Life with a small human can be hilarious, wonderful, ridiculous and unpredictable. And wild – so wild. All kids are capable of ‘bewildering’ behaviours that can bring the strongest of us to our knees. These behaviours can take different forms. There are the ones that can be seen through the eye of a needle from a solar system away, no trouble at all – meltdowns, outbursts and tantrums, hitting, screaming. Then there are the ones that are a little harder to spot, but which light up our radar all the same – the worries that spin out of control, the sadness or withdrawal that lasts a little longer than it should, the tendency to bottle up feelings.
None of us were born knowing how to control big emotions and our children will take a while to learn. This is okay – time is something they have plenty of. In the meantime, the job for us as the adults in their lives who care about them, is to nurture their ability to manage their emotional responses in healthy, adaptive ways.
Of course, it would be a lovely thing if the small humans in our lives were born knowing how to stay calm, or with the capacity to respond to disappointments with the adorability of a sleepy kitten, but that’s just not how it was meant to be. Young children don’t have the words to describe what they want, or to explain how they feel. The sheer frustration of this can make them vulnerable to being barreled by the big feelings that can overwhelm any of us from time to time.
So when you say ‘self-regulation’ …
Self-regulation is being able to manage feelings so they don’t intrude heavily on relationships or day-to-day life. This might involve being able to resist ‘losing it’ in upsetting or frustrating situations, or being able to calm down when big feelings start to take over.
Self-regulation is NOT about ‘not feeling’. Locking feelings away can cause as much trouble as any outburst. There is nothing wrong with having big feelings. All feelings are valid and it’s okay for kids to feel whatever they feel. What’s important is how those feelings are managed. The key is to nurture children towards being able to acknowledge and express what they’re feeling, without causing breakage to themselves, their friendships or other people.
Why is self-regulation important?
When children are able to regulate their emotional responses, they become less vulnerable to the ongoing impact of stress. They are also more likely to have the emotional resources to maintain healthy friendships, and the capacity to focus and learn. Research has found that the ability to self-regulate is a strong predictor of academic success.
Outbursts? Or opportunities.
Every outburst is an opportunity to steer them in a different direction and to strengthen the skills they need to name and manage their emotions in a way that works for them, without the seismic fallout that can happen when kids are unable to regulate their emotions.
High emotion and tantrums are NOT a sign of bad parenting or bad kids. They are never that. Taking tantrums or wild behaviour personally can make it more difficult to use them as an opportunity to nurture valuable skills in your child. It can be easy to feel judged when our kiddos choose the top of the escalator on a busy Saturday morning to throw themselves on the ground because you peeled their banana all the way to the bottom and nothing – nothing – can ever be the same again, but you are raising humans, and it’s hard and it’s important and the path is a crooked one with plenty of uphills, downhills, and hairpin curves. Some people will never understand. Let that be their problem, not yours.
My child does body throw-downs like they invented the move. When is the lack of self-regulation a problem?
All kids are different, and they will develop according to their own schedules. As anyone who has small humans in their lives will know, there are some things they just won’t be hurried on – breakfast when you’re in a hurry, stories at bedtime, and of course, the potentially life-altering decision of what to have on their toast. And self-regulation – they won’t be hurried on that either. All good things take time, and when you’re trying to master an art, patience is required from your entire support crew.
By school age, most kids tend to have the foundations for self-regulation. This doesn’t mean they’ll get it right all the time – they won’t. What it means is that by about age five, most kids tend to be fairly able to regulate their emotions most of the time. By this age, they can generally wait a short while for something they want, take turns, focus on what’s being said to them, and they are less likely to bring out their wild side when things don’t go their way.
Not all kids will grow out of difficult emotional behaviour by school. Sometimes, difficulties with self-regulation are just a matter of emotional immaturity. Sometimes, it can be a sign that there might be an underlying issue. Some of the common ones are ADHD (difficulty focusing and frustration with not being able to complete certain tasks can lead to high emotion), anxiety (tantrums or aggressive behaviour can be driven by anxiety – it’s the fight part of the fight or flight response), or learning difficulties (again, driven by frustration).
Of course, just because your child might be struggling with self-regulation, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is an underlying issue. It’s just something to keep in mind if there is a constant struggle with self-regulation that doesn’t seem to show much improvement by school age. Remember though, all children will develop at a different pace, and all will struggle with self-regulation until they strengthen the skills. Regardless of age or stage of development though, opportunities to strengthen the capacity for self-regulation is something that all children and teens will benefit hugely from.
How does self-regulation develop?
Gradually. And with plenty of support from a very dedicated and wonderful crew – modeling, coaching, and responding in a way that makes it safe for kids to explore and experiment with their own responses.
The part of the brain that is heavily involved in regulating big emotions and considering consequences – the pre-frontal cortex – won’t be fully developed until sometime in the early 20s. Until then, the brain is wide open and hungry for experiences that will strengthen it in a way that will support them as healthy, strong adults.
We can see signs of emotional regulation in babies, such as when the soothe themselves by sucking their thumb. By about age two, most toddlers are able to wait a little while for something they want, or listen when they are being spoken to. As children grow and experiment more with self-regulation, they will be more able to widen the gap between a feeling and response.
My teen is moody and explosive. What’s going on?
By adolescence, you might notice that your teens are having more difficulty than ever with self-regulation. This is a very normal part of adolescence. During adolescence, the teen brain is powered up with about a billion new neurons. This is to give them the brain power they need for the developmental mountain climbing they’ll do during adolescence – new skills, new experiences, new relationships, new milestones. With so many new brain cells looking to strengthen and connect, things can get a bit hectic up there, which can drive behaviour that is far from adorable. They probably wish it could be different too. Remind yourself that they are being driven by a brain under construction and gently hold the boundaries. (And I know this isn’t always easy!) And then write this on your mirror where you’ll see it every day or whenever you retreat to the bathroom for a deep breath or a chardonnay: ‘It’s a stage. It will end.’ Like all stages, when they have done the important developmental work they need to do, they’ll come back stronger, wiser, more wonderful and more capable than before. For more information on teenage flare-ups and how to deal with them, see here.
What can I do to help my child learn how to self-regulate?
Explain where their big emotions come from.
When high emotion drives difficult behaviour, it’s a sign that the distance between the stimulus – whatever has upset them – and their response is short and fairly automatic. When kids are in high emotion, they are being driven by the part of their brain that acts on impulse. The problem is that this all happens so quickly, the thinking part of the brain doesn’t have time to engage and steer them towards a healthier response. They key is helping them extend that distance so they are less likely to act on impulse, and more likely to let the thinking part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) get involved. Kids do great things with the right information. Talk to them in the language they will understand. Nobody knows your child better than you, so adjust the language to suit. Here is an idea of the way it could go:
‘Feelings are important and it’s always okay for them to be there, but when feelings get too big, they can make the thinking, calming part of your brain take a little break until the big feelings are gone. That’s not good for anyone. This is when you can end up making silly decisions or doing things that land you in trouble. Your brain is strong, healthy and magnificent, but it’s important to learn how to be the boss of it, even when you have big feelings. To do this, you need to strengthen the thinking part of your brain at the front of your head. It does a fabulous job when it’s on, but we need to make it stronger so it stays in charge even when the big feelings come. This will take a little practice but for sure you can do it. You’re pretty amazing like that.
So how can you be the boss of your brain when big feelings take over? One of the most powerful ways is to breathe strong, deep breaths. Remember how big feelings can get a little bossy and tell the thinking, calming part of the brain that it’s not needed? Well thankfully, strong deep breathing relaxes your brain enough, so the thinking part can do the magical things it does – calm down your big feelings and help you to make sensible decisions. There’s a teeny problem though – it’s too hard to do new things when you’re really upset, so the way around this is to practice when you’re calm. The more you practice strong deep breathing when you’re calm, the easier it will be to do when you’re feeling upset. And the more you remember to do it when you’re upset, the stronger your brain will be.
Here are some fun ways to practice. You can do them anywhere – in the car, in the bath, while you’re kissing the cute face in the mirror, while you’re pretending to be a rock star – anywhere, anytime …
Hot Cocoa Breathing
Pretend that you have your hands wrapped around a mug of hot cocoa. Breathe in through your nose for three seconds, as though you’re smelling the deeeelicious chocolatey smell. Then breathing out through your mouth for three seconds, as though you are blowing it cool. Keep doing this four or five times, until you start to feel yourself relax.
Figure 8 Breathing
Using your finger, imagine that you are writing the figure ‘8’. You can do it anywhere you like – on your arm, your leg, your tummy, a soft toy gorilla – anywhere. As you draw the top of the 8, breathe in for three. When you get to the middle, hold for one. Then, as you trace the bottom part, breathe out for three. Let it be a really smooth, relaxing movement, and repeat it a few times. Ahhhh … bliss.
And now to strengthen their brain … Mindfulness.
The research on benefits of mindfulness could fill a small city. Mindfulness works by changing the structure and the function of the brain. First, it strengthens the part of the brain that drives high emotion, so that reacts less automatically or impulsively. Second, it strengthens the pre-frontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain that is able to weigh in and calm big emotions and consider consequences. Finally, it strengthens the connections between the two, meaning that in times of high emotion, the pre-frontal cortex will be quicker and more able to work with the emotion centres of the brain to find calm.
Now, about expectations …
It’s critical not to expect more of children than they are capable of, given their stage of development. Young children just don’t have the capacity to be calm and reasonable all the time. Punishing them for a lack of self-regulation is like punishing them for not being able to fly. It won’t help anything and will run the risk that shame will get in the way of them feeling safe enough to explore a different way to respond. Ideally, it’s best for them to learn the best way to respond by figuring out for themselves the best way to be. Doing something because they know it’s the right thing to do, will be a more enduring and more powerful response than anything that is driven by a fear of the consequences.
But don’t let them outsource the job.
It can be so tempting to smooth the rough edges for them when they have an outburst, but this won’t be doing them any favours. In fact, it will rob them of the opportunity to learn a valuable skill – how to manage their emotions themselves. When we move in too quickly to soothe it or ‘fix it’, we’re not giving them the space and opportunity they need to learn how to self-soothe. This doesn’t mean we leave them to it. What it means is not rushing in too quickly or working too hard to calm them when they get upset and behave poorly.
Let them ‘borrow’ your prefrontal cortex.
When things get wild, try to dampen things down with some pre-frontal cortex sensibility and calm. (The pre-frontal cortex is the calming, thinking part of the brain.) For young children, the pre-frontal part of the brain is still developing, which is one of the reasons it can be sent so easily offline when they are in high emotion. What you can do, is loan them yours. The way to do this is to stay calm, be a strong, supportive presence, and wait for them to catch up. Continue to have boundaries, but before you talk about a better way to do things, lead them gently out of the chaos and into a space that’s calm and settle.
Shift the focus.
There’s so much for our kiddos to learn, and they will all have their strengths and the things they need a little more coaching on. If your little person needs a hand learning how to regulate their emotions, think of this as just another skill that needs nurturing, rather than ‘bad behaviour’. Shifting the focus from ‘a bad behaviour that needs changing’ to ‘a skill that needs strengthening’ is more empowering for you and your child. It takes the shame away and makes it easier for your child to hear the important learnings you need them to know. It will set the scene for you to work on this more as a ‘team’ and less ‘you vs them’.
Provide a ‘scaffold’ between the behaviour that is and the behaviour you want.
The idea of a scaffold is to provide a bridge between what they know and are capable of, and the skills they need to learn. Give your child just enough to move them forward. Let’s say there is a clashing of minds between your child and a friend over – who’s going to be the policeman and who is going to be the baddie. Your child is getting upset because he has to be the baddie ALL THE TIME because the other child, ‘steals the police costume ALL THE TIME because she thinks she is the boss of the police costume, and I never get to be the police so I always have to be the baddie and that’s not fair because she thinks that the police are allowed to use the yellow cup but the yellow cup is MINE!’ Sounds reasonable.
In this situation, scaffolding might involve coaching the children on the words to use, as opposed to resolving the situation for them. This might not always go in a smooth steady line, but when you’re four and there’s a police costume on the line, it’s not just about who gets to wear the good gear, it’s about power, voice, feeling heard, fairness and feeling validated. If coaching on the conversation doesn’t lead to an outcome that both people are okay with, scaffolding might involve making suggestions, such as taking turns, or playing something else. The idea is that next time a conflict arises, the child can be encouraged to remember the things they tried last time. ‘Do you remember when you had the argument about the policeman’s costume? What were some of the things you did to work through that?’.
Expose them gently to manageable amounts of stress.
Gently expose them to situations that call on their need for self-regulation. The brain builds by experience, and the more experiences they have, the stronger they will be.
Teach them to ‘step back’.
This is a valuable skill for all kids and teens. Stepping back puts distance between them and their behaviour, enough to let the see the bigger picture, or parts of the picture that might be out of their close-up view. When there has been an incident of high emotion, and they are on their way to finding calm, ask them to imagine stepping back and watching what happened as though it was a movie. ‘If someone was doing what you were doing, what would you think of them.’ ‘What do you think they are feeling/thinking/needing?’ ‘What would you want to say to them?’This is a great skill that will build empathy and strengthen that part of the brain that can look logically and rationally at a situation. Don’t worry if they don’t get it straight away, or if they need a little coaching. The more opportunities they have to ‘switch it on’, the more likely it is that they will be able to do this themselves eventually.
Provide the opportunity and support for self-reflection.
Self-reflection is a skill that many adults haven’t yet mastered, but it’s such an important one. When children can explore their behaviour and their feelings in a safe, non-judgemental environment, they are going to find their own answers and wisdom. There are no lessons or learnings that are more meaningful than the ones we find ourselves. To nurture their capacity for self-reflection, calmly and gently, in a non-judgemental, non-critical way, help them to explore their experience. Encourage them to get a sense of what happened when things got out of control. At what point did things start feeling bad? What happened? What happened in their body? How can next time be different?
Accept where they are, but that’s not the ending.
This involves two things that seem to be opposed – acceptance on the one hand, and pushing for change on the other. When they are used together, they can be more powerful than each on its own. To do this, acknowledge that your child is doing his or her their best, ‘I know that you’re doing the best you can right now, and I also know that you can do better.’ The acceptance that comes with this provides a safe, non-judgemental space to experiment with a new way to be. The idea is to teach them the skills they need, while at the same time holding them strong with a gentle, loving acceptance and a belief in what they are capable of. This focuses on the strengths and the opportunity, not the deficiency.
And finally …
Although some kids naturally have a more even temper, all kids will need a hand to build strong self-regulation skills. Nobody was born with these already established, and all kids will take time to build them up. Remember though, all kids are different. What they lack on one front, they’ll make up for in another. Being able to regulate their feelings and behaviour, self-soothe, and stop very valid feelings spinning out of control are big jobs for all kids, but important ones for them to learn.
You might also like …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.
How would you recommend assisting a 9 year old boy whom I believe is prepubescent cope with his feelings of not being good enough. His negativity is so strong right now. He believes nothing is good enough, people are picking on him (parents, siblings, peers), etc.
Thank you for this article! I have a 6 year old who is very affectionate, compassionate and smart. He started the first grade last September and started having angry tantrums at school. He has always been very jealous of his younger brother, and we have sort of worked towards the conclusion that he is really unhappy not being the center of attention.
Since the early months of school we have been able to get him to have these tantrums less frequently, but they still occur. He seems to have an anger scale of 0 or 10 with nothing in between.
To give an example, last week his teacher told him he couldn’t have a bouncy ball in class (which he knows as it is an established rule), and she told him to put it in his backpack. When he continued to play with the ball, the teacher told him that she would take it away, so my sun threw papers on the ground and made a gesture as if he was going to kick her (thankfully he had enough self control to not actually make physical contact!)
Often if kids at recess aren’t playing the way he wants to, like they don’t let him control the game, or he doesn’t like the rules they are using, he will walk off and play alone. This seems like self regulation but I worry that he is isolating himself and not learning compromise and middle ground.
Could you please reference some further reading that you think might help me better understand how to help him navigate these emotions, and where they might be coming from?
Thank you again for the great article!
Thanks so much for this valuable article. I’d like to share it on email with my cohort, how can I do that?
Thanks Mary. If you copy the link and paste it into your email, it will direct your cohort to the page.
Great article, Karen. There’s so much to like about it. I particularly focused on the 2 breathing techniques regarding hot chocolate and the figure 8.
I will be sharing this fine article on my social media sites.
Thanks Jean Tracy
I am a mother to a 5 year old. I struggle with serious and persistent mental illness myself and emotion regulation is a serious battle for me often. I have heard him say things like “why cant I act like that if you do” etc. It is difficult to explain. But I am trying my best to model appropriate actions to big emotions. I often used to find myself pushing through my emotional pain to keep him entertained. Even though I was suffering I kept playing with him or doing whatever needed to be done. Now I am learning that it is OK for me to say “Mommy needs a break so I can feel ok” so that I can sit in silence to breath or do some sensory deprivation which can be helpful to me. Im trying to allow him time to use imaginary play while I decompress while also letting him see that it is ok to take some time for yourself. We also listen to the Bedtime FM “Peace Out” Childrens guided meditations podcast nearly every day. It is my favorite guided meditation ever, even as an adult, because my inner child is a very real part of me and this podcast is so helpful for me as well. We are learning and growing together and I am so blessed with my boys presence.
Thank you for sharing this information. I often wonder how my life could have been different had I learned effective coping mechanisms as a child.
What about a 5 year old child who is quite sensitive, but *hates* feeling out of control, and redirects any feeling like fear, anxiety, or sadness into anger? He would rather be angry than cry. For instance, when he watches a new movie or reads a new book, and the main character (who isn’t a strong hero kind of character, maybe just a regular kid or a small animal) gets into a scary or sad situation, he will leap off the couch and yell at me that the book needs to stop, the movie needs to be turned off; that he hates it and hates me for reading it to him.
He attacks me with his fists and his words when he is emotionally upset. No matter how I try to reassure him that it all turns out all right in the end and I will hug him through it.
Or if he is upset about a real life situation (like having to go home from a friend’s house, or being scared of a new environment) and I ask him to use his words to talk it out, he would rather lash out in anger and bury the sad or anxious feeling instead of feeling it. We have him go to his room and practice taking deep breaths until he is calm (he decides when he is OK to come out again). Because if we stay with him and try to help him through his big emotions, it escalates into a tantrum.
We tell him it is OK to be angry, or sad, or upset, but it isn’t OK to hurt other people with his body or his words.
I am just worried about him burying his emotions like that. I want him to know it is OK to cry and be sad, and that I won’t judge him for it. But he would rather redirect it into anger.
Here is an article that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/.
I’m so pleased I found your article. Thank you so much.
I grew up in an emotionally abusive home, not that I knew this at the time, I was constantly gaslighted and used and it’s left me a bag of nerves, became agoraphobic at 21 (now 40) thankfully got into therapy at about 30 which changed my life, managed to do no contact with the parents through that, met a wonderful man and dispite my biggest fear of passing on all my fears to a child, had a gorgeous baby boy who is now 5 and we are expecting a little girl in May. My little boy is having some issues. I can’t tell if it’s my standard overthinking or wherther I should be as frightened as I feel for the signs of anxiety that he is showing.
He is bright, happy, thriving, outgoing, cheeky and super caring. He is literally over the moon that he has a little sister coming- we have had 5 miscarriages since he was born and although he didn’t know when we were going through them, he now knows that they happened.
He seems to have picked up my ways of being a worrier..has a big sense of right and wrong and can often sound like a little health and safety officer! The bit that’s got my fear rolling again is that he’s experiencing what I can’t decide whether to name panic attacks (the dreaded words that stole so much of my life and although I have more or less beaten them I still practice some avoidance.. planes, lifts… big crowds) or separation anxiety.
He adores staying at his nannys but, and he’s very good at explaining, out of the blue one day he got ‘that horrible feeling’ his heart pounds, while he was there and had to come home.. that happened the next two times too.. so he said he didn’t want to go back and only felt better when he got home. He got it when he thought he lost me in a shop for a second too.. and when I was a couple of minutes late collecting him from swimming.
He’s happy at school and loves other parents picking him up for play dates etc.
Last night after dinner at his nannys he wanted to try to stay! He had a couple of false starts at the door when we were leaving (oh mummy that feeling!)
I told him, I know that feeling and it’s horrid isn’t it! But it is only a feeling and feelings can’t hurt us! Why you feel that Boom Boom! Of your heart .. that is your mummy saying I love you love you love you!! This made his smile. I promised him if he gets that feeling he can call me and I’ll come and get him. Anyway he has stayed all night and had a ball and I’m going to collect him in a minute.. and I’m so proud of him faving his fear like that I could burst!
Do you think I’m doing things right? Is there anything else I can do?
My worst fear is that he would be like me and live in fear.
Thank you for reading!! Sorry it’s so long
Pru you are doing everything right! What a beautiful way to explain his racing heartbeat. It is the physical feelings that come with anxiety or panic that can feel so scary – for kids and adults. It’s great that he is able to tell you what he is feeling. Here is an article that might help. It explains where anxiety comes from and helps to normalise it for them. It can be really empowering for kids to understand this, because it stops it feeling so scary. Here is the link https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Here is another article about what to do when he is feeling anxious, and to help your own feelings of anxiety or worry from getting in the way https://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/. And finally, some things he needs to know to realise the many wonderful strengths that are in him https://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/. I hope these help. Keep doing what you’re doing though – you sound as though you’re doing a wonderful job.
Hello. Thank you for the very informative article. I will definitely put it to use. I have an 8 year old son who witnessed the accidental death of his Father (his hero) at the age of 5yr 10mnths he was in Grade R at the time and living with his Father. He was forced to go through big changes in a short time as he had to come back to live with me his Mom, change schools and also deal with the memorial, the funeral and going for counseling. He received counseling for 6 months after which they told me he was healed. He was behind in Grade R n refused to work many days n broke down a lot yet they told me he was ready for Grade 1. Grade 1 did not go well at all n his teacher as well as the principal of the school were not understanding at all n in the end made matters much worse. In the end I took matters into my own hands n took him to an educational psychologist who found that he had shut off totally around his Father’s death n wasn’t keeping any information in. He couldn’t even remember what happened the day before. I then put him in a remedial school where he receives therapy once a week. He repeated Grade 1 this year and although we had many break down and total melt downs he is through to Grade 2. The problem is still his attitude towards work and also his motivation, I think the first year of Grade 1 in the first school did more damage than we all realized. He is such a bright happy boy most of the time and I really need help to help him. Can you please help?
Bronwyn your little man has been through so much, and it will take time for him to make sense of what has happened in a way that can feel okay for him. Does he talk very much about his father or any memories he has? Does he want to talk about it? Or has it been shut off? Don’t push him to speak if he doesn’t want to, but try to give him space to talk about it so he feels it’s okay to talk about his dad or the things they did together. (Maybe a photo of his dad if he’s open to this and if there isn’t one already so that he can feel that you’re okay with him talking about it?) If painful thoughts or memories come to him when he opens his mind a little, it makes sense that he would shut off all information. It sounds like it would be really important for him to speak to a counsellor who specialises with children and grief. A counsellor will help him to process the memories he has in a way that feels safe for him, so he doesn’t have to shut everything down. It’s important that this is done with someone experienced, as you don’t want to retraumatise him by having him talk about things before he is ready. Those early years are so important at school, but with the right support he can certainly catch up. To find the right support, there should be a professional body of psychologists or counsellors in your country. Speak to them, and they should be able to guide you to someone in your area. I hope this helps. Your son has been through a traumatic experience, but with time and support, he’ll get there.
Dear Karen, Superb article! I will pass it on? And what a great job you do here! I must dig myself into your earlier articles! My question is how do you make the distinguishment between letting a tantrum off load – by that I mean you as a parent staylisten patiently with warmth to the hard feelings and healing tears- to cleanse the limbic system and when it is the opportunity to wire the prefrontal cortex? Such a delicate line. If I redirect the thoughts when they are about to burst out we might end up repressing the feelings but if we only staylisten wireing is still needed when the prefrontal cortex is switched on/connected again. What are your thoughts on that? I would love to hear them! Warmly, Franciska
Thanks Franciska! Yes it can be a delicate line, but the main thing to remember is that when they are emotional, they’re just not able to take in the information they need for growth and learning. The best time to move in with explanations or teaching is when they are calm and when they feel reconnected to you. Rather than redirecting thoughts when you get a sense they are emotional, try hearing their thoughts so they can feel heard and validated. This will help to calm them and take away their need to defend their position, which can sometimes make them even more emotional. We can all be a bit like that. Once they are calm, that is the time to redirect. This can take time – if they feel strongly about something, they won’t necessarily change their mind by speaking it. When we validate their thoughts (I understand why you feel like that/ I can see how upset/angry/sad you are), it starts to open the way for them to feel safe enough to explore those thoughts and the consequences of what they do with them. It’s always okay for thoughts and feelings to be there – it’s what we do with them that matters. It’s time and patience, and feeling okay when things don’t quite go to plan. It’s all part of the adventure!
I grew up in a family that suppressed negative emotions. For example, I might have said to my mother ‘I feel sad or scared’ and she would encourage me to be happy and think of nice things – we never talked about being sad or scared and I learned not to express it. I’m sure she thought she was doing good but I feel as though as an adult I have difficulty not only expressing but also experiencing strong emotions – good or bad. Lots of emotions are towering and seem to engulf me – they can be difficult to handle and cause me anxiety – even lovely ones that I want more of like the love I feel for my spouse. Any insight on this and how I could tackle it, it does interfere with my life and relationships.
The techniques in this article would also work for you. Try getting into a regular mindfulness practice. Try for at least 10 minutes a day and if you can do two 10 minute sessions, that would really help to strengthen you. Try the Smiling Mind app, or here is an article about the most basic way to practice mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-what-how-why/. This will help you to start to recognise what you are feeling or thinking in a way that feels safe for you. In relation to expressing your emotions, try for baby steps – a little at a time. If you want to express love, start slowly, with with people you trust. To start to experience positive feelings more, here is an article that will help with that https://www.heysigmund.com/hardwiring-for-happiness-how-we-can-change-our-brain-mind-personality/. As with anything, learning how to safely express and feel big feelings takes time. Be patient and be gentle with yourself and start trying a couple of these strategies regularly. It is never too late to learn how to do the things that are good for us.
I will work on it gently. Thank you Karen, this is important work you are doing.
Karen, I really appreciate your article. I teach sixth grade, a year when many children experience the challenges discussed here. Where I work now struggles between meting out various “behavioural” consequences for these difficulties and using something like the approach you have articulated so well above. My experience of trying to get from the one to the other is like someone blindfolded in a maze alone. I thank goodness that I keep trying, and I keep trying. Reading your article helps to sustain me and calm down once again. I am grateful for that.
I am missing one idea. A key understanding for me is that children first learn to sooth themselves as an infant and a toddler from the ways that adults sooth them through their daily experiences. I work with a population whose parents and grandparents went through experiences in their childhoods where they could not receive that very comfort and soothing they needed daily to deal with the all to normal ups and downs of their lives then. Some parents held onto these skills for soothing the young. Others are taking steps to relearn them. However, the loss of these experiences at such a young age is clear to me in the behaviour of some of my students. Blame is a useless avoidance. Compassion helps me to stay with a fellow human and not desert them in their moment of human need. It is a tall order and I am not that good at it. As I wrote above, I’m the blind man, alone in maze, trying to find my way out, step by step.
My effort is to find a way to support students who show these (I’ll learned to call them) “developmental delays.” Yet my experience tells me that the challenge of just establishing a rapport with a student, in order to begin this process, is challenge. Not impossible, however it demands patience. I must use the very self soothing that the student needs to learn, to move us along successfully. In that way, I model the very skills that I am encouraging the student to practice. I also try to partner with parents in this approach. Again, it takes patience and may or may not work out, however if it is successful, it makes the task much more successful.
Thanks again for your article Karen. Like I said, I am encouraged and heartened by it.
Michael this is such important work you’re doing. You are right about the importance of early experiences, but a loving, caring adult has enormous potential to make a difference later. The window to learn appropriate behaviours and ways to respond doesn’t close – it gets smaller, but it doesn’t close. When children are young they develop attachment styles. These are related to their feelings of safety in the world and they are established by learning that the adults in their lives will be responsive to their needs and will be there to support them when they start to explore the world outside of themselves, or when they feel big feelings – upset, scared, angry, uncertain.
The problem is that for these kids, there is likely to be some ‘unlearning’ that needs to happen first. Even if their parents love them deeply and are deeply committed to doing what is best, the children may have learned as little people that when they are frightened, uncertain, angry, sad, confused, that the level of support they need to feel safe and secure just isn’t there. As you’re seeing, this can make it difficult to learn the appropriate ways to respond and deal with big feelings later on. The good news is that this can be relearned. It takes time, because there is unlearning and new learning that needs to happen, but don’t underestimate the capacity of a loving, supportive adult to make a massive difference. Keep doing what you’re doing. As you said, sometimes you will see this working and sometimes you won’t. You can see the way that the experiences of one generation will play through in the next and you can never know how many lives you will be changing when you make a difference to one.
This is a great article and I will probably reread it a few times. I have an emotionally explosive 6 yo and have worked really hard with her, but I feel like I just can’t get past a certain point with her. I got a CBT workbook and went through it with her and her older sister, and we did see a reduction in her violence toward her sister and other kids (ie-she doesn’t bite people hardly ever anymore, and she was able to get through her birthday party without hurting any of her guests, which is a win). However, she still hurts her sister more than she should (whenever her sister disagrees with her and I am not in the room, basically), and when she is upset, I try to validate her feelings, ask her to blow on the hot cocoa, ask her to try going to a sit spot and take a few minutes to herself, etc, but she is usually so riled up that all she does is shriek at me, telling me to leave her alone, stop talking, etc, etc. We have a lot going on this year–we are homeschooling (she is in 1st grade), I am pregnant, and Daddy is deployed to Afghanistan. I understand this is tough, it is tough for all of us. I literally feel like if I am not with her at every moment of the day, I can count on her having some kind of altercation with her siblings (especially her older sister) and hurting them. This usually happens if I am upstairs putting the toddler down for his nap, and then I have to spend a half hour getting everyone to calm and understand what they could have done differently, etc. They are capable of having fun together, but they need constant supervision to prevent fights. I am exhausted. She has already sent her sister to urgent care twice since my husband left, with injuries. (Luckily, nothing too severe, but still, wraps and braces were required) This is just going to be a tough year. I am due at the end of January, my husband may or may not be able to be here, and within 3 weeks of his return in June, we have to hand over the keys to our landlord and move cross country. Any ideas to help me when she is in complete breakdown mode and can’t hear anything I’m saying? Thanks in advance!
It sounds like your daughter is going through a difficult time at the moment. When she is in complete breakdown mode, she won’t be able to hear anything you’re saying and will possibly get more frustrated if you try to reason with her. The part of her brain that can hear logical, rational information is ‘offline’ when big emotions take over. That doesn’t mean you don’t draw boundaries about angry, hurtful behaviour, but in the thick of that high emotion just isn’t the time to do it. When she is feeling big feelings, that’s the time to validate her, ‘I can see how angry/annoyed/frustrated are because your sister wanted to play with your toy.’ When you can name what they are feeling, it starts to calm the nervous system. If you can, take her away from the situation and stay with her until she calms down. In that moment, you don’t have to fix anything and you don’t have to change anything. When she is calm, that’s when you can put in place strategies like stepping back, or asking her what she thinks she might need to do to put things right, or talk to her about different ways she could handle things. Also let her give you her version of what happened when she is calm. Even if it is very one-sided, let her know that you hear her – her take on things is important too, even if it is missing some important pieces of information. This will open the way for her to hear you on the things she needs to know. Here is an article about anger and teaching kids how to be the boss of their brain that might be useful https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/.
Something else to keep in mind is that anger always has another emotion driving it. The common ones are fear, jealousy, anxiety etc. So, if your daughter gets angry at her sister because her sister takes her toy, it may be that she’s scared her sister will break the toy, never give it back etc. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to feel angry, but if you can get to the emotion that’s driving the anger and speak to that, it can be really powerful. For your daughter, there may be all sorts of different emotions driving her anger at different times. If her dad is away, she may be feeling anxious, sad, confused, scared – it’s difficult to know. Her biggest priority is feeling safe, and feeling as though her world is predictable and that the people she loves are okay. I understand the reality is that her world might be a little unpredictable, but whatever you can do to speak to those needs will help. ‘We’re okay. Daddy’s safe and happy and he misses us but he’ll be home soon.’ For kids, time can be difficult to understand. Six months doesn’t mean much, for example. It might help you have a calendar so she can see exactly when he is coming home, and can count down the days, if you think that might help. Here is an article that can help with when aggression is driven by anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/.
The most important thing is that you don’t take this personally. As a parent, I know that that feels impossible sometimes, but know that you are doing a great job. You are involved, open and so loving. At six, she is still learning how to deal with her big feelings. It takes time, and that’s okay. She sounds as though she has a very strong and wonderful spirit. You don’t want to shut that down, it’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction.
This article is so thorough and spot on. These are great reminders, even for parents who know all of this stuff on an intellectual level but can forget on an emotional level when things get tough.
Wow! Why is life so challengingly easy?
I really liked the way you described what happens when people aren’t regulated and how to explain it. Nicely done.
I love your articles. I am a family outreach counsellor and use your articles direct with families as they are written in such a “down to earth” non jargonistic manner.
Thanks Helen. It’s important work you’re doing. I’m pleased the articles are helpful for you and the families you work with.
These articles are very helpful and well written, as well as backed up by research. I have raised 6 children, have 16 grandchildren and a great grandchild. I have worked in the field of early care and education for over 30 years and still do ECE professional development as a consultant. I pass these articles along to families and teachers and use them in my work. Thank you for your free newsletter.
You’re very welcome Carol. You have a world of experience on this. It means a lot to know that the articles are helpful. Thank you for passing them along.
You mentioned out-of-control worry. What guidance can you offer for a 6-year-old who feels life-numbing anticipatory anxiety? She fears thunderstorms, imaginary creatures under her bed, etc.
Annelle here is an article with some strategies to try. The fears your daughter has are quite appropriate for her age, but it sounds as though the degree of anxiety she has in relation to them are really intruding on her day to day life. Take your time over the article and try the strategies. Here is another one that can help her to understand what happen’s in her body when she feels anxious and why anxious thoughts can be so convincing https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Hopefully this will help to bring your daughter some much needed comfort.