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Supporting an emotional child and helping them learn to cope with their emotions is a complex task. It is important that in our efforts to provide children with skills and techniques to become more self-regulatory when they are feeling emotional, we do not inadvertently invalidate their emotions or cause our children to feel abnormal simply because they feel things more deeply than others.
My daughter, 4 years, has extreme emotions. These emotions are, at times, all-consuming. Like a powerful ocean wave that seems to knock her off her feet only to recede back into the deep blue like it had never been there in the first place. It is difficult to know why she is so sensitive to her emotions but we have learned not to see her expression of them as something to be feared.
Lucy was born this way, She has always been expressive of her feelings. It was amplified after the introduction of her younger sister when she was just 13 months old and why wouldn’t it? This was a huge upheaval in her life and one over which she had no control.
After a little over eighteen months of trying to redirect these emotions, distract her from them or punish them out of her (and getting nowhere), we discovered RIE parenting and Janet Lansbury’s inspirational work through her self named blog.
We learned that a child is not capable of the same emotional maturity we have as adults. Therefore, being emotionally mature is not something that we should try to force upon them. Children develop emotional regulation in their own time and at varying paces over the course of their childhood and even into their early adulthood. The emotional maturity they reach will be based on what they experience over that time.
You see, a child is born with a brain receptive to learning anything and everything it is exposed to. Yet, according to Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson in their book The Whole-Brain Child, a child’s brain is not fully integrated until much later in life. The wiring that needs to exist between certain regions of the brain to enable rational thought and emotional control is simply not fully connected.
To be more specific, their left-side, logical brain and their right-side, emotional brain are not entirely integrated with each other meaning they are not able to work consistently in unison. Similarly their downstairs, reptilian brain which acts instinctually and helps make split-second survival decisions is not fully connected with their upstairs, mammalian brain which lets them thoughtfully consider their actions.
So, when a child is acting irrationally, throwing a tantrum or simply expressing extreme, unadulterated emotion, her brain regions are struggling to work together in a balanced, harmonious way. They are dis-integrated.
Over the years we have done every thing we can to respect, trust and accept our daughter for who she is and are seeing many encouraging moments now as a result. The following five steps aim to guide you through the pathway we have taken alongside our daughter on her emotional journey so that you too may help support your child through their emotions.
Step 1: Accept Your Child’s Need to Express Emotions Freely
Her outbursts are loud, forceful and often accompanied by physical expressions including hitting, pushing or throwing as she fights to rid herself of the tension, stress, anger, frustration and despair that her little body had collected over a period of time.
Throughout these releases we ensure she and those around her are safe and supported as she is given the time and space she needs to work through the emotions.
We know this has absolutely been the most important gift we could have given our little girl. Always, her outbursts are followed by an amazing sense of serenity as her relief becomes tangible from across the room. The self-assuredness and confidence which now radiates from her is such a blessing.
We have found that buried beneath these bubbling emotions, is a sweet, kind, empathetic, selfless child, bursting to get free. Once free she is suddenly able to focus for longer periods of time on challenging tasks. She becomes responsive, helpful and extremely thoughtful to those around her. Her whole demeanour changes and we get a sense of how much her emotions impact upon her ability to function with clarity.
Stifling the expression of her emotions would only serve to keep her distracted by them and struggling to function optimally. We also wanted to show her that we trusted in the strength and capability she had to cope with the emotions and to recover herself to a calm state, with our support. The inner pain she feels during these moment makes her stronger and she is developing belief in her strength over time.
Step 2: Validate the Emotions and Articulate Them to Your Child
We would always take time afterwards (if not during) to articulate for her the emotions she was feeling. We let her know it was normal to feel the way she felt and that we love her no matter what. “It seems like you were feeling annoyed that you were not able to…. I feel that way too sometimes.”
Dr Siegel and Dr Payne-Bryson claim that children with parents who speak with them about their feelings develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other’s feelings more fully.
According to these authors, over the course of their childhood, the connections between the brain regions in our children will be wired and rewired based on their experiences in life – the music they hear, the people they love, the books they read, the kinds of discipline they receive and the emotions they feel.
By validating and accepting her emotions we know that when the time comes for our daughter to be ready to start controlling her outbursts, she will be doing so because it is the best thing for her and not because she feels we can’t handle her emotions or that she is displeasing us in some way.
Step 3: Observe Your Child Daily and Identify triggers
We have had plenty of time over the years to recognise what triggers our daughter’s extreme emotional responses. This has helped us, and consequently her, immensely. When we recognise her being triggered we can bring it to her attention, acknowledge that this particular scenario is making her upset and then provide her with an outlet to vent should she need it.
“It seems like xyz is bothering you at the moment. Do you need to take a break?”
We don’t try to avoid the triggers, because this would mean we don’t see her as capable of handling her own emotions and also imply that we don’t fully accept them.
To help facilitate this, when we have the opportunity to connect after an outburst, we use the time to talk to her about the situation that made her upset, her trigger, and discuss the things she could do if she is faced with a similar situation in the future.
Step 4: Talk to Your Children About the Types of Strategies you use When you are Feeling Emotional
There will always times in our lives when our own emotions feel like they are going to get the better of us. Most of us have a repertoire of techniques we can use to keep these emotions in check until we are in a place where we can safely express them or until the wave has passed.
Ideas such as:
- Taking deep breaths
- Talking to someone about how you are feeling
- Listening to music
- Finding a quiet place to just be by yourself
- Cuddling something soft
- Punching a pillow
- Shouting into a pillow
When I am finding myself getting frustrated (about something not to do with the children) I take the opportunity to model the ways I regulate my emotions. I verbalise this to the children. “The driver in front of me is driving very slowly. Because I am late, I am getting a little anxious. I know there is nothing I can do so I am going to take some deep breaths and make myself stay calm and patient. Who wants to take some deep breaths with me? We then do it together. Then I might say “Thank you for listening to me and understanding. I find it really helps me stay calm when I talk about how I am feeling.”
Taking these opportunities whenever we can is invaluable as our children learn far more from watching us than they do from what we tell them.
Step 5: Encourage the Expression of Emotion Through the use of a Safe Space
A while ago, we set up our daughter’s room to be her sanctuary. A place where she would want to go if things were getting overwhelming and she needed some space.
We have always let her know that if she needs to let out her feelings she is welcome to use her room whenever she likes. She can shout, yell, scream and do whatever she needs to do to release her pent up feelings. She has a special pillow she uses to either throw, punch or squeeze tightly.
Recently, she has begun taking some small steps towards controlling her emotions independently of us. She has begun recognising her triggers and articulating them to us. Instead of becoming reactive and acting impulsively, she has begun to say things like:
“Mum, I really feel like screaming loudly at someone right now!” or “Mum, I think I am going to hurt P (her younger sister)!”
We are able to show her understanding, empathise with how she is feeling and then invite her to go to the safety of her room with her ‘snuggly’ pillow and scream as much as she needs to or hit, punch, kick or bite her pillow until that wave has passed and she is free of its burden.
She usually takes up the offer, always slamming her bedroom door on the way in (satisfying that need to be physical) and then screaming long and loud into her pillow. Shortly after, she returns and resumes play as though nothing were awry.
There are still many times daily when these emotions go unchecked and unregulated. But like I said earlier, the road to emotional maturity is a long and winding one. All we can do is continue to see these emotional expressions as healthy and normal and help support our daughter whilst her brain works to become fully integrated and she can begin to wrangle them on her own.
You may also like reading:
The Most Important Thing to Know About Your Child’s Aggression ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare)
Five Steps to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child ~ Dr Laura Markham (Aha Parenting)
The Emotional Life of the Toddler Alicia F. Lieberman (Affliliate Link)
Unconditional Parenting Alfie Kohn (Affiliate Link)