The secret to helping kids with their big emotions is to first manage your own.
This may seem counter intuitive. Surely if your child would just calm down then you would be able to help them! But YOU are what helps your child calm down.
If you are upset, stressed out, angry or anxious, then your sympathetic nervous system is activated.
Your children will feel your upset.
Their nervous system resonates with your nervous system. Mirror neurons in their brain pick up what you are feeling and their own upset is likely to escalate too.
Children’s behaviour is driven by their big emotions. Learning to manage their emotions and therefore their behaviour, is something they learn from repeated experiences of co-regulation.
Co-regulation is simply helping our child to manage their emotions via our own regulated nervous system. We do this every day. Every time we give our child a hug or just sit calmly with them when they are upset we are helping them regulate their nervous system.
Our calmness helps our child’s brain find a way back to calm, it teaches our child that there’s no emergency, even if they feel like there is at the moment. Our warm, regulated, empathic presence allows children to feel and move through their big emotions.
Essentially our calmness teaches children how to soothe themselves and with enough repeated experiences they eventually learn to do this by themselves.
Being regulated doesn’t always look “calm”. We can be excited or even angry, but if we are regulated then we have the ability to choose to respond flexibly rather than with a knee-jerk reaction. We can chose not to yell or act on our anger in that moment in order to first help our child with their big feelings that are driving their behaviour.
When we “lose it” we are gone emotionally – there is no one present to help our child with their emotions and this is scary for kids and only makes their behaviour worse. Yelling or throwing our own tantrum only frightens them more and it does nothing to help them with their underlying feelings that are causing the behaviour in the first place.
Here are some tips for regulating yourself:
- Take a deep breath! Right down to your belly. Do this several times. Breathing into your belly activates the Vagus nerve which calms your nervous system.
- Pause your agenda – if you’re trying to get out the door on time, just pause for a moment, it’s more important to help yourself and your child right now. (And it’s the quickest way to eventually get out the door I promise!)
- Think to yourself – “my child is behaving badly because they are feeling badly, they need my help with their feelings.”
- Name your feelings to yourself – “I’m really mad right now!” Somehow just acknowledging this to yourself helps. Acknowledging and feeling your anger is not the same as acting on it.
- Move your body, splash water on your face, hug yourself, do a soothing activity, have a change of scene.
Walk away if necessary. Tell your child “I just need to take some time out to get calm”.
- Self-compassion – say to yourself “this is really hard this parenting stuff!”
- Reach out to others for some co-regulation for yourself – call your partner or a friend, or if you are struggling regularly then think about chatting to a therapist.
Ultimately parenting is largely about managing ourselves, rather than our child. When we get stuck in a conflict, the only person’s behaviour we can control is our own. Our responses can either inflame or calm the situation.
Managing your own emotions is the first step in helping your kids with their feelings and it may be what is most needed to restore peace and harmony in your home.