Have you noticed that your child’s behaviour has changed recently? Maybe they are more irritable, angry, or frustrated. Are they acting out to get your attention? Maybe they seem quieter or more withdrawn than usual or perhaps they’ve regressed and have started sucking their thumb, being more clingy or wanting to sleep in your bed?
These are all very normal reactions to times of uncertainty and crisis.
Just like us adults, our children have big feelings too, but they don’t have the knowledge, understanding or language to be able to communicate their needs, wants and wishes, so they can easily become emotionally overwhelmed.
All behaviour is communication of a big feeling or unmet need, so we need to try to look past the behaviour and see the smallness of our child experiencing something big and overwhelming. Anger can be the protector of more vulnerable feelings or the frustration of not being able to communicate something they don’t understand like fear, sadness, sensory overload, tiredness, hunger, frustration, panic, embarrassment. The list can be endless but the way we approach every feeling is the same.
Try to keep your own feelings in check
We can help children learn from a young age that we all have a beautiful rainbow of feelings inside and every feeling is ok. If you can see the feelings first, rather than the behaviour, it is easier for you to be the much-needed calm to their inner storm.
Your frustration is not at your child’s feelings but their behaviour and the way they managed their feelings. However, before children can manage their feelings, they first need to learn how to notice, label and accept every feeling as it comes. When we tell children off at this stage, we are teaching them that it’s not ok to feel angry or any other feeling that may be present at the time. They’ll start to perceive the feeling as being negative, it becomes uncomfortable and they will want to suppress it or push through it as quickly as possible. Viewing it in this way can also increase stress indicators which in turn can prompt the fight, flight, or freeze response in the brain.
The same is true for us as parents/carers and professionals. Our own discomfort with the feeling may lead us to try to suppress or rush through our children’s feeling, to stop them crying or to try and calm them down. When we view a child’s feeling as negative, we naturally want to make it better as quickly as possible. Whilst this may work in the short term and they may stop crying or calm down in that moment, the feeling will still be there. Our feelings are there to keep us safe, but if we don’t listen to the messages they start to pile up. The more that they pile up, the more sensitive we become to them and bigger they get, this is when they can start to become unhealthy!
Connect and calm
When your child is feeling really overwhelmed, you will not be able to reason with them. Instead you will need to support them to regulate their emotions. To do this they need connection, they need to know that it’s ok to feel the way that they do and that you understand. When they feel emotionally safe, they will feel more able to release the feelings that are bubbling up inside of them and will start to feel calm and connected within.
Talk, listen and learn together
It is then that you can start to talk about what happened. This is the perfect opportunity for learning; to explore the feelings that were hiding behind the behaviour, reminding them that it is absolutely ok to feel every feeling. You can share a time that you may have felt that way, so they can be reassured that everyone experiences lots of different feelings every day. Then you can talk through any unwanted behaviours and offer suggestions of how they can express those feelings and release them in a more appropriate way next time. Remind them that they can share any feeling, any time and that this doesn’t have to be through words. Maybe they’d like to draw the feeling, write it down or play it out with some toys.
Make time for play
Play is how children communicate, how they process feelings and how they make sense of the world around them. Play is so important for healthy brain development, social and emotional learning, and communication. It’s also very much needed fun. Now, more than ever, children need time to play; they need patience and understanding whilst they process everything that is happening around them, and they need us to show them and reassure them that it is absolutely ok to feel every feeling.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic.
Everything we know is different and it is so important that children realise that what they are feeling is not only normal but is something that many other children and even us adults are feeling too.
Here at Sunny Kids Shine we are passionate about helping to make big feelings child size. We equip parents/carers and professionals with the knowledge and understanding to become their child’s Emotional Coach; whilst supporting children to become a Feelings Detective, learning how to N.A.M.E (Notice, Accept, Manage and Express) their feelings in healthy ways.
Jodie Smart, Founder of Sunny Kids Shine