The most important thing to know is that young children rely on you to work out their emotions. Although they often become fixated on a problem or a particular solution, really they are looking to make sense of their emotions through you. As their mom, you’re the person they trust to learn what’s safe and what isn’t and how they should respond. They need to know that you can bear their emotions, understand what’s going on and guide them through.
Here are five steps to help you when those big, overwhelming emotions arrive:
Model Sturdiness and Security
Your child’s emotions can feel scary. They can be big and disorientating. They are frantically either trying to take control or becoming overwhelmed and scared. It’s therefore important that you model sturdiness and security and prioritize keeping your child safe.
You might say: ‘I can see you’re feeling a lot of big feelings. I won’t let you hurt me or damage your toys. You’re safe here with me.’
Connect with the Feelings
When you connect to your child’s feelings, you watch and listen and summarize in very simple terms. Sometimes your child’s upset is understandable, at other times it can be baffling. Either way, by acknowledging their experiences, they trust that you are paying attention. You might say “You didn’t want the banana cut,” or “You want me to know that these pants are the wrong color”.
Help Them Process the Emotion
You want your child to start to recognize and observe their own feelings, rather than just reacting. To do this, describe an emotion with the word ‘feel’ in front: ‘You feel upset’, or ‘You feel sad and worried’. When you add an emotion to the word such as upset or sad or worried, your child is more able to observe their own experience. Rather than just reacting, they slowly begin thinking and reflecting.
Guide Your Child Through
One of the most confusing aspects of parenting a child is that they often don’t seem to know what they really want. They want the banana sliced and then they hate it that you’ve sliced it. They wish they could have another ice pop but then cry when you manage to find one. Trying to fix the problem or offer choices simply leaves them feeling more confused and overwhelmed. When emotions are frantic and confusing, your job is to slow things down and acknowledge and soothe them. Although the emotions can be intense, the sturdier and more aware you are, the more effectively they settle.
If your child’s emotions have been large and distressed, it’s helpful to return later, once things have settled, to what happened. This works best when your child is well rested and fed and everything is settled. The secret here is to give a simple description of what happened. You could say: “Mommy loves you and you felt some really big emotions when we went to playgroup. You felt really sad, and Sarah had to cuddle you and help you say goodbye”. When you talk about things afterwards without tension or judgement, you give your child an extra sense of security.
As the mom, it is also so important to be kind to yourself. Helping your child through all of these big emotions can be a bumpy ride. There will be days when it feels easier and days when your energy and focus are being pulled in all directions. Take heart. Your child doesn’t need perfect parenting, they need good enough and that will mean plenty of mistakes and repairs and do-overs, with lots of reflecting and talking.