All children can behave in ways that are … not very adorable. Big behaviour can be exhausting and maddening for even the calmest of parents. There’s a good reason for this. Children create their distress in their important adults as a way to share the emotional load when that load gets too heavy. This is how it’s meant to be. In the same way that children weren’t meant to carry big physical loads on their own, they also weren’t meant to carry big emotional loads. Big feelings and big behaviour are a call to us for support to help them with that emotional load.
When you are in front of a child with big feelings, whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection of what your child is feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you is relevant.
Children communicate through behaviour, and behind all big behaviour there will always be a valid need. The need might be for safety, connection, sleep, food, power and influence, space to do their own thing. We all have these needs, but children are still developing the capacity to meet them in ways that aren’t as disruptive for them or the people around them. This will take a while. The part of the brain that can calm big feelings, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until mid to late twenties. Of course, as they grow and develop they will expand their capacity to calm their big feelings, but in the meantime, they will need lots of co-regulation experiences with us to help them develop strong neural foundations for this.
But how do we help them?
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 and insist they self-regulate, 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.
Regulation isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced through co-regulation 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. Emotional 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 vital neural pathways to come back to calm on their own.
How exactly do I co-regulate?
The first thing to remember is that as much as you might want to fix your young one’s feelings, you don’t need to. They’re safe. They might be struggling, but they’re safe. As maddening as those big feelings might be, they’re doing an important job – recruiting support (you) to help that young, still-in-development nervous system find its way home.
When their feelings are big, it’s more about who you are or how you are than what you do. They don’t want to be fixed. They want to be seen and heard. They’re no different to us like that. Meet them where they are, without needing them to be different for a while. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will see it in you and and feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with – and you don’t need to do more than that.
You might not be able to do this every time, and that’s okay. Here’s how that works. We will catch their distress, as we are meant to. This gives us the opportunity to hold that distress with them, until those feelings start to soften. This can be a great thing when we have the emotional resources to do this, but we are human, and sometimes their fight or flight will raise fight or flight in us. We might get angry or frustrated (sharing their ‘fight’) or turn away and distract (sharing their ‘flight’). Sometimes you’ll be able to give them what they need, and sometimes you won’t. Both are responses of loving, beautiful parents, but sometimes as parents we get stretched too far too.
Whenever you can, validate what they are feeling, but let your intentions be clear. This means steering away from neutral voices or neutral faces. It’s hard to read the intentions behind a low-monotone, neutral voice or a neutral face. If your intention isn’t clear, it can trigger a bigger sense of ‘threat’ in an already unhappy nervous system. Sometimes, we might think we’re speaking calmly when we’re actually speaking ‘neutrally’, or low, slow, and monotone. The point is, our calm voice might not always be calming. Whenever you can, try to match the intensity of your child’s feelings (through your voice tone, facial expressions, presence) while staying open, warm, and regulated. ‘I can see how upset you are my darling. You really wanted […] and you’re so annoyed that it can’t happen.’
What if they want space, or less words?
If they get annoyed with too many words, just breathe and be with, ‘I’m going to stay with you until you feel better.’ You actually don’t have to say anything at all if talking doesn’t feel right. Just stay regulated and feel what they feel. They’ll feel it in you that you get them.
Similarly, if they want space, it’s important to respect that, but stay in emotional proximity. ‘Okay, I’m just going to stay over here until you feel better. I’ll be right here for you.’
But what if their big feelings are driving BIG behaviour?
Big feelings and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings are a sign of a distresssed nervous system. They are not a reflection of your child or your parenting.
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 we ignore the fire by doing this. As long as we do that, the fire will be getting bigger and the smoke will be getting thicker. Even if we manage to blow the smoke out of the way for a while, it’s not going to be long before that burning building turns the sky a heavy grey again.
Sometimes, by dealing with the smoke you might certainly get a compliant child, but this doesn’t mean a child who is open to learning. This is because the worst thing for any young one is to be separated from their important adult/s. In the wild, separation would mean certain death. Any discipline that emotionally separates (shame) or physically separates (time-out, thinking chair, thinking square) will drive a young brain to register even bigger threat. The felt sense of emotional or physical separation will drive children to comply in order to restore proximity back to their important adult, but a quiet child doesn’t always mean a calm child. As long as their brain is in ‘threat’ mode, stress neurochemicals will be surging through your child’s body and keeping the ‘thinking brain’ (the prefrontal cortex) offline. This is the part of the brain that can hear rational information, learn, plan a better way next time, think through consequences, make deliberate decisions, and calm big feelings. As long as we don’t have access to the thinking brain, we won’t have the influence we need to guide them towards stronger, healthier ways of being.
There will be a time for teaching and redirection, but in the middle of a burning building is not that time. When your young one comes back to calm – and it doesn’t matter how long that takes – then have those transformational chats: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can make it easier next time?’ ‘Things are a bit of mess right now. How can you put things right? You’re such a great kid. I know you’ll have some really good ideas about how to do that. Do you need my help?’ Remember, just because you talk about what they can do differently next time, this doesn’t mean that those ‘next time’ things will start happening. It takes time and lots of practice to learn hard things.
Maybe they’ll need consequences after big behaviour, but probably not. The whole point of consequences is to build healthier behaviour, so any consequences have to make sense. So often though, the type of consequences do nothing to teach better ways of being. Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ They’ll learn a lot more by talking with you when they feel safe and connected and open, than they will by, say, missing out on dessert because they dropped some hefty words while their thinking brain was benched.
Your own state matters.
An important part of co-regulation 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 are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our 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.
But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. It takes a steady heart to soothe the heart of another, and being that steady heart can be tough some days. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on many of those days we’ll feel the rawness and realness of it all. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human. Let’s not put pressure on our children to be perfect by pretending that we are. Instead, let’s repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them abundantly in love and the warmth of us. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.