As a mother of three kids, I have seen some strange and wild things. From purple poop (culprit: crayons) to colic to extremely picky eating, I have dealt with it all, because parenting is nothing if not unpredictable. But nothing tops the explosive meltdowns that my middle child can throw down. My seven-year-old can go from sweet and mild-mannered to a Tasmanian devil so fast it makes my head spin. The worst part is that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to teach him to self-soothe. It makes me feel like a failure as a mom.
My son is bright, and when it comes to academics like reading and math, he immerses himself and finds pleasure in untangling numbers or getting lost in stories. But in other settings, his emotional regulation is challenged. We’ve talked to his teachers and pediatrician about his outbursts, and the bottom line: he needs to learn how to deal with his feelings when they get bigger than him. This is a challenge for SO many kids. And I’m eager to learn how to best support him. So I reached out to some experts to learn where to start.
Help them label their emotions.
“For younger kids, often the first step to being able to regulate their emotions is being able to identify and name their emotions,” said Lindsay Weisner who is a Clinical Psychologist and co-author of Ten Steps to Finding Happy: A Guide To Finding Permanent Satisfaction.
Weisner points out that parents can help by giving kids the skills — and space — to name their own feelings. “We have to be careful not to assign emotions [to them] based on outside appearances,” she says. “A crying child does not mean that the child is sad. It could mean that a child is sad, but it could also mean that the child is angry, frustrated, surprised, or confused.”
I love what Weisner says, and I have always tried my best to teach my son a vocabulary of feelings words. Still, though, I know that I often rush to mend the issue, just as I would rush to help soothe a scraped knee. It’s my motherly instinct to repair the problem.
But maybe instead of attempting to quickly “patch up” my kid’s problem, I should be finding ways to better help him understand the feelings he’s having. So, for example, when he is in the middle of ramping up to an explosion, I now try to say things like, “You are safe and you’re allowed to be having big feelings! Can you tell me a word to describe your feelings?” I try to help that process by repeating back to him his responses and giving him space to calm down.
Don’t try to control feelings, but do make rules around behaviors.
So as for my son’s hitting and throwing things? Jane Rosen, PsyD, the Director of the IKAR Early Childhood Center in Los Angeles, puts it this way: “We never need to control [peoples’] feelings, only the behaviors they elicit.”
By this she means that it’s fine — and encouraged — to create boundaries or rules. So, for example, my family can set a household rule that says no hitting or throwing. People can have whatever feelings that come up, but our household has rules around hitting and throwing things. As a parent, I feel embarrassed to admit that my kid hits and throws things when he gets angry. It feels horrible when he gets so mad that he lunges toward me with an open hand to smack my back, or when he picks up whatever object is closest to him and hurls it across the room. But I’ve found that creating a boundary can relieve the feelings of shame and sadness around challenging behaviors, and it can also create an opportunity for my child to develop other skills, like using his words or practicing deep breathing.
Rosen emphasizes that kids must believe that they are safe having emotions in the first place. Parents can help with this by meeting their kids’ emotions — whatever they are — in an accepting way.
“It is important to see your child as a person who has a range of emotions, and emotions are not good or bad, nor are they to be feared or distracted away.”
In fact, managing emotions is the journey all people are on — kids and grownups alike.
Plan in advance.
At a loss for how to handle explosive meltdowns, I often found myself digging into the parenting bag of tricks and just pulling out whatever I could find in any given moment. There was a time when I relied on time-outs in a time-out chair that I had placed in the living room corner. But this seemed to emphasize punishment, and the meltdowns got worse, not better, when I used it. During my son’s meltdowns, I’ve threatened to take away toys. I’ve threatened to take away treats. The list goes on. While I drew the line at hitting or spanking my kids, I wasn’t above threatening or yelling — because I didn’t know what else to do.
After chatting with both Weisner and Rosen, I now realize how important it is for me have some resources at the ready to use when I need them. There’s nothing worse than feeling caught empty-handed. Here are some great resources that all parents of kids like mine should know about.
- Breathing exercises can help calm the nervous system and stave off tantrums. Meditations and mindfulness exercises are excellent practices to work on regularly so that they’re there at the ready to grab out of the “toolbox” when your child has big emotions.
- Learning to identify and name feelings can help a child articulate what’s upsetting them.
- Apps such as Headspace for Kids, The Dreamy Kid, Mindful Powers, and Mind Yeti are accessible and fun ways for kids to learn how to find self-calming techniques that work for them.
- Books such as Tough Guys Have Feelings Too by Keith Negley, The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, and Today, I Feel… by Madalena Moniz are great resources for little kids to learn how to identify their big feelings.
- Believe it or not, private Facebook groups can be an informative and supportive community for parents, on this issue… and so many others. Some of our greatest education can be from other parents going through the same thing as us.