Some people call them tantrums, others use “melt-down”. I prefer to omit these words from our parent-child lexicon, as they feel like terms loaded with the potential to shame. Instead, I acknowledge that, like me, my son has begun to grapple with BIG EMOTIONS. Add to these big and sometimes scary emotions, a child is also asked to deal with blossoming verbalizing skills – making the communication of these emotions so much more difficult.
The last thing I want to do, as his parent and advocate, is add to the stress of his emotional turmoil. Instead, I want to support and assist him as he experiences the emotions of being almost four, complete with all of the injustices and frustrations. In acknowledging that it isn’t always easy being the parent in an episode of Big Emotion, I compiled a selection of different ways that support my son during these moments. Just writing them down and having them on the fridge serve as a great reminder when these moments sneak up on us.
1. Acknowledge his emotions with your own words.
2. Hold or cuddle if they want this. Be prepared for them not to want to be touched in the early moments of emotional upset.
3. Sit next to them if they don’t want to be held, or physically comforted. Your presence speaks to acknowledging what they are experiencing.
4. Listen. Really, listen. We all know the difference between active and passive listening.
5. Make eye contact with them when they show they need your attention.
6. Re-verbalize their needs – even if it seems unrealistic: “I hear that you are really sad that dinosaurs are extinct”
7. Let the emotions happen. Don’t try and distract them from what they are working through. This is a tough one for me. I instinctively want to fix the hurt bubbling inside him, and it takes all of my self-awareness to see that he needs to feel his way through things like disappointment, frustration and confusion. And of course, this is with discretion: if they have been crying for an hour because they lost a button, you can confidently help them move onto something different.
8. If possible, have drinks and tissues close at hand.
9. State safety parameters: sometimes children become physical in their upset. Verbalize your comfort level. Consider employing a tool like a “squeezing pillow” to help them channel physical expression of their sorrow/anger.
10. Consider using calming music.
11. Make use of calming jars to help them think about those Big Emotions once they have reached a place of peace.
12. Engage in dialogue after the experience is in the past.
13. Offer lots of affection afterwards. Children need to feel encouraged by their primary caregivers that this expression of emotion is ok. We live in a world where we are told too often to be quiet and turn off Big Emotion. Let your kids know that your home is a safe place to experience these human reactions.
14. Remind them about deep breathing. This is a golden ticket for us. He is able to reconnect with the world through finding his breath and he appreciates the reminder.
15. Remind them that they are safe.
16. Don’t tell them to “be quiet.”
17. Don’t ignore them. It breaks my heart to hear parents say that they ignored their kid’s ‘tantrums’ enough times and they just stopped doing it. This is a preschool form of being asked to ‘cry-it-out’. They need to know that you are acknowledging their emotional needs. This is a psychological and emotional need.
18. Even if the Big Emotions are embarrassing to you (ie. happen in a public place), remain calm and avoid shaming your child’s experience. This is a big one for me. I embarrass so easily and hate attention being called to anything I am doing. When Aodhan struggles in public, I immediately need to engage in some internal self-talk that reminds me that this is ok and to focus on him.
19. Don’t offer them your anger in return. You are the adult.
20. Avoid punishing for Big Emotions.
21. Be their ally. Advocate for them and their emotions.
22. Show them your own Big Emotions.
23. Show them how you cope with your Big Emotions.
24. Point out when you see other children expressing Big Emotions. Show empathy and understanding.
25. Make yoga and meditation a part of your regular day. Ask them to call on their practice during or after Big Emotions.
26. Don’t tell them how THEY feel.
28. Always remember their dignity. Please.
29. Remind them that you love them no matter what they feel.
30. Try to help them solve any problems that might have caused the Big Emotions by empowering them with problem solving tools.
31. Consider some art-play afterwards. Basic art-therapy ideas of ‘drawing emotions’ have big benefits.
32. How about some scream therapy? Go into the back garden and yell it out!
33. Don’t forget about the power of a family pet. Help them cuddle, snuggle or play with their cat, dog or other furry friend.
34. Change of scene can have a dramatic effect.
35. Always consider the basic needs of your kiddos: lack of sleep and hunger make life much more difficult to navigate.
36. Do they need more outside time? Do they need to be connecting with nature more?
37. Consider boredom. This happens during the winter and over summer holiday. Boredom leads humans to feel frustrated and annoyed more easily than when they are engaged in authentic experiences and/or play.
38. Are there certain developmental milestones that your kid is experiencing? These silent and not always obvious layers to our childrens’ behaviour can have a massive impact on how they deal with what seems like innocuous events.
39. Keep a journal to help you understand potential patterns in their Big Emotions.
40. Are they getting sick? In our house, illness is always foreshadowed by an inability to deal with regular life experiences.
41. Check yourself! When I am cranky, angry or frustrated I often see these emotions mirrored by my son.
42. Acknowledge the emotional growth and development as they learn to deal with Big Emotions in different ways.
43. Avoid bribing or charts to get them to curb emotional behaviours. We want our kids to have internal motivations, not external ones.
44. Consider their/your schedules. Is there too much/too little going on in their day?
45. Provide as much choice in their day as possible. Remember that kids are basically powerless in our relationships with them. Empower them throughout the day to reduce feelings of frustration.
I hope that even one of these suggestions assists you in helping your kiddos cope with Big Emotions. Always remember that it is normal and a part of figuring out what it means to be human. Hold their hands and support them through this difficult part of being a kid.