I’ve been a teacher for nearly 18 years, and before that I learned most of what I know about supporting children from some pretty wise folks working at a residential treatment center. In that time, I worked with children ages seven to 17 with many different learning and emotional differences. I’ve loved and supported kids with all kinds of big feelings from run-of-the-mill temper tantrums to complete emotional breakdowns due to trauma. I’ve worked with children who were trying to hurt themselves, trying to hurt others, and trying to hurt me. I’ve taught children who needed someone to listen to them, and children who needed to be physically restrained.
In that time, I learned a few tricks of the trade to help children working through big feelings, whether those feelings were triggered because you didn’t cut up the apples the right way or because your child is wrestling with anxiety.
It’s easier said than done, but do your very best to remain neutral. Your child’s feelings are neither good nor bad. They just are. Your child’s behavior may be disruptive and loud and embarrassing, but if you join in the mele, you will take a spark and turn it into a bonfire. Your child trusts you. If you lose control of the situation, you leave him or her feeling uncertain and afraid. You are the grown-up; your child is counting on you.
It’s Okay to Have Big Feelings
I’ve got news for you: We all get mad. We all get jealous and embarrassed and sad. Our children are allowed to have the whole range of emotions that we have, and if we shame them into repressing those feelings or teach them that they can’t come to us, then we are going to have some much bigger problems when they are older and their choices have bigger consequences.
It’s Not Your Job to Make Your Child Feel Better
This is a hard one. When my child is in pain, the only thing I want is to make it stop. I want him happy, safe, and at peace. But the truth is anger, sadness, fear, and frustration are all normal feelings. We all have them, and we all have to figure out a way to work through them. It is your child’s responsibility to learn how to self-soothe. She will need these skills as an adult. Be available and calm, and let her know these big, passionate feelings that seem so uncontrollable are normal, and they won’t last forever.
Do Not Negotiate
The rule is the rule. The expectation is the expectation. Remain firm. Never say you will if you won’t. Do not back down because the behavior is challenging. Do not be run over by an unpleasant fit. You are teaching your child what works, and if a big, fat tantrum gets momma to change her mind, you are for sure going to regret teaching your child that lesson. But . . .
Avoid a Power Struggle
You don’t have to make a rule just because it feels like that’s what the other parents would do. Avoid ultimatums. Do not back your child into a corner. It is your job to help him find the way out, not to force him into submission. If this is a battle and you win, that means your child loses. Is that really what you want? When your child is dealing with all the physical and emotional stress that comes with a fit, this is not the time to lay down the law. Let the fit fizzle out, then you can lovingly talk out what happened and determine any necessary, natural consequences.
Name the Feelings
From the day your child comes home with you, begin naming his feelings. Oh, I see you’re so hungry. Are you sleepy? Oh, that was scary! Did that make you feel frightened? I can tell you are so angry! This teaches your child that it is okay to have feelings, and gives him or her the vocabulary to communicate with you.
Model Appropriate Responses
Talk with your child about how you are feeling, and show him or her how you are managing those feelings.
- Boy, that made me mad! I’m going to take a walk.
- I’m feeling so sad. I’d really like a hug.
- My feelings are hurt. I’m going to take a few minutes by myself.
It is much easier to teach what is expected before our children are in crisis mode. The more we model what we expect, the more tools our children have in their toolboxes. They may or may not be able to access those tools every time they need them, but it is certainly better than leaving them floundering with unfamiliar and scary feelings.
Take the Feelings Seriously
As grown-ups, we have fully developed frontal lobes and a lifetime of experiences which help us to seperate the big problems from the small problems, but our children have neither the physical development nor the context to make this distinction. To them, the problem is real, and it is big, and in the middle of the breakdown, he can’t hear you tell him why he’s overreacting.
Be Mindful of Your Body Language
Send your child the message that you are in charge, that she is safe. Hold yourself with the confidence that tells your child you are in control. Do not use your size to threaten or overpower. Instead, confidently show your child that you are firm and neutral, that you love him or her, but that you aren’t going to accept any nonsense. Open your body and your arms. Keep calm and neutral. Nod your head. Give him room. Walk away if your attention is feeding the fit. Scoop him up and hold him if you feel that fear, sadness, or anxiety is the trigger for the behavior. Always act from love, not anger. If you’ve had too much, tag in your partner, if you have one, or just walk away and take a break.
The truth is, it’s a whole lot easier to work with someone else’s children when they are upset than with your own. You are emotionally invested in a much different way. When our children are hurting, it hurts us. When my son is upset, I feel physical pain. It’s just different when it is your own child.
You aren’t perfect. You are going to overreact. You are going to mismanage a situation. You aren’t always going to know what to do.
And your child is going to be just fine.
Perfection is not the goal. Love is the goal. It’s never too late to say you are sorry. It’s always okay to change your mind. And if you can show your children the power of forgiving yourself when you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, then you’ve really taught them something powerful.
That is so powerful and helpful!!
Thank you, Jami!
Love this! One thing we do with our littles is day, “It’s ok to feel angry. And, we still have to be kind.” Trying to teach that we can feel big feelings, but we can’t use those as an excuse to be mean to someone. (Something I have to remind myself too, sometimes.)
Bethe, I love this! I need this sometimes, too!
Love this and really needed to read this, Heather! Thank you for sharing!
That’s so sweet. I hope it’s helpful. It’s so hard when they are struggling!
Love love love this!! So reassuring to know I’m doing the right thing… Most of the time! Thank you!!
Most of the time is right! Some days I just don’t get it right. :\
Amazing article! Thank you so, so much. I’m a mom of a “threenager” (hate that word) and this was just what I needed.
Oh, three! I definitely remember three. This too shall pass! Thank you for your kind words!