The best tips for helping kids cope with big feelings

I just listened to Janet Lansbury’s podcast from January when she interviewed one of my favorite authors, Tina Payne Bryson. Bryson is the author, along with Dan Siegel, of some of my go-to parenting favorites including The Whole Brain Child, No Drama Discipline, and The Yes Brain. She also just came out with a new book which I just downloaded from Audible called, The Power of Showing Up.

They were discussing how to effectively deal with children in distress or children overcome by emotion. Over and over, they mentioned how a child in distress is looking for connection. And this hit me in a whole new way. When my kids start whining, complaining, or being rude, my initial instinct is to take what they are saying at face value. Instead, I was reminded that when kids are in distress, they are looking for connection to help them regulate their dysregulated selves.

It almost feels ironic that when Keener is upset and says, “Next time I’m going to throw you in the trash and we are going to watch 3 shows!” he is really looking to connect with me. In fact, his dysregulated state can quickly turn me into a dysregulated state! I can feel my nervous system kicking in and gearing up. My thoughts quickly turn to I can’t believe you talked to me that way. How dare you use that type of language. If you said that in front of other people, I’d be so embarrassed! While all of these thoughts are natural, not in the moment, I realize I am missing the bigger issue. The facts are fairly simple:

  • My 4 year old is upset
  • He is emotionally dysreguatled
  • He is learning how to express his disappointment and frustration
  • He is letting me know how he is feeling
  • I am allowing him to dysregulate me…

After listening to this episode, I have tried the following ideas which have been incredibly helpful:

Prepare for emotional moments

One way that helps me to stay regulated is to think about these emotionally charged moments when they are NOT happening. To plan for them and continually remind myself when they aren’t happening that he is simply looking for connection. Therefore, I tell myself over and over that my 4 year old’s dysregulation does not equal my dysregulation. If he is overwhelmed AND I am overwhelmed, I am making matters far worse for both of us. What he needs from me when he is overwhelmed is for me to be a calm, peaceful presence. He is not trying to set me off, he is trying to connect.

Focus on connection

When the emotional moments do come up, focus on the connection. Just this morning, Keener (4) was getting dressed and grew quite upset when he kept putting his shirt on backwards. Most days, he puts his shirt on backwards and he either doesn’t appear to notice or it doesn’t upset him. This particular shirt has a pocket so I think he was looking for the pocket in front which made his frustration grow when it kept going to his back. He came over to me in a very frustrated state, complaining and yelling about how he just couldn’t do it.

Instead of jumping in with solutions, I reminded myself he is looking to connect. Therefore I stopped myself from what I really wanted to say which was Stop whining! Why do you care today that your shirt is backwards? Every other day it doesn’t bother you! Let me fix it to make this whining stop! Instead, I validated his frustration. That is so frustrating. You kept trying to get the pocket in front and haven’t gotten it yet. I get frustrated too when I keep trying something over and over and it isn’t working.

Respond as if they are physically hurt

This was one of the best takeaways: respond to your emotional child as if they are physically hurt. Picture yourself when your child gets physically hurt. Consider the following about yourself:

  • tone (soft, calm, gentle)
  • body language (on their level, not overpowering, welcoming)
  • level of support (offering help, a bandaid, ice, a hug)
  • word choice (kind, sympathetic, sincere)

When our kids are physically hurt, we typically turn into a nurturing caretaker, available to help and support in any way we can. However, when our kids are emotionally hurt, our reaction is often much different. By channeling that same “physical” hurt energy when your child is emotionally upset, you are able to better provide the calm and connected energy that your child is actually seeking.

This may sound like:

  • You sound frustrated. I’m here.
  • You are having a hard time. How can I help?

While you might think that you are allowing the rude/whining behavior by embracing your child, this really isn’t the case. Think about when you are upset and emotional. If you are upset and say something rude, do you expect loved ones to understand or write you off? All of us, children and adults, are looking to connect with those we love and feel supported when we are overwhelmed and upset.

If you called a friend and said, “I’m really struggling right now,” the last things that would be helpful would be having your friend:

  • tell you to go away until you aren’t struggling
  • give you a consequence for feeling that way
  • tell you to “stop” feeling that way
  • tell you one of your favorite things will be taken away if you don’t stop feeling that way
  • get annoyed and take it personally

Final thoughts

By connecting with your child when they are emotionally charged, you are not allowing what they are saying or catering to their request. But you are also not punishing them. You are simply providing a safe space in which you can connect with your emotional child; meeting a basic need that we all long to have met.

4 comments

  1. This was super helpful and a crushing reminder to be the calm, solid person my 2.5 year old needs in the moment. I love your tip to prepare ahead of time to help better regulate my feelings in the moment. If you have any solid recommendations for how to stop the older child from physically/emotionally taking those feelings out on a younger sibling (before the parent can race across the room to block the behavior) I’m all ears! I love Janet Lansbury and the respectful methods but it all seems to be failing lately. Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂

    • It’s so hard to be calm! Practicing what I’m going to say and planning for it has helped – but it’s never easy. Thankfully, my kiddos give me lots of opportunities to practice 🙂 One strategy that I took from Lansbury and try to use is “ohh, I can’t let you do that” while *attempting* to say it in a peaceful tone. That way, they aren’t getting the big reaction for mistreating the sibling and it’s more about making sure everyone is kept safe.

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