We aren’t born knowing how to control big emotions. Emotions are complex signals that our brains’ send us to help us understand what’s going on. As adults, we’ve had decades of experience learning that they come & go. We know they’re temporary responses to specific stimuli. We have learned, via hours of practice, how to reduce their impact on us by taking deep breaths, by focusing on something else, or calling our Mum to talk it over.
Children don’t have this wealth of experience to rely on. They don’t yet know what their emotions are, how they work or how to manage them. All they know is that these big feelings are intense & scary. That they roll through their bodies like a thunderous wave, taking complete control of their senses. It’s our job as parents to help our children figure out how to manage their emotional responses in healthy, adaptive ways.
So… How do we help?
1. Think about things from their perspective.
One of my mantras is “It’s hard work being little”. It reminds me to stop and think about just how confronting and new so much of the world is to young children. They’re experiencing dozens of new things each day, with no framework or experience to contextualise them. Experiencing all this while also learning how to do SO MANY new things is a lot of work for their little brains. Of course they’re prone to frustration, confusion, anger etc.
2. Model healthy emotion management
Our children learn so well from watching us, so doing the work to model (and verbalise what we’re doing) can be really beneficial. For example “Mummy is feeling overwhelmed because there are so many loud noises. I’m going to go into the garden to calm down.”
3. Help them learn the skills of emotional regulation
Emotional outbursts are an opportunity for our children improve their emotional regulation skills. Each child will learn these skills in their own time. Ways you can help include: name their emotions, sit with them and be present, stay calm, be patient, talk them through it once they’ve calmed down. These are BIG asks and can be hard to do as a parent. You won’t always get it right, and that’s okay.
References: Siegel & Payne 2012