5 steps to managing big emotions

It’s important to equip your child with the tools they need to handle their big, overwhelming emotions, says Amber Hall.

When you’re attempting to get everyone in the car for school, or you’ve stood on your third piece of Lego this evening alone, or you’ve asked your child to “Please, feed your cat!” repetitively for at least an hour... When they drag their feet, talk back, whinge, or a myriad of other annoying scenarios, it can be challenging to exercise that most virtuous of virtues: Patience. It’s one of the most common struggles that every parent ends up grappling with at some point and, frustratingly, it’s usually when our kids are struggling to keep their cool that we kick off ourselves. Hardly the model behaviour we want to demonstrate to our little sponge-like learners. Navigating big emotions is difficult, whether you’re a toddler, tween, teen or, for that matter, totally grown-up.

To raise mentally healthy adults, we need to start their mental health education when they’re young by teaching them that their emotions are valid, important, and should be approached as learning opportunities, rather than suppressed or hidden. It makes sense to work with your kids to prepare and test a strategy that works for them in advance. That way, they’ll be equipped with the emotional tools they’ll need to work through overwhelming emotions like shame, jealousy, anger, and frustration and they will get into the habit of using safe, socially acceptable, and effective techniques for expressing and dealing with their emotions that don’t risk hurting themselves or others. Emotion management plans may be different from family to family, but here are five steps to get you started on yours.

 

Step 1: Remember, it’s never okay to deliberately hurt others.

It’s no surprise that you need to be clear in your guidelines about exactly what is or is not expected behaviour in your family. Make it clear that in your family you treat everyone better than you yourself would like to be treated, and that you do not hurt others, whether that’s through the words that you say, or the way you treat someone and their property.

 

Step 2: Create mental space by taking a deep breath and slowly counting to 10.

It takes mental space to be able to deal with a big emotion and, in the heat of the moment, you need to take a step back and create that mental space yourself. Taking a few deep, deliberate breaths and counting to 10 slowly is one way to create that space. This gives your child time to take note of the warning signs their body is naturally giving them. When you and your child are putting together their emotion management plan, ask them to imagine what their body is doing when they’re experiencing these big emotions: Is my heart beating really fast? Have my muscles tensed up like a coiled spring? Are my teeth clenched or my breathing shallow? Once they know what to watch out for in the moment, encourage them to try to respond by taking a few deep breaths, counting if they need to, and regaining enough composure to think up a better plan of action.

 

Step 3: Explain how I’m feeling and what I want to happen.

It’s important for kids to learn to understand and accept that big feelings are part of being human and completely normal, and that the way we choose to react in response to those emotions can lead to a knock on effect where – intentionally or otherwise – we hurt others and in the end ourselves. Now that they know how to create the mental space, the next step is to be able to recognize and acknowledge the emotion. Applying the correct name to a specific emotion legitimises it, because what you’re feeling is common enough that humans hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago developed a word to describe it. Having named it, they need to clearly articulate what they actually want to happen. By doing this, they’re actually inviting everyone involved to start problem solving through discussion. Obviously there will be many times that what they want isn’t an acceptable solution for everyone involved, but this is a profound life lesson that children have to get comfortable with eventually. If necessary, you can support your little one by offering ideas on other peaceful solutions, particularly if they strike out in big emotion situations.

 

Step 4: Seek help.

Talking through problems is a great way to process them, no matter how old you are. Problem-solving is a skill and, like all skills, you need to practise to get good at it, so your child might need support and guidance in exploring possible alternative solutions in a social setting. Teach your child that it’s good to ask for help if they don’t think they can resolve something by themselves. That’s an important life lesson, because once they start to deal with situations with much bigger risks, they’ll still feel comfortable seeking your input.

 

Step 5: Give yourself the calm-down time you need.

Talk to your child about how they’re eventually going to face occasional situations where there just doesn’t seem to be a mutually beneficial solution, and how, despite working through the first four steps, they might still feel upset or angry about what's happening. They need to know that in these kinds of situations, it’s better to walk it off, take a time-out if they need to, focus on working through any lingering emotions, and find another activity to do that they will enjoy. Something for parents to keep in mind here, though: This isn’t an exercise in isolating your child. It’s about creating as much mental space as they need to work through their big emotions, and sometimes creating it works better when they’re literally standing in a different space. Once they have moved, you can join them if they want, to quietly talk through anything your child might need your help with and reflect on what they might have learned from the experience.

 

 

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