When our kids or teens mess up – which they will, because they’re humans not robots – the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it.
In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for fight or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.
What happens to brains and bodies during big feelings. The Science.
During big feelings (for all of us) the brain is hijacked by the impulsive, instinctive amygdala. This is the part of the brain that works hard to keep us safe. When the amygdala registers threat, one of the ways it keeps us safe is by charging the brain and body up with a mix of powerful neurochemicals. These are designed to get our bodies ready to fight the danger or run away from it. But there’s another way this neurochemical surge works to keep us safe. It charges up big feelings.
Big feelings are one of the ways the brain recruits support. When we’re in big feelings, people notice. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’ll always get the ‘noticing’ that feels lovely but we’re more likely to be seen. Brains are there to keep us safe, and the best way for us humans to stay safe is with the help of other humans. It’s worked well for us up to now. We’ve survived for as long as we have because we’ve banded together in groups and helped each other out, not because we’ve been the fastest, smartest, or strongest. What this means is that being seen in some way, even if it’s not in the most adorable way, is better (safer) than not being seen at all.
But honestly, the things that can trigger big feelings can be … oh my gosh don’t even start me. What about when big feelings happen over little things.
Just because the amygdala has registered ‘threat’, doesn’t mean there is actually a danger. ‘Threat’ for a protective, strong, healthy amygdala includes anything that comes with any chance at all of humiliation, judgement, separation or disconnection from an important person, exclusion, missing out on something important, messing up something important. They’re the things that can make us all wobble.
There is no such thing as a ‘little thing’ for the amygdala. They’re smart, powerful, and brilliant, but they can all be a bit dramatic at times. The amygdala is like a smoke alarm. It assumes all smoke is from a blazing fire, even if it’s a ‘just-burnt-toast-nothing-to-worry-about’ kind of smoke.
When the amygdala registers threat, one of the first things it does is shut down the ‘thinking brain’. This is the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain. It’s the part that can think through consequences, calm big feelings, make deliberate decisions, learn, and think rationally. This is why we can all make ‘not great’ decisions when we’re anxious, angry, sad, or why big feelings might come with spicy words or behaviour.
When children or teens are in big feelings, it’s impossible to guide, lead or teach them. Lecturing, preaching, sending them for time out to think about what they’ve done are useless because the part of the brain that can actually think or learn isn’t available.
The first thing we have to do then, is bring the brain back to safety. This will calm the amygdala and bring the thinking brain on board. Then, we have influence. But how? Through validation.
How it works.
Validation says to the amygdala – ‘I see you, I’m here, and you can step down now. I can take it from here.’ This will help the amygdala feel safe enough to let go of the wheel, and make way for the thinking brain to come back.
The power of validation lies in its capacity to bring us close enough to reach our kids and teens when they need us most. It lets us guide them from inside the relationship, in that precious space that exists when they feel understood – not just heard, but truly and deeply understood by you.
Children and teens will never have a greater felt sense of safety than when they are feeling close to you. This means the thinking brain will never be more available for learning, leading, influencing, guiding.
How do we validate?
Validation doesn’t mean you agree with them, and it doesn’t mean you approve of their behaviour. It means you see the world or the situation as they see it right now, without judgement or a need to fix it.
It’s a way of letting them know that we can see how they feel, or the need behind how they feel, and we don’t need to change it. This might sound something like:
- ‘I get that your angry with me right now. You feel as though I’ve stopped you doing something that is important to you. It’s okay to be angry. I’d be angry too.’ Or,
- ‘No wonder you’re upset. That really sucks.’ Or,
- ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you help me?’
- It can also look like nodding, facial expressions that let them know you’re with them, vocal bursts (uh-huh, mm-hmm,).
- Sometimes it might look like sitting cross-legged on the floor with them for a while, because their day came with spikes, and it’s softer and quieter down there.
Remember though, whatever words you use, your words will often be the thing the hear the least. Validation happens most powerfully through non-verbals, so it’s important that your nonverbal communicate your intent, which is to be with them, to understand them, and not to judge, shame, or abandon them.
Your posture matters. Is it warm and open, or ‘big’, or closed off? The tone of your voice and your facial expressions matter. Do they clearly communicate your intent, or are they too neutral and open to misinterpretation?
Sometimes words can get in the way. Think of what you might need if you were telling a friend about something big that happened to you. You don’t need your friend to tell you she sees how upset you are. Of course, that might be lovely, but it isn’t the only thing. What you are looking for is, ‘Do you get me? Do you get why I’m upset? Do you see me? Do you feel me?’ We see the answer in faces before anything else.
When you don’t have the words, or when the words seem to annoy them, just feel what they’re feeling. You don’t have to do more than that. Receive their faces. Whenever you can, look through the behaviour and the words and receive their faces. Receive their fear, their sadness, their frustration, their anger, their loneliness, and just hold it in you for a moment so they can feel you with them.
Let them feel your heart and mind open, and your arms extended in invitation as you widen the space for them and everything that comes with them in that moment. The message is, ‘I can handle you, and everything that comes with you’.
Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. If there is a need to chat about behaviour, there will be a time for that, but in the midst of big feelings is that not that time.
Validating them, or their feelings, or their needs, doesn’t mean they will instantly calm and see things your way, but ultimately it will strengthen your connection and your influence. It’s about helping them feel understood, even when things (or they) get messy. If they feel understood by us, it opens the way for them to trust us when we say, ‘I know you can do this,’ or, ‘Let’s talk about what you might do differently next time?’, or, ‘You can come to me about anything.’
In the moment, it’s less about what you do, and more about who you are.
When feelings are on fire, and behaviour is big, we don’t have to ‘fix’ those feelings. Of course, when our children are in pain, the drive to do ‘something’ to fix that pain might feel seismic, but we don’t need to fix them. They aren’t broken. They want what we all want when the world feels too big – to feel safe, seen and heard.
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 being an anchor for their distressed nervous system. An anchor doesn’t try to fix anything. It doesn’t have an agenda and it doesn’t get add to the turbulence. It just holds things strong and steady, all the while having enough ‘give’, between itself and the boat to be able to adapt to the conditions.
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.
Of course, this doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we see them, and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that, and what they can do differently in the future.
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?’ ‘You’re a really great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’
How validation brings them closer and builds our influence.
The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat – and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, humiliation all count as threat, even if they come with loads of loving intent. When we validate what our children are feeling, or the need they are trying to meet through their behaviour, we take away their need to fight us or flee (ignore) us.
If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala by sending the message that we aren’t a threat, and that we can handle whatever is happening. We mightn’t like it, but we can handle it.
When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.
And finally …
It’s not our job to fix their feelings, but to hold their distress with tender, safe, loving hands, until those feelings are small enough again. We do this by meeting them where they are, without needing them to be different. We bring a strong, safe, loving presence. We see them. We breathe. We validate. We stay with. And we wait for the feelings to calm. Then, we hand those back in a way they can talk about, learn about, listen to, and grow from. And we don’t need to do more than that.
Don’t underestimate the power of you. It won’t always be obvious, and you won’t always be thanked for it, but the presence of you has profound capacity to help them feel safe, seen and soothed. Sometimes, for certain, it will be everything.