four or five years new. They are very much in process and your love and support, evident even in your just reading this till the end, is the most powerful thing you can give.

From a parent night delivered on Friday, February 28th at Beautiful Sun Montessori School.

1 comment:

I'd Rather Play Outside said...

Lovely to see this written out. I batch together my favorite parenting resources for my pregnant friends. I'll be including this.