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A New Approach to Helping Little Kids Cope with Big Feelings

“My kid cries too much!” “Why is she so angry?” “He is so sensitive; we can’t say anything!”

When it comes to our kids, we often have very strong opinions about what, when and how they should express their feelings. Parents often consider their children’s strong emotions as problems to be solved. During a parent coaching session, a father recently told me about his 4-year-old’s attempt to play with some older neighborhood kids. The boy was accidentally elbowed and started crying. His dad asked how he could help his child find an alternate reaction to crying. How could they train him to “brush it off, and act like a big boy”?

It’s very important for kids to learn how to navigate big emotions because big emotions are also part of adult life. Think about it: you’re running late, and you hit every red light and find yourself taking it personally, berating yourself, sweating, maybe even yelling. Or you forget to make a reservation and now you have to wait 45 minutes for a table on a Friday night when you and the kids are tired, annoyed and hungry. Overwhelming feelings of disappointment and agitation bubble up.

If we don’t learn to manage and process emotions so that we can keep our focus on the needs of the situation, we often create bigger problems for ourselves. Maybe we make an aggressive hand gesture to the driver ahead of us, or yell at the restaurant hostess (or our kids). And it’s just as harmful to repress our emotions. Repressed emotions are fertile ground for resentment, and resentment is poison for relationships.

Luckily, when I spoke to the parent of the 4-year-old child, I had in my coaching toolbox a new book, Tiny Humans, Big Emotions: How to Navigate Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Defiance to Raise Emotionally Intelligent Children by Alyssa Blask Campbell, M.Ed., and Lauren Stauble, M.S. In their book, Campbell and Stauble introduce a compelling model called Collaborative Emotion Processing. It’s a wheel with five spokes held together in the center by mindfulness. Let’s take a look at each of the components.

Mindfulness: Let’s start with what mindfulness is not. It is not judgmental about which feelings are right or wrong. It is not about anticipating the future or regretting the past (especially what we might have done or not done to avoid this current big emotion that is unfolding before our eyes). Mindfulness is not about efficiency, optimizing productivity or being in a rush. It is simply being engaged in the moment with your senses: seeing and hearing what is happening right now. Mindfulness is being able to accept reality as it is. That does not come naturally for most of us! And it is worth the effort to develop this new skill.

Scientific knowledge: It is important to recognize that crying is a normal biological and physiological human reaction to strong emotions. Developmentally, it is normal and to be expected for 4-year-olds to cry – and often. It’s a way their immature nervous systems react and process uncomfortable experiences, such as strong feelings, hunger, fatigue and emotional or physical pain.

Self-awareness: Being self-aware means you can monitor and are conscious of your thoughts and feelings in the moment. You are able to pause and make a decision about how to respond, rather than react. Your thoughts and feelings inform you about what to do next, but you are not at the mercy of those thoughts and feelings. The father of the unhappy 4-year-old had the self-awareness to realize that he could do more effective parenting without others watching him. He left the room with his 4-year-old and was able to comfort his child and soothe himself in privacy.

Remember, kids learn more by what we do than what we say. When you are well-regulated and your nervous system is on an even keel, you will be much better equipped to help your kids regulate theirs.

Implicit bias: When the father asked me how to stop his child from crying, I probed his biases about that response. “What does crying mean to you?” He went quiet, then spoke honestly, “Well, I guess I learned that boys who cry are sissies.” His son’s crying didn’t feel safe, and the father wanted to stop it as quickly as possible to spare the boy from negative judgment.

We all have implicit biases. Think about it: is anger OK in your house? Are you “allowed” to be unhappy? I remember being disappointed about a cancelled concert when I was in high school and being excused to have those feelings up in my room, by myself. What are your implicit biases? What about your co-parent’s? What about those of your family of origin? Rich insights and new options might unfurl from these questions. Your implicit biases aren’t right or wrong, they just are what they are. You get to decide whether they are accurate, effective or useful.

Self-care: Parental self-care is so important that I want to start every coaching session by asking about it and encouraging parents to make the time for it, every day. We’ve been led to believe that taking time for ourselves is selfish, or we can do it later when our kids are big, or that we need a spa or a whole Saturday to do it. None of that is true. Self-care is getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours for adults), eating more foods that give you energy and vitality and decreasing foods and drinks that make you sluggish. It’s taking time to move your body every day because it calms you down and might even bring you joy. Self-care is about making sure you have friends and fun on your calendar every week.

Remember, kids learn more by what we do than what we say. When you are well-regulated and your nervous system is on an even keel, you will be much better equipped to help your kids regulate theirs.

Adult-child interaction: This is where the rubber meets the road. In the moment of upset what do we do? Campbell and Stauble recommend these five steps:

  • Allow emotions to exist. My coaching client didn’t want his child to be crying, and yet he accepted that he was. He scooped the boy up to give himself and his child time and space to regroup.
  • Recognize the perceived emotion. This is where we let go of what we believe our child “should” be feeling and get curious about what they are actually feeling. Often, the cause of a child’s emotion will not seem like a big deal or worth crying over. Rather than judge, accept others’ emotions as they are.
  • Feel secure in experiencing a range of emotions over time. Campbell and Stauble have wise words on this subject. They say, “Security in our feelings means recognizing that we won’t feel this way forever so it’s safe to feel it for now.” What a gift to let our kids know, feel and understand that their feelings are like clouds in the sky. They drift, gather and disperse and the way they feel now may not be the way they’ll feel tomorrow or even in an hour.
  • Seek support through coping strategies. Coping strategies are things we do to decrease arousal and increase calm. The great thing about this is when we teach our kids about coping strategies, we secretly get to use them, too. Things like breathing, drawing, exercising, dancing, singing, playing, listening to music and hugging are a few. Imagine how many healthy coping strategies they will have in their pockets if we use these often when they are young.
  • Move on. This is the step we’ve all been waiting for! Moving on is really problem solving. What are we going to do next? Little kids usually have some solutions, and it helps them to continue to regulate and stay in their prefrontal cortex if you ask them what they might want to do next.

What a gift to let our kids know, feel and understand that their feelings are like clouds in the sky. They drift, gather and disperse and the way they feel now may not be the way they’ll feel tomorrow or even in an hour.

If following these five steps feels too complicated, I offer up a new thought. Think of them as various on-ramps to managing strong emotions, solving problems and building a strong, healthy relationship with your kids. You don’t have to do all five at once. But imagine the creative and effective solutions that might arise if you just focused on self-care for a couple weeks and came into problems with a bigger reservoir of patience. Or how things would be different if every few months you checked in on your child’s development and were reminded that a lot of their annoying behavior is normal, and should be addressed, but can’t be eradicated.

Tantrums, frustration and anger are natural, normal, and inevitable. Instead of trying to stop them at all costs, think of them as important moments that help your child build emotional regulation skills. The next time your child is having a meltdown in the grocery store, protesting leaving a playdate or being sassy in front of your parents, you have a choice. As Campbell and Stauble say in their book, “You can either be a thermometer and read the temperature of the room and join it, or you can be the thermostat and set the temperature. You have the power to bring the calm.”