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Take a moment and reflect: what is our first response when our child has an angry emotional outburst? Is it to stop the behavior? Or is it to understand what’s behind the anger, help them understand what’s behind the anger, and how to manage it?
In a recent article in the Boston Globe Magazine, educator and parent Deborah Kris wrote about the importance of listening to our kids’ emotional language. This means hearing what is shown through their behavior, instead of just managing the way their emotions are expressed in action.
What if we practiced stepping toward our kids rather than sending them away until they’ve pulled themselves together?"
-Deborah Kris, Boston Globe Magazine
When we see a child in distress, we are tempted to “fix” their behavior (and feelings) to make it better or make it just go away. After all, it’s what most of us experienced as children, ourselves. And if we’re anxious and uncomfortable with our own anger and sadness, it’s going to be hard to help with our kids’ heightened emotions.
Too often our goal might be eliminating the behavior and feelings, instead of turning toward them with understanding and support, and really listening to the distress being shouted out in their behavior.
The hardest challenge for most parents — particularly if we’re a bit uncomfortable with expressing our own emotions — is to be with our kids when they are experiencing a challenging emotion.
Their experience of being out of control, of not being in charge of their emotions, feels like an extension of us—something influenced by us, something that reflects upon us, something we aren’t in control of, either. What then gets activated is the desire to fix it — and fix it is a euphemism for get rid of it.
However, getting rid of their behaviors does not help a child learn how to express and regulate their emotions in a healthy manner when a similar feeling occurs in the future. They need guidance on what they can do.
We’ve all experienced the sense of dissatisfaction of turning to a family member, colleague, or friend for support and understanding, and instead, find them automatically offering solutions. Essentially making it go away when half of our problem is wanting to be heard and understood.
The person wanting to help often leaves you feeling misunderstood.
This is why the reaction you see in your child when you try to respond with reasonable solutions is anger and frustration. Your heart is in the right place. But the real solution is not having someone step in with the fix. It’s having someone step in listen with support, to empathize.
Once you know they get how you’re feeling, then it feels right to have them work with you to figure out what’s needed.
I want my kids and students to learn that there is no such thing as a good or bad emotion — that there is no shame in anger or fear. But that can only happen if I’m willing to make room for their distress. And in doing so, I have to fight the instinct to “fix the feeling” for them by jumping in with advice or distractions." -Debra Kris
The message that all feelings are okay is one of the most challenging messages to follow through with — because we often feel our own feelings aren’t quite okay, and we work hard to squelch them. Which is not the message we want to pass along to our children. Children after all are emotional detectives, they pick up on our emotional cues and reactions.
The better message is to show honesty with your emotions and let our kids know that all emotions are ok, it is what we do with those emotions that matter. It is important to be aware of and understand your emotions, and how best to manage them, because only then can you be ready for the fix. And remember — being ok with the feelings doesn’t mean being okay with the behavior.
Children need guidance on how to appropriately express their emotions, and how to regulate their emotions and calm down. When we send them to time out, they are left to try to figure this out on their own without feedback or instruction, which often leads to them shutting down in order to cope.
Rather than leaving children without the tools on how to deal with their emotions, a better option is to stay with the child, and talk them through their emotions, and work together to calm down through co-regulation. This can involve strategies such as deep breathing, counting, or using a regulation tool like a calm down bottle.
After the child calms down, be sure to talk to the child, and make a plan for what to do the next time strong feelings may arise. Help them recognize what they look like, and how they feel when they have strong feelings, such as a hot, red face, or stomping feet, or clenched fists. Help them recognize what behaviors are not okay in these instances, and what behaviors are better. Maybe instead of yelling, they can try to calm down and then use a calm voice. Maybe instead of throwing things, o hitting people, they can squeeze a stuffy, or punch a pillow.
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