Learning to help children deal with life’s challenging emotions can be difficult, especially when those feelings lead to behavioral meltdowns. Below are five tips for helping parents understand the emotional reactions of their children, and for working together through difficult times to make even the toughest of feelings more manageable. Keeping these tools in mind will assist you as you build the foundation for both coping and emotion regulation to strengthen your child’s skills throughout their lifetime. We have even included a few “bonus pointers” for parents as you navigate the storms!
- Know that all behaviors have meaning.
So often we think, “why does he/she do that?!” More often than not, children have tantrums and meltdowns because their brains are trying to make sense of and manage big emotions that they are not quite sure how to handle. This is normal and natural, and research tells us that the part of their brain that is working on coping with these feelings, the pre-frontal cortex, won’t be fully developed until their mid-twenties. (Sometimes grown ups don’t feel so developed in the pre-frontal cortex either, especially when someone cuts us off in rush-hour traffic.)
In those moments, I find it helpful to picture your child’s behaviors as an alarm. The purpose of an alarm is to turn your attention to something that is happening in your enviornment that requires action, be it food that will burn in the oven or a dangerous fire that could take out the boxes in the basement. In this analogy, your child’s “tantrum alarm” is alerting you to the fact that they need you in parenting-action mode. In this case, they need help with their big, unpleasant feelings. But so often, when we are distracted by the troubling sound of the alarm, we try and simply make the noise stop rather than addressing the underlying issue. But what would happen if we simply turned off our home’s fire alarm without addressing the underlying fire – uh oh!
Instead, know that there is a “fire” going on somewhere within the emotion centers of your child’s brain, and that by helping them manage it (see tips 3 and 4), you are building up strength in their pre-frontal cortex. So what’s next?
- Take a minute for yourself before trying to help your child.
This concept is similar to that tip flight attendants give you during the saftey drill at the start of airplane flights; put your own oxygen mask on first before helping young children. After all, it’s quite hard to help someone else when you can’t really breath yourself. If you are upset, angry, panicked or worse (it happens to us all), helping someone else calm down is nearly impossible. So, give yourself permission to take a few moments, make sure your child is in a safe place, and take a “time out” for yourself. Some parents like to go into the bathroom, some parents like to just take a few deep breaths whereever they are, and others have a mantra that reminds them to stop and think before acting. Whatever it is for you, the point of your grown up “time out” is to calm yourself down (enough) to make decisions in a responsive way rather than snap into action in a way you may later regret.
- Once you are calm(ish), you can now help your children manage their feelings.
But how? Start by letting your child know that you get it, and you are there for them. In other words, validate their feelings in order to help them soothe. “But they need to learn to calm themselves down.” Well, that’s true at times, but let’s think about this from the adult lens. Imagine yourself in this scenario; you come home from a tough day, be it work, a parent-teacher conference, a family party, or even a long day of holiday shopping, and it has been a real doosy. You walk in the door looking for some much needed emotional support, telling your partner or friend that your day was really lousy. They look at you and sarcastically snap, “You don’t even know what tough is. You’ll be fine, just forget about it and let’s move on.” Right about now you might be feeling your heartrate start to increase and your thoughts begin to race. You may become agitated, angry, blow through the roof, and say “excuse me, can you be on my side please!” Alternatively, you may stiffen up, shut down, and make a mental note, ‘don’t trust that person with my hurts anymore, they won’t be supportive.’
When having a tough time, we don’t want our children to blow up or shut down, but rather to come to us for help with the hard stuff, especially as teens. So what could that person have said to make us feel better? How about something like, “Wow, that stinks, I’m sorry” or “Hm [empathetic eyebrow furrow].” Doesn’t take much, but all of a sudden your blood pressure starts to drop and you insticutally feel soothed. A sort of, ‘okay, they get it, I am not alone.’ We can thank science for this calming magic, and neurological research tells us that if parents simply name the emotion, our children will start to feel better thanks to chemicals released into our brains (learn more from Dr. Dan Siegal http://www.drdansiegel.com).
Bonus Pointer – Parents often ask, “What if it is something really small and silly?” As humans, we often don’t build persepctive in the moment. When is the last time you were upset over something insignficant and someone tried to tell you that in the moment? Did you say “oh yea, what was I thinking. No big deal!” Probably not. Instead, validate your child’s emotions, be there for them, and then help them build hindsight later once they have calmed down.
- But what do I do about their behaviors?
Of course we don’t want to allow our children to behave in a way that is not acceptable, so we need to set limits and boundaries. This helps children feel safe, like they know who is in charge. To combine acknolwedging feelings and setting limits, try the ACT Model, developed by play therapist Garry L. Landreth, Ed.D., LPC, RPT-S.
A = Acknowledge the child’s feelings
C= Communicate the limit
T = Target the desired new behavior
Here are two examples: Caleb, age 5, is very upset that he can’t have a cookie 30 minutes before dinner. He is currently rolling around by your feet and swatting at your ankles, screaming about the fact that you are unfair and never give him anything good. You take a moment, drink from your glass of water, take a deep breath, and think, ‘okay, why not try this ACT model?’ Acknowledge that you know he wants the cookie, and that it seems like he is having a tough time waiting. That must be hard for him. Then move on to setting limits around no hitting, and telling him what you would like him to do instead, maybe finding an alternative game, or a healthy snack. Or maybe he needs a few minutes of alone time to cool down before dinner. First we must calm the part of the brain that is all fired up around that cookie before we can get him to move forward to the right way to handle his big feelings.
Let’s try one with an older child. Hannah, age 12, has spent 3 hours on her math homework. She begins crying and screaming, saying she is ‘dumb’ and she will just never get math so what is the point, and why are you making her do this anyways? You too are frustrated, you have been at work all day, it is 10:00 pm, you have a presentation to give to your boss at 9:00 am. You take your time out, and then connect with Hannah. How frustrating it must be to have to work so hard, and it seems like she might be feeling nervous about the upcoming exam the following week. Maybe the limit is that homework has to last just one more problem, and that the new behavior will include finding a tutor so she can feel more confident before her exam, and you both can get some much needed support. In any case, you let Hannah know that she isn’t alone in her fear and you can work things through together.
Bonus Pointer– What if I can’t figure out why they are feeling that way? While it is always great to know why your child is upset, many parents ask what to do if they can’t find the source of the issue? “What if they are crying and I have no idea what is going on?” Sometimes, just being with the feeling is enough. For example, if you were crying and needed a hug, would the hug be any less valuable if the other person didn’t know why you were crying? Probably not. And it may even get you calm enough to tell your story in a more coherent manner. It is the connection and knowing you aren’t alone that counts for so much.
- When needed, try a moment of repair.
Let’s say you didn’t take that time out for yourself, and you didn’t connect, and things didn’t go quite the way you had hoped. That happens sometimes, let’s face it, that happens a lot, and it’s okay. First remember, all is not lost. Kids give us lots and lots of oppourtunity for practice, so another chance is likely just around the corner. Second, this is a good time to help children learn that their parents are humans too. Our brains have emotion centers that make it hard for us to keep things under control all the time as well, and now we get the chance to model that when people lose their cool. This is an opportunity to take responsibility and accountability for your actions. Apologize for your part, and teach your kids to apologize for theirs. If possible, work with your child to make a plan for what you will do next time something like this comes up. After all, learning isn’t about never making mistakes, it is about showing that when we do make mistakes (which we will), we can repair them. Take comfort in this; relationships that go through hurdles and make it out the other side often become stronger for it.