When it comes to your child’s emotions – are you fuelling or diffusing?

Apr, 20, 2020

The number one thing that I get contacted about at the moment – is how to best respond when children are overcome by big emotions. Living together so intensely brings us face to face with not only our own but our kids’ sibling dynamics, worries, anxieties and day to day meltdown/ tantrums – what can feel like 100 times a day. With nowhere to go – we are now faced with the opportunity to understand how to best respond in these situations. If you find that the way you respond never really gets you or your children closer – you might benefit from these following tips.

1. Tantrums and meltdowns are stress releases for kids

Dr Dan Siegel said that.. and it’s useful information for us remember when we are faced with a child who is inconsolable. As adults we often hold on to our emotions – bottle them up only for them to manifest as body tension, headache or through sudden explosions of anger that seem like they come out of nowhere.

This is not so for kids. Especially the youngest ones who generally have no qualms about letting off some steam to restore the balance within. Knowing that a child’s tantrums serve a function – it might be easier to hold on for dear life and remain grounded instead of flying off with them. Our children desperately need us to remain calm when they can’t as it is difficult for them to self-regulate and calm down if mum and dad are angry and they themselves feel triggered.

This is not easy. I know from personal experience. But I also know that is a muscle that can be flexed – and is helped by awareness – and not running on empty.

Tending to our own needs is not only about long spa dates with ourselves, hours spent in a bathtub or nail salons (nice as all of those things are). Self care is – responding to our own emotions and needs like we would a friend. With a bit more compassion – and willingness to listen.

This can look like

  • stopping the mindless scrolling through Instagram when really what we need is connection or validation.
  • Allowing ourselves to lower the bar in areas of our lives where we’re stretched meeting our own expectations.

And sometimes – in order to do this – we may need to tell others (note: our partner) what we need.

2. Let them ride it out

I like to think of emotions as waves. They rise.. they peak … and then they tail off. Children are naturally in touch with this flow. But most of us adults have forgotten. Because emotions have needed to be stopped. Before they became too loud. Too inconvenient. Too much.

Tempting as it is to reason with your 3 year old who screams, stomps his feet and refuses to stand up for reasons unknown to you – adding a:

Darling, you’ve got to understand you can’t have everything

Screaming and shouting doesn’t help.. use your words

Stop it.. calm down

This is futile!
We are waisting our breath – because while our child is in that state – when the wave is at its peak – there is only one way down… riding it out. The higher cortex – responsible for reasoning, self-control and logic – is not engaged when a child is overcome by emotions.

The more accepting we can be of this fact – the more freely the emotions can settle again. When we talk and ask for their understanding – get angry or begin to threaten them to calm down ..or else.. the more we prolong this state of overwhelm – which is not something our child is doing TO us . It happens. And more often the younger the child.

So what CAN we do?
Both during and after the episode?

3. Get curious instead of furious

I always ask my clients to reflect on the following:
What do you need when you’re angry?

  • Space?
  • A hug?
  • A listening ear?
  • Someone with broad enough shoulders to just be there?

We are all different. And so are our kids. And on the plus side we have ample opportunities to practice getting this right.

Both my children are very different. Where my daughter needs fewer words and for me to stay near even if she tells me to go away – my son responds well to:

“I can see that you are (name the emotion)”

“Was it when I (name what you think may have upset them)”?

“Ah – and you didn’t like that / you wanted that?”


Back to yourself – rarely do we calm down when someone tells us how we should be feeling or questions our perspective when we are angry.

We are generally the biggest help to our kids when we can just be with. Without so many words. And if you’re allowed to hug your child – then a gentle rocking / humming sound can soothe and communicate that you are right there.

For many children – the anger propels them to physically act out. This needs to be stopped. But we do well not to be blinded by these actions and start punishing these behaviours. Stay interested in the emotion – and show your child that YOU can be with them while the storm rages – and they will learn over time to do the same.

When the wave has tailed off – the waters are calm again – this is the time when we can revisit the outburst with children from about the ages of 3 or 4.

This is where we get an opportunity to learn whether we actually are unwanted when we are told to go away.
What our child needs from us – and what it feels like inside them – perhaps before and during these big emotions.

We do not need to have been raised in this way in order to meet our child in this way. This is the beauty of parenthood.. it offers us a unique opportunity to raise ourselves, become more emotionally literate and resilient ALONGSIDE our kids.

Being realistic – setting ourselves achievable goals – first perhaps deciding to give up STOPPING our kids’ emotions. And allowing ourselves to feel good whenever we manage to succeed at that.

Real change rarely happens overnight.
Change is the result of little steps in a direction of what you want to create. And the more we do something – the more natural it will feel.
When our reactions turn into responses – our children’s behaviour follows suit.

Louise Brooks

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