The kids are always watching us! Our actions hold much more weight than you probably realize. I’m not even talking about your specific parenting actions. I mean the way you conduct yourself day-to-day. Your values. The essence of your being. Your priorities. How all of these things come out in what you do. So… how do you manage your big feelings?
With that question in mind, here are five ways that parents can help their kids manage their big feelings:
Model emotional regulation of your own big feelings:
This is an obvious one. I couldn’t resist telling you this in the intro, but I’m telling you again. Children learn by example, so it’s important for parents to model emotional regulation of big feelings for their kids. This means showing them how to calm down when they are feeling upset, and how to express their emotions in a healthy way.
Create a safe and supportive environment where big feelings are okay:
Children need to feel safe and supported in order to be able to regulate their emotions. This means providing them with a stable and loving home environment, and being there for them when they need help.
They also need to know that you are their confident leader. They need to know that their own big feelings won’t be too powerful for you and disregulate you too. If you find that your little one’s big feelings trigger you, it would serve both you and your little one to investigate why that might be. Work on healing that mini version of yourself—they may still be hurting.
Teach healthy coping skills:
Help your child to develop healthy coping skills that they can use when they are feeling overwhelmed. This could include deep breathing, counting to ten, or taking a break from the situation.
It’s best to talk to your kids about all of this stuff when they are calm and NOT in meltdown mode. When kids are having a tantrum or meltdown, they are so disregulated and irrational that there’s no point in trying to teach anything. Talk to them in a calm moment.
It can also be helpful to talk to your kid about coping skills shortly after a meltdown, once they have calmed down but it is still fresh in their minds (if they are receptive to it, of course. Don’t force the topic if it triggers them back into a meltdown. That might mean it’s too soon.)
Help your child to label their emotions:
One way to help children regulate their emotions is to help them to identify and label their feelings. This can be as simple as asking them how they are feeling, and helping them to put a name to their emotions. When they are younger, you can name their feelings for them (when it’s obvious, of course) so that they can start associating a feeling with a name.
If your child is having big feelings but is able to hold a conversation and has some semblance of rational thought, you can talk to them about naming their emotions in the moment. But if they are in complete meltdown-mode, it’s definitely not the time. Wait until they are calm to discuss.
Encourage your child to talk about their big feelings (and small feelings):
It’s important for children to feel comfortable talking about their emotions. Encourage your child to open up about their feelings, and listen to what they have to say without judgment. This will help them to feel heard and understood, and to develop healthy ways of dealing with their emotions.
That said, don’t press the subject. Some kids don’t like talking about their feelings as much as others. My 7-year-old son is one of those kids, and he happens to be an extremely sensitive kid… which means that he has a lot of big feelings and doesn’t like talking about them. He especially doesn’t like talking about it when the feelings are fresh. It takes a lot of self-control on my part to let it go for the moment (I definitely fail at this a lot). I’ve found two strategies:
- I’ve found that if I revisit the subject a week or two later, he’s often happy to talk about it because the feelings are less raw.
- At bedtime, when we close the lights and cuddle before he falls asleep, we often have our deepest conversations. I imagine he feels very connected to me in the moment. Plus, it’s a lot easier to talk about big feelings when the lights are off (anyone else suddenly remember all the thoughts you want to tell your partner as soon as you’re about to go to sleep? Just me?)
You can tell your kids to act or not act a certain way all you want, but at the end of the day, they will be most impacted by what they witness you actually doing. Your actions. So the best way to help your kids manage their big feelings? Figure out how to manage your own. Then you’ll have all the tools to pass along to them.