Helping kids (and ourselves) cope with their Big Feelings

When I was preparing for the birth of my first child, like so many parents-to-be, I found myself spending a lot of time reflecting on the type of parent I wanted to be. It brought me back in my mind to my own childhood and how I was raised, and I found myself caught off guard by some of the sadness and grief I had about it.

Although my parents were – and still are – wonderful people, I started to recognize just how limited they were in knowing how to help me cope with big feelings.

Growing up, my dad strongly believed that even from a young age I could understand reason and logic. He was a proponent of talking to me like I was an adult, which part of me appreciated.  However, the expectations of me acting like an adult were there too.  After all, adults do not tantrum – at least not as visibly as little kids.

Anytime I was overcome with strong emotions, I’d receive the response, “I can’t understand you. Go into the other room and calm down. When you’re calm, we can talk.”

As a parent myself, I can certainly understand the wish behind my dad’s insistence to calm down. I know my own tolerance can be low when it comes to my own children’s whining. Whining or crying triggers a primitive instinct in me that something is wrong with my children, which is followed by an intense urge to fix what is wrong and make them feel better immediately.

Most of us equate what is wrong with our children in a situation to the visible behavior happening, such as crying or whining.  Unfortunately, in our attempts to “fix” the observed behavior by telling our children to “calm down,” we end up communicating that the feelings they are experiencing are too big or wrong. This signals to children that even their parents cannot tolerate these emotions. As a young child still new to experiencing and understanding big feelings that must be terrifying!

What does sending our children to another room by themselves to calm down teach them? It teaches them to shut down. It teaches them certain emotions are “bad,” and they should avoid these at all costs because experiencing these feelings leads to isolation and loneliness until the emotions subside.

So, what is the alternative?

Breathe and check in on your intention. The first thing I do when my children are whining, crying, or having big feelings is breathe. This helps me regulate myself prior to responding, which allows me to ask myself what my goal is in that moment. Is my goal to make the crying or whining stop? That would certainly be nice! However, most of the time, my overall goal is to teach my children how to experience big feelings.

To do this, I do not need to make their crying stop.  In fact, asking them to “calm down” does the opposite of helping them experience their feelings.  Asking my children to “calm down” sends the message that their emotions are not okay and ultimately leads them to suppress big feelings in the future.

Practice self-validation first. Since becoming a parent, I have learned the importance of exploring the messages I received as a child, especially ones around experiencing emotions. This has come with the need to help my own inner child learn new ways of sitting with challenging feelings. Afterall, if I cannot regulate my own emotions how can I help my children learn to regulate theirs? When my own children are crying or whining, and I am having the urge to tell them to “calm down” or “go to another room until they can talk to me more calmly,” I must turn to my inner child and validate her emotions about the situation. This often looks like me saying to myself, “it is okay to feel frustrated and angry that my kids are crying right now.” I find it helpful to remind myself in these moments that my children are physically safe, and although I feel pressure to make the crying stop, that may not be the most helpful things for them. I frequently find myself repeating, “this is a moment of struggle, and this too shall pass.”

Communicate validation to the child.  Sometimes the reason my kids are experiencing a big emotion may not feel very logical to me.  For example, my son wants the blue cup versus the red cup when I know perfectly well that both cups hold water the same. However, his disappointment about the situation is very real. I work to validate the feelings he is experiencing and show him that it is okay to feel disappointed when something does not go your way. This may look like saying, “I know you really wanted the blue cup, and mommy gave you the red cup. It makes sense that you would feel disappointed about this.” Does this stop the crying or whining?  Most of the time no, but it supports my larger goal of helping him identify his feelings and showing him that all feelings are valid.

Recognize that emotions are neither good or bad — they just are.  When we judge emotions as “good” or “bad” there is an automatic urge to get rid of the “bad” emotions rather than experience them. This often leads to people later in life using unhealthy coping strategies to avoid perceived “bad” emotions. When we let go of our judgments around emotions, we are able to experience them for what they are – pieces of information that are fleeting. Sitting with my toddler in his disappointment over not getting a blue cup shows him that big feelings naturally decrease in intensity over time.

Reflect after the fact.  Feelings are not based in logic and thinking our way out of a feeling is usually futile. Telling my son that the red cup is the same as the blue one would not help him. In fact, chances are it would only escalate him further. After I have been able to help my son sit with his big feeling and after some time has passed, I can help my son put words to what he was feeling and discuss various coping skills to utilize in the future.

It is ok to feel frustrated that we cannot make everything better in a high emotion moment for our children. When this happens, I find myself taking a breath and asking what the lesson is I want to teach them. The lesson is not that feelings are “bad,” should be avoided or experienced in isolation, but that we can sit with these feelings together and learn skills to make them feel less scary in the future.

Michelle Piven is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Supervisor. She has extensive experience treating eating, mood and anxiety disorders in both adolescents and adults. Michelle also provides individualized parent coaching to families navigating big feelings, transitions, and challenging behaviors.

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