Tantrums and Aliens – When Children Have Big Feelings

Imagine this: You are five years old and you want to draw a tiny alien. Your brother is sitting next to you and he is drawing a lorry.

You are not sure if your picture will be as good as his.

Suddenly your confidence in your ability to draw a good picture of an alien disappears. You ask Mummy to draw it for you. But Mummy starts to draw an alien of normal size. Instantly you feel disappointed because the alien is nowhere near small enough. You also feel upset and these feelings come out in anger and frustration.

‘No Mummy’, you shout, ‘I want it tiny.’

Mummy starts to draw another alien, this time much smaller, but it is still not small enough. This is a huge problem, Mummy does not understand how to draw a tiny alien and your brother has nearly finished drawing his lorry. You realise that he is going to have a brilliant picture. You feel envious, you know he will get a lot of praise for it: ‘Ooh what a lovely picture of a lorry, what big wheels it has, how carefully you have drawn the driver’ etc.

Suddenly you feel overwhelmed with big feelings, you snatch the picture of the not tiny enough alien from Mummy, tear it up and begin to cry uncontrollably.

This of course is perfectly normal behaviour for young children. They often have big feelings and can become upset at seemingly unimportant things.

It can be hard as a parent to know how to deal with this sort of situation, but one of the most important and powerful things we can do is simply to acknowledge our child’s feelings.

Let’s take a quick look at this from an adult perspective.

Let’s say you had a really busy time at work and are feeling pretty tired as you walk in the door at the end of a very long day. Your partner was going to be home before you, and as he is busy too and it’s Friday, you had agreed that he would pick up a takeaway on his way home, and have the kids all sorted and the food ready for when you get in.

As you walk from your car you are looking forward to stepping into the house. Everywhere will be tidy, the plates will be on the table, the children will be playing happily together, the food ready to be served. It’s the start of a blissful evening with your adored family.

But wait…

The reality is a million miles from what you have imagined. The kids are fighting, the house is a mess and there is no food, no take away, no nothing. Your partner is just coming off the phone, he’s sorry, something came up at work and he had to call a client, he has not had time to tidy up or ‘sort’ the kids and guess what…. Yep, he clean forgot to pick up that takeaway!

Well, I’m guessing I don’t have to describe what happens next but let’s say it involves you, some toys and a pram!

Maybe your partner can see straight away that you are feeling tired, stressed, upset, frustrated and disappointed, to name but a few of the emotions swirling around inside you. Maybe he will take your angry reaction on the chin and listen to your complaints without taking it personally. After a few minutes of listening to you rant and agreeing how difficult it must be to come home to all this chaos, he will pour you a glass of wine, shut the sitting room door on the bickering children, and just give you a big hug.

Maybe.

How would that make you feel?

When we are upset about something we need to know that those around us understand our upset, we don’t need to feel judged and we don’t need a battle. Children may sometimes seem to make a very big deal out of small things, but it’s not just the kids that do that, it’s us adults too. We can’t help our feelings, but sometimes the way we show them is not helpful.

I always remind parents who are concerned at their child’s ‘big’ feelings that children mature at different rates. Emotional maturity can take a while to develop, and learning to deal with life’s ups and downs, and bounce back after disappointment, or respond to adversity in helpful ways takes time.

Be patient with your child, and be kind to yourself.


About the Author: Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers is an experienced and qualified Parenting Practitioner, and founder of The Cambridge Parent Coach. Jane is passionate about Positive Parenting and loves to share the ethos and ideas of this way of parenting. Her parent workbooks: ‘How to Encourage Good Behaviour’, and ‘How to Use Positive Discipline to Improve Your Child’s Behaviour, along with her book of poems for children, ‘I’m Not Afraid of Spiders, Poems about feelings’, are available on Amazon. Learn more about Jane’s work by visiting her website, www.thecambridgeparentcoach.com.

 

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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