Helping your Child manage Big Emotions

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions it is our job to share our calm not, join their chaos” – L.R. Knost.

There are six basic emotions which are universally experienced by every one of all ages, across all cultures – fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. Feeling all our emotions is a very normal and important part of being human and being a child. Emotions are a subjective experience, meaning that although two children may go through the same experience, how they interpret this experience and what they feel as a result, may be very different.

Emotions elicit a “body” response, for example heart racing, pain in tummy, breathing faster, sweaty hands, etc. Again, these can be very different for each child. The behavioural response is how we react or behave in response to an emotion.  This may include crying, laughing, jumping, shouting, cuddling with a parent, throwing something or talking it out. It is important to remember that the part of the brain which manages impulsive behaviours doesn’t start to develop until around 4 years old, and continues to develop until well into our 20’s.   Younger children therefore need a lot more support to understand and manage their emotions and the behavioural response.

The ability to control our emotions is known as emotion regulation. This process takes time and can be challenging for some.  Emotion regulation involves – becoming aware of the emotion; using words to describe the emotion; understanding the body reaction; identifying what triggers the emotion and finally learning strategies to manage it. As a child become more capable in emotion regulation, they begin to “respond” to the emotion, rather than reacting to it (which often looks like tantrums, lashing out, aggressive behaviour and shouting).

In order to help a child to learn emotion regulation, adults must first be capable of self-regulation – the awareness, knowledge and understanding of our own emotions, behaviours and reactions. When we are regulated, not only are we a positive role model, we are able to meet the child’s nervous system ‘where it is at’ by listening, remaining calm and providing a warm responsive relationship. Practicing emotional literacy, that is, naming emotions in a calm manner, will teach children emotions do not require a drastic response. For example, ‘I am feeling really angry that I spilt my tea, I’m am going to take a few deep breaths and take a minute to calm before I clean it up’.

Exhibiting a big emotion does not mean a child is trying to annoy us, ruin our day, or upset us. The child is learning and these are opportunities for us to reframe how we are thinking – ‘This is a chance for me to teach my child how to cope with these big feelings’.

Popular emotion regulation strategies include sensory supports, calming techniques, and thinking strategies. Activities such as squeezing a fidget ball or silly putty, sitting with a weighted blanket, swinging on a swing, or jumping trampoline are all useful sensory supports. Calming techniques include progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), colouring, relaxing music, and breathing techniques. Thinking strategies help by learning about the body and what happens when we over react, considering the size of the problem versus size of the reaction, managing self-talk (inner coach vs inner critic) and using more flexible thinking. These strategies can be used to regulate various emotions and should be used in line with the child’s own preference.

Top Tips to help your Child Manage their Big Emotions

  1. The most important thing to remember when your child is experiencing a big emotion, is to stay calm. Use breathing techniques and take a brief moment to yourself, if it is safe to do so, before intervening with your child.
  2. Be empathetic – non-judgemental – what the child is feeling is very real for them! Acknowledging that the feeling they are having is fair and valid can help.
  3. Be with them in their feelings, get down to their level, make eye contact and listen.
  4. Step back and give child space if they need it (1 metre). Stay present, they may look for a hug or some affection.
  5. Reduce talking– avoid entering into an argument or negotiation. Until the body is regulated, the reasoning part of their brain is not working and it can be difficult for them to listen or have a conversation.
  6. A game that involves deep breaths can help bring your child back to calm– for example hot chocolate breathing (pretending to smell a cup of hot chocolate then blowing out to cool it down). Practice these breathing techniques when the child is regulated so that they know what to do when experiencing a big emotion.
  7. Always remember that every big feeling begins, has a peak and then comes to an end.

This article was contributed by the Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.