Written by: Melena Postolowski, MA
Helping Children Navigate Big Feelings in a time of Quarantine
Spending some extra time with your children lately? With schools closed and daycares restricted in addition to many parents working from home, family time is a 24/7 endeavor. This can be an opportunity to reconnect and spending quality time with one another. This can also be a time when stress is heightened, feelings are big and patience is low.
Whether you’re dealing with everyday toddler tantrums, children with behavioral challenges as a result of being away from their structured routine, or children dealing with real fear and anxiety during this time of uncertainty, how you respond can have a significant impact on their ability to cope and how peacefully you continue to share space together at home.
In order to illustrate a very important point about responding to your child’s big feelings, I am going to open with a common dialogue from my parenting presentations:
Me to a group of parents: “Have you ever been upset about something and had someone tell you that you were… overreacting?”
Parents: (some laughter, lots of nodding, some eye rolling) “Yes!!!”
Me: “Does that usually go over well?”
Parents: (universal agreement) “No!!!”
Me: “So that’s exactly what you’re doing to your child when you ignore their expression of feelings or tell them to calm down.”
[insert mic drop here}.
Children are people, just as much as adults, and just because we may not get upset by the same things they do doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to be upset. If your friend or significant other came to you to upset, wouldn’t you try your best to respond with empathy and understanding? Why has society deemed it “okay” to treat children differently?
Your child is not out to get you (even though it may feel that way sometimes). They have a huge, new world to explore, they are experiencing a wide array of emotions they haven’t been taught how to process yet, and are in the very important process of figuring out if they can trust you and the environment around them. These are all typical milestones found throughout childhood that are only heightened by current events surrounding this global pandemic. Understanding this is important for your child’s development and also creates less stress and burnout for parents. What is best for your children and what is best for you as a parent are not conflicting ideologies.
Behavior is communication, and children (people!) need to feel heard and understood before any learning can take place. This is the basis for secure attachment: it is only when a safe, secure relationship is intact can parental guidance have any influence. Part of a safe relationship involves emotional safety and knowing that feelings are understood, accepted and will be acknowledged rather than being met with dismissal or shame.
So, that’s a theoretical overview, but what does any of this have to do with meltdowns and other ways kids express big feelings? There seems to be this popular belief that a child having feelings is “bad”, manipulative or trying to get attention - but the truth of the matter is that if a child has escalated to the point of a meltdown they are operating within a reactive part of their brain and are incapable of accessing reasoning skills in these moments. Think of a soda (or beer) can exploding after it has been shaken: there’s no stopping the explosion once the liquid is on its way out. It’s either happening or it’s not. Therefore, trying to reason with your child during the time the “explosion” is taking place is going to be an ineffective strategy.
Some parents choose to punish their children for having tantrums or meltdowns. Having feelings is not wrong: we all have them. It’s a part of being human. Teaching a child to suppress their emotions can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms later in life, health issues and a lack of empathy for others (therefore continuing the cycle).
Finally, as we mentioned before, ignoring a child’s feelings can actually cause more emotional distress. Again, children (people!) need to feel heard, not ignored.
So where does that leave us with ways we can manage and respond to our children and help them through this difficult time?
Just like we might not be our best selves if we haven’t gotten enough sleep, have been stuck inside without much physical activity or are feeling ‘hangry’ – staying on top of our children’s basic physical needs is one great way to be proactive about meltdown prevention. While this isn’t the omnipotent magic wand, it is a strategy that has a huge impact on distress tolerance. Social distancing has created some additional challenges in this area, but there are definitely creative ways we can work within current limitations to ensure our children are getting these needs met as best as possible.
Additionally, once we have learned about some common causes for meltdowns we can proactively try to avoid them. For example, my son really enjoys bath time or playing in the pool and can get upset if transitioning from these enjoyable activities abruptly. I don’t blame him: who likes to stop doing something they really enjoy? Alas, we do have to eventually move on to the next activity. While we try to plan for allowing ample time for these enjoyable activities, we have also found that it’s incredibly helpful to offer a friendly countdown to let my son know that bath time/swim time is coming to an end soon. Even if it’s as simple as a countdown from ten (said in a friendly rather than punitive tone) it allows him to know a transition is coming and use those last moments to fill his need for water play to the best of his ability. This works well for our son, so it may be something you can implement in your home as well.
Just like we teach children the alphabet and how to tie their shoes, it is our job as parents to be their first teachers in the awareness, control and expression of emotions. Teaching emotional awareness is another way parents can help their children move beyond the stage of meltdowns. And, what better time to teach some new skills than now when we’re home and probably have examples of a variety of emotions flowing through the house?
There are many ways parents can teach emotional intelligence. Some ideas include modeling, focusing on socio-emotional development by utilizing feelings charts and literature, and communicating values on behavior. Let’s break these strategies down more specifically.
Remember that old saying “actions speak louder than words?” Well, in general, it’s true. Our behavior is one of the most powerful teachers in our children’s lives. So, how are we displaying and handling our own emotions in front of them? If we’re feeling frustrated do we get out and go for a walk or allow ourselves to get to the point of blowing up? If we’re starting to feel angry with our significant other do we try to speak with them calmly and proactively or do we allow things to escalate to the point of yelling or refusing to communicate/cooperate? Our children are watching and absorbing all of this.
When we help children learn to recognize and name their emotions they become more aware of these feelings in themselves and in others. The first step in developing emotional intelligence is having language to describe feelings and this will begin to decrease the likelihood of less desirable expressions of emotion.
Also, just like we wouldn’t expect a child to know how to solve a math problem without teaching them the process first, we can’t expect them to know how to behave without teaching them expectations. This is when communicating values about behavior becomes important. Therefore, letting them know things like “it’s okay to feel frustrated about not being able to see your friends but it’s not okay to throw your toys” is helpful.
Finally, while all of these are great proactive and preventative strategies, it is important to remember that no matter how emotionally intelligent your child becomes, they are always going to be human and may still be susceptible to meltdowns from time to time. That’s okay! The most important thing for you to do is to remain calm and kind. Additionally, you can respond empathetically even if your child is upset about a limit you have set. “I know it’s disappointing to have to stop playing your game to come eat dinner. You can leave your toys where they are and get back to playing when we’re done (or insert other alternatives here).”
You may be amazed at how difficult interactions with your children subside the more you lean in and let them know they have your support.
Footnote: examples of resources for teaching emotional intelligence to children include, but are not limited to: