Kids with caregivers who give them permission to feel big feelings and that give them support in managing those feelings are kids with tools who are able to become adults who can regulate emotions and find resiliency in the face of crisis.
Today, I’m releasing a simple visual illustrating how empathic, attuned parenting can disrupt one common cycle behind problem behaviors at home or in the classroom.
While I wanted to keep this visual simple, one important nuance is to note that we can validate feelings while still maintaining consequences and boundaries. Offering comfort and soothing to a child doesn’t mean sheltering them from the consequences of their behavior- it means supporting their nervous systems in returning to a place where they can grow and understand.
For a semi-related doodle, check out my sketchnote on Yale’s work with parents of anxious kids and their research indicates that empathy without over accommodation may be key to decreasing kid’s anxiety symptoms.
Managing Big Feelings
When someone – especially kids but inclusive of us adults as well- has a HUGE reaction to a minor thing, the reaction probably is not actually about that minor thing. More often, it’s fear, trauma, or simply a lack of resources (like attachment or emotional regulation skills) to cope in that moment. In response, you can react to the behavior or validate.
Validating doesn’t mean saying that reactions that were harmful, hurtful, or dangerous are okay – it means naming the powerful emotions the person is feeling, affirming the emotion driving the behavior, offering soothing/containment, and *then* dealing with the consequences of their reaction. Taking some time to soothe, do a kid-friendly deep breathing exercise, or grounding practice can build kid’s skills for managing their emotions. Doing so builds trust, parent-child bonding, and – over time – the capacity within young brains for less reactivity and more self-soothing.
Big Feelings + Parenting
A child’s big feelings may be overwhelming for an adult to experience, but consider how overwhelming they might be for a child who does not know what they are feeling or how to control it. Instead of questioning (“how could you?”) or punishing (“how dare you!”) look for the entry point for empathy (“oh, of course you…”).
If we respond in a way that induces shame (such as telling a child or teen directly that their feelings/reactions are “too much” or “too dramatic”), we invalidate their emotional experiences.
In the long range, invalidating emotional experiences doesn’t help. In fact, invalidating emotional experience (“don’t be scared,” “there’s no reason to be anxious,” “get over it and man up”) can actually increase the intensity of the emotions the child is already struggling to cope with – which can increase problem behaviors.
Big feelings and even tantrums are a part of brain development. Healthy young brains will struggle with meltdowns and tantrums- researchers believe this is a necessary part of of learning to feel, express, and regulate emotions in a healthy way. As parents (or anyone working with children) it is important that we are active in this process.
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Steps to help kids learn to manage their emotions:
- Notice and get curious about identifying their feelings (example: “I think she looks sad” or “Oh, he’s about to get very angry”)
- Name the feelings aloud in front of your child (example: “I can see you feel really angry” or “Your face looks really sad”). It’s okay to take a guess and be wrong! Many kids will correct you, and researchers believe you only need to guess correctly 20% to 50% of the time. Kids need caregivers to take the guess and name emotions – it’s an essential part of learning to name and communicate about feelings, which can help prevent alexithymia.
- Offer soothing and containment. When children are very upset, they may reject attempts to soothe, but the gesture is just as important as the act. Whether it’s a big embracing hug, going outside together for a walk, or another way your child likes being soothed, taking the time to offer care in an attuned and connected way matters. Through countless experiences of the social biofeedback of a soothing adult attending to a dysregulated child, the child’s brain learn how to calm big emotions, be resilient to meltdowns, and, eventually, to regulate their own emotions.
Here are some tools that can be used in helping to identify and name feelings:
- Feeling Forecast: Emotional Regulation Teaching Worksheets
- Emotion-Sensation Feeling Wheel for Kids (Pizza Verison!)
- Therapeutic Family Activities
- Or check out the Parenting Page on my site for more related articles
If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s big feelings or find yourself battling shame in your parenting, checking in and getting a little support from a therapist can make a huge difference.
Image with a soft yellow background titled “How Helping Kids Cope Improves Behavior:”
Underneath the title is a flow chart illustrating how validating emotions behind problem behavior can reduce problem behavior, but invalidating emotions can increase it. At the top of the flow chart is a grey box that reads, “problem behavior.”
Following the flow to the left, when a problem behavior arises: validate the emotion and soothe (written in a lighter grey box), the child learns to regulate (written in a lighter grey box), and there will be less problem behaviors (written in a white box).
Following the flow to the right, when a problem behavior arises: invalidate the emotion (written in a dark grey box), the feelings will get bigger (written in a dark grey box), the child can’t regulate (written in a dark grey box), and more problem behaviors will result (written in a darker grey box).
Image created by @LindsayBraman.