By Katilyn Thomas
Big emotions can be scary. Anxiety, sadness, anger, and many other strong emotions can quickly engage the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. That’s true for adults, and certainly true for children who are just learning about their emotions and how to manage them. Now that school is back in session, spillovers of big emotions at school and at home may occur. Though every situation, family, and child differs, here are a few evidence-based tips for parents to help children navigate big emotions.
- Breathe. When we are anxious or upset, our heart rate increases and our breath becomes more shallow. When we take deep breaths, we send a message back to the brain: It’s okay to calm down.
Deep breathing resets the central nervous system and helps us respond with a clearer head. With your child, try pretending your fingers are birthday candles and blow them out one by one. Or maybe your child will respond to a “breathing buddy:” Lay on your back, put a favorite stuffed animal on your tummy, and watch that animal slowly move up and down as you inhale and exhale. Do this together — it’s playful and helpful for the whole family.
- Ask about feelings and use reflective listening. Acknowledge your child’s feelings by saying them aloud so your child learns to name their feelings.
- “I see you are feeling mad because someone took the toy you were playing with.”
- “It looks like you are feeling embarrassed because you tripped and fell in front of your friends.”
Once you recognize your child’s feelings, state what you believe they wish would have happened, and a solution to the circumstance.
- “You look angry because your sandwich dropped on the floor. You wish you would have used two hands to hold it. Would you like me to whip up another peanut butter & jelly for you?” (solution)
The next time your child is overcome with big emotions, coach them through I feel, I wish, and solution statements.
- I feel (__________.) I wish __________. Next time / Can you help me __________.
Help your child work out the emotions and a peaceful solution when they feel overwhelmed.
- Make the mind-body connection. Though big feelings produce bodily sensations like sweaty palms when you’re nervous or a red, hot face when you’re angry, children do not understand how their bodies relate to their emotions. You might say, “I noticed that your face was red. Were you feeling angry?” Making this mind-body connection helps deepen your child’s self-awareness.