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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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