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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
For the past two and a half years we have become experts in allowing and even encouraging our daughter’s extreme outbursts of emotions. I write about these experiences here, here and here.
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)
i totally understand where you are coming from because I have a child like that however I never described her as emotional, because being emotional is being human, and despite my support of R.I.E. Parenting ideas and share the belief that children deserve our respect as children, I don’t entirely agree with your approach to your child’s outbursts.
Here is why….
I was like that/am like that, I feel things deeper and more intensely than most people that I know. Unfortunately for me my family made fun of me for this and caused me to be embarrassed about how I was feeling and I have learned through that to hide the intensity of my emotions. What I have learned recently as I watch my own children struggle with being so sensitive is that it hurts to be angry, physically, mentally and emotionally. It hurts a lot and although they should feel free to express their emotions letting them be violent about it, even by shouting and screaming in their rooms, I don’t think is right either, because being in that cyclone of fear, anger, and rage, hurts. And in my opinion allowing a child to do this will only make them think later on that there is something wrong with them because none of their friends have to do this, even their friends and other parents will start to pull away if they see this as a regular thing. By doing nothing to remove the triggers that you know cause her to feel this way, is to me the same as allowing her to put her hand in boiling water even though you know it’s going to hurt her, and trust me when I say that for her, it is the same thing.
What you are doing, from my perspective as someone who works with special needs children everyday, is not respectful to them at all. Being respectful is acknowledging their emotions and finding safe ways for them to express them, yes, but if the solution you find causes them more pain, how is that respectful or helping them.
Like I said, I don’t describe myself or my children as being emotional, I describe us as being Highly Sensitive, which means that we see everything, we feel everything, and we experience everything with a physical sensitivity that is much higher than everyone else. This is not a disorder, it is a normal temperament that is found in 20% of the animal population, including humans. If two deer reach a meadow, one will take a cursory glance around and go right in for the sweet grass, the other one will look around slowly, smell, listen, wait and watch first to make sure it is safe before venturing out, animal stats show that the one who is more sensitive has a better chance of surviving. This is the same in the human world, most children and adults have a ‘go for it’ mentality that allows them to jump in to a group or activity with little thought to the whole picture. A highly sensitive child or adult, like myself and my daughter, will sit back a bit, watch and see what’s going on, make sure it’s safe and then go check it out and in the end, we will have a much deeper and satisfying experience. We all have seen many children act like this in social situations.
Knowing that my child and myself are highly sensitive to our environment and the feelings of those around can also cause us to feel overwhelmed, especially children, because they are feeling, seeing, hearing, everything! And sometimes our minds can’t process it all, and that is when they have temper tantrums, emotional outbreaks, even depression.
I feel that you need to look at this from a different perspective and you will be helping your child to learn to deal with the overwhelming amount of information that her brain, in its undeveloped state, is trying to process, and as you said, is having trouble doing so because the connections aren’t there yet.
I very profoundly encourage you to read ‘The Highly Sensitive Child’, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., as this book, even though I am only half way through it, has helped me with myself and my daughter in amazing ways, and continues to help me when aiding the students I work with as well.
I hope you find my reply respectfully critical and that you are open to finding a better way of teaching your child how to make sense of the world around her and how she can find a place to fit in to it, without feeling out of control and overwhelmed.
Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I can see why you have such concerns and I am sorry you had a childhood where you were made to feel ashamed about your emotions.
“It hurts a lot and although they should feel free to express their emotions letting them be violent about it, even by shouting and screaming in their rooms, I don’t think is right either, because being in that cyclone of fear, anger, and rage, hurts.” I agree that it hurts. Emotions can indeed be painful which is why I am always there for my children with an open ear and heart when they need to express them. I want them to know that they are strong enough to cope with their feelings for one day, I won’t be there. They will be on their own and will still be faced with emotions. I do not believe I am making it more painful for them by simply allowing them to express in a safe space. I am not sure what you would have me do that would be more respectful? Stop their emotions by ??? distraction? deep breathing? I fear this would create more pain as they were forced to sit on their emotions and they would learn that I was not comfortable hearing them and they were not normal for having them.
I also have to disagree that children will be made to feel there is something wrong with them if they are encouraged to express emotions in this way. I believe the opposite to be true. If a child needs to express themselves fully but feel as though they can’t because they have not been supported to do so in the past then they will feel there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. At this young stage of their life, their parents are their world and they need to know that a parent not only accepts them for who they are but trusts them to be strong enough and capable enough to cope with the hurt their emotions bring. Protecting them from these emotions by removing all triggers (which, wouldn’t be possible anyway) implies there is something wrong with them being triggered in the first place which I don’t believe there is. It is an authentic reaction that will become less of an issue in due course as children develop the appropriate control mechanisms naturally as they grow.
I see now with my 4 year old that the number of things that trigger her are becoming less and although the intensity is always the same, the duration of the outburst is now significantly less than it was 2 years ago, 1 year ago and even 6 months ago.
She is maturing in her own time and like I said in the post she has lost none of the beautiful confidence she was born with and is very self-assured and full of life.
I was just like her when i was a child. I too was shamed and embarrassed about being sensitive (that was the word used to describe me when I got upset over ‘minor’ things) and very soon lost the self-assuredness and confidence I was born with. I can only imagine that if I was not made to feel self-conscious about my need to freely express my emotions, I might not have lived a life where I constantly question what I do and worry about what people think of me.
I am very familiar with Aron’s work and think it is wonderful. The thing is, my daughter is not sensitive by her definition which is why I chose not to use that word. She has certain elements of sensitivity but ultimately she is not one to sit back and watch. She often throws caution to the wind and dives in without a second thought. She does not have many of the sensitive qualities Aron highlights in her book but she does feel and express emotions deeply which is why I chose to focus on that in this post.
Thank you again, for bringing up these concerns.
I completely agree with how you are handling this situation. I myself am both Highly Sensitive & extremely emotional, and I think Heidi’s suggestions aren’t accurate for your child (or for myself). If my parents had allowed me to feel my feelings–especially anger–then I think I’d have been able to avoid the years of depression, self-abuse, eating disorders, and emotionally abusive relationships I found myself in because I didn’t have the coping skills to deal with my intense emotions (all I knew was that they were BAD & therefore I was BAD for having them).
I believe you’re doing the best possible thing for your daughter, and I commend you for the intense love and respect you show her by taking this path.
I fail to see how her solution causes her daughter more pain.
I agree that it is so important to allow and support emotions, and to try to teach ways of managing them. I like your example of talking through your own emotional responses. I do this in a more limited way, but think I will expand for imitation purposes.
ive read this twice now & love how you’ve written it. My son is sensitive and we’ve had plenty of struggles, I totally agree with what you’ve said. Weve always talked about feelings and how to express them, where I get stuck is observing and identifying triggers because we’re always busy and our mind is else where then boom tantrum outbreak.
I think now with little miss hitting the tantrum twos this has been a little remember to start doing some prep with her so she can learn to handle big emotions
Thank you, Nae. It can be really tough, identifying triggers. It took us years to start realising our daughter had definite triggers but once we realised what they were we found we have been able to help her immeasurably more.
Good luck with it all.
You write so thoughtfully Kate! Wonderful post. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is helping them to recognise, own and manage their own emotions xx
Thank you, Kate!
Yes, that is so true! xx
I loved this sentence:
“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.”
I have found this helpful info for my own little girl. Thank you!!!!
I apologize in advance if you have already considered this, but have you determined whether your daughter has any food and/or additive sensitivities? I only ask because my own son has similar tendencies which vary greatly according to certain food and additive triggers he has. I also don’t mean to deny that your daughter feels things strongly, I’m sure you know her best. I just mean to suggest that looking into this might be an additional suport strategy for you, and her.
Yes, we have considered this, thank you, Beth! We definitely find that she reacts more after eating sugary foods but we haven’t conducted an official investigation into food intolerances. It is definitely something we will be keeping our eye on though.
I was also ridiculed etc for being too sensitive as a child. I suffered depression and anxiety, and started cutting myself just to release the emotions, in my late teens- early 20s. I’m now in my mid 30s and am a single mother of a 3 year old “sensitive” daughter. Its tough to watch her go through the tantrums and not let them be a trigger for me (especially as it seems that I am her trigger and she’s always in a bad mood with me), but we are learning to cope together. Reading articles like this help me to make more effort in keeping focused on her and not let my emotions get away from me. So thank you… a note: I no longer cut, I now play mindnumbing computer games, watch tv or read when my emotions are too much to cope with…
It’s lovely to hear that you have found less destructive ways for coping with and managing your emotions. it sounds like you and your daughter are developing a wonderfully close relationship. She will thank you one day for being such a thoughtful, empathetic and understanding Mum. Well done!
Can you please tell me how old your daughter is? As I read this my heart broke as I realized that you are describing our daughter to a T. These tools are wonderful and can’t thank you enough for sharing what I know can be emotionally taxing. My Daughter is 7 so I’m scared
That some of these won’t work for her.
My daughter is 4. Are you new to peaceful/ mindful parenting? You might be surprised how much some of these ideas will help your 7 year old. She needs to know that her feelings are normal whilst being able to learn to express them in a safe way.
Thanks for responding Kate. Yes, I found you through Lemon Lime Adventures. Until recently we just thought she was a tough kid. She’s been like this since she was little…any resources you can share would be greatly appreciated. She is actually about to start counseling today.
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Thank you for this post and for your other amazing articles. I just stumbled across them after searching for how to help my 5 yr old with her rage when she doesn’t get her way or hears a respectful “no”. For 3 and a half years now, I have been devouring as much as I can about the Whole Brain Child methods and Positive Discipline but tonight I had a setback and likely shamed my daughter when she had her (probably) 20th outburst of the day.
She is very dramatic and throws herself down on the floor or bed and growls like a dinosaur and hits the pillows (which we have encouraged, as well as throwing balled up socks at the wall – my personal favorite anger outlet). Anyway, back to earlier tonight: I had basically hit my limit with the outbursts today and told her that her freaking out every time she doesn’t get her way is unacceptable. I angrily asked her how she could react differently in the future and I could see a switch went off in her eyes – she was hearing only that she is not ok as who she is, that her expression of her feelings is wrong, and that (in her mind) I don’t love her because she’s “bad”. I immediately knew I had put my own triggered child frustrations squarely on her shoulders and now I feel horrible for going to that place that was so automatic. This shit does not come easily to me and when I’m tired, sick of hearing the same frustration from my kid, and doing my best to hug, connect, soothe, set boundaries respectfully (to all parties) and give her that unconditional love, I realized no one is helping me fill my cup and my cup quickly became an empty vessel. I had nothing to give since I have not taken care of myself and retreated to the old tapes of “control”, “squash those tantrums” and “get her to react sanely”. She is not a failed attempt of being me. I have to remember that. She is allowed to have a different reaction than I would ever dream of having (ok, maybe I’ve dreamed of having it at work some mornings). She is allowed to freak out and find the solutions that work for her. She is allowed to be FIVE.
I am so grateful for this post and for other moms who know what it’s like to be walking the tightrope of their own history one one side and the parent we want to be on the other. Today, I slipped a bit and fell to the side I don’t prefer, but thankfully there is a net of other moms who have been there, done that and found more balance on the next try.
I lOVE this… “She is not a failed attempt of being me. I have to remember that. She is allowed to have a different reaction than I would ever dream of having (ok, maybe I’ve dreamed of having it at work some mornings). She is allowed to freak out and find the solutions that work for her. She is allowed to be FIVE”
You are doing an amazing job supporting your daughter, Charlotte! Slipping up once in a while will not damage her spirits nor your relationship with her. That rupture and repair is actually really important in strengthening your relationship as she sees you being vulnerable and then sees you being strong and making up for it both explicitly and through your future supportive interactions.
I know how hard it is to walk that parenting tightrope and to fall from one side to the other but the more you practise, the easier it becomes to stay on the side you want to be. Self-care also plays a pivotal part to this so I hope you can find some regular me time to schedule into your weeks.
All the best,
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Thank you so much for writing this, and your other posts about your daughter and her big emotions. I relate so much to what I’ve read here. I also have two daughters, a 5.75 year old with big, big emotions, and a 2.5 year old who often is the target of big sister’s outbursts. I also spend much of the day on high alert when both of them are awake.
I came across your work through Janet Lansbury’s site while trying to get centered and remember how I want to parent. My 5.75 year old has been going into her room (slamming doors along the way) and screaming loudly at the closed door. I can see where it comes from given all that is going on in the world, and her transition from preschool to kindergarten, and little sister getting bigger and more interactive. I would love to encourage her to scream into a pillow as your daughter does, instead, as the screaming is obviously very jarring for everyone else in our small house. But she has said in the past that when she’s angry, she wants people to hear it and know it, so she wants to be loud, she wants to hurt people’s ears. I can relate to that. I think it may be because she wants her feelings acknowledged and validated. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts or suggestions on helping her scream into a pillow instead of at the door?
Thank you again for these beautiful writings, they are so encouraging and helpful! It really helps to see that I am not alone in parenting a child with such high emotions.