Kids are still learning about their emotions and how to keep their emotions in balance. They frequently feel their emotions intensely, and don't know what to do with them. We see the results in their melt downs and overreactions. So how do we rescue kids when they are overwrought and can't manage what they're feeling?
1. Be A Calm Anchor
You first help kids by being calm yourself. It's easy to get caught up in their energy and then react with intensity yourself. Who hasn't yelled "calm down" when kids are out of control? Of course it makes things worse because now there are two people out of control. Kids look to us to be their steady anchor when they're out of control; to help them sort things out and be their support.
2. Stay Connected
Your physical presence is critical in helping kids get back in control. Too often we send them off to be by themselves exactly when they most need closeness. You might suggest they come sit in your lap or offer a hug. If they resist, stay in the same space but occupy yourself with something of your own. At some point when they're ready to reach out to you, you'll be available. Kids know when their behavior has been extreme and fear rejection. Your calm acceptance is profoundly reassuring. You're not condoning their behavior, but waiting until they're calm enough to discuss what happened.
3. Show Them How to Calm Their Body
Help kids learn to calm their body by showing them what to do. Try breathing techniques first. Tell them to mirror what you're doing. Hold your hands over your heart and take deep belly breaths. Teach them the difference between shallow anxious chest breathing and relaxed full belly breathes. If this is too hard, show them how to sip in a small breathe and exhale to the count of 7. You can make it fun and relatable by having them pretend to be blowing out birthday candles. Sometimes it can be more helpful to focus on the exhale than the inhale. If they are too agitated to do breathing techniques, try something more physical. Together you could do running in place, jumping jacks, stretching to the sky and then slumping down and touching your toes; any non-aggressive physical activity helps. After some of their energy is released you can try again to introduce the breathing techniques.
4. Label Their Feeling
Kids can act intensely and not know why. They might say they're "mad" or "frustrated," but in fact they might be feeling jealous or guilty. Naming these emotions will help them build a "feeling vocabulary," which will help them begin to distinguish between feelings. When we say: "I think you're feeling ashamed about not telling me the truth about who broke the mirror," they can recognize that what they're feeling isn't anger, but shame. Learning these distinctions will help them be more accurate when they tell you what they're feeling.
5. Distinguish Between Feelings and Behavior
While we want to help kids learn to moderate their responses, we don't want to invalidate their feelings. It's important that kids know that something real happened to cause their behavior. If we invalidate strong feelings, kids grow to fear those feelings and eventually learn to hide them both from themselves and others. We want kids to have access to all their feelings and also to learn appropriate ways to express them.
6. Discuss What Prompted the FeelingsEncourage kids to tell you what happened. Then listen attentively to their story. It doesn't have to make sense. Often it won't, but telling their story will help dissipate some of the energy of their emotion. Then when they're calmer, you can begin to sort out a more realistic picture of what happened. When emotions are high we can't "think straight." It's literally true; our body needs to calm down before we can engage our "thinking brain." Emotions give us clues about how we're behaving and then our "thinking brain" can help us continue to sort things out and come up with wise responses. Having access to both our emotions and logic keeps us balanced and in control of ourselves.
How do you help your kids manage their feelings? Let me know! Leave me a comment below or tweet me at @PeggykTietz.