When is the last time that you flipped out at your child? He came up to you and said he wouldn’t clean his room. You demanded that he clean his room or he wouldn’t get to have his friend over so he stomped away yelling “I hate you!” and slammed the door to his bedroom. How do you react?
Emotions can be really big for adults but they are even bigger to kids. They need you to help them learn to handle their emotions in a way that they can understand. It isn’t something they can turn off or stop just because you told them to. Check out these 2 strategies to help your child handle those big emotions even when they are in complete meltdown mode.
how to help your child handle their emotions
There is a lot that goes into understanding how to help your child handle their emotions and it takes all the way into adulthood for them to truly be able to have control over themselves. And I am sure that you can think of a recent situation where you aren’t proud of how you handled your own emotions too. So you know it isn’t always that simple.
I am going o focus mostly on HOW to use this information rather than the science behind it but I need to give you a super quick once over so that we are on the same page. If you want more information please check out The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. That s where the information I share comes from and I highly recommend it as a resource for parents of children of any age.
The Science of the whole-brain child
As I said, I’m going to try to keep this quick and simple.
The Left and Right Brains
There are 2 hemispheres of the brain and each is responsible for different parts of a personality.
The left brain is logical, literal, and linguistic. It likes order and making lists. The left brain listens to reason and logic above anything else. It is the part of the brain that makes a child ask “Why?” 8000 times per day.
The right brain is holistic and nonverbal. It cares more about the meaning and feelings behind the experience than the facts of the experience. It interprets emotional information such as facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, and eye contact.
When you tell your son not to push his sister and he says “I didn’t push her, I shoved her.” That is the left brain talking. It latched on to the fact that you didn’t say shove and that makes you wrong and what he did right. When you respond “shoving is still wrong” you are bringing in the right brain to apply morality to the situation.
Strategy 1: Connect and Redirect
I think we have all been that parent who tried to tell our child what to do while they are in a full blown tantrum. And then we get mad when they don’t stop and do what we say. All we are trying to do is help them get what they want or move on from the situation that upset them but they won’t stop screaming.
Here’s the thing. It isn’t because they enjoy screaming or don’t want to do what they are told. If they are truly upset and emotions are running high, they can’t stop. Trust me, they don’t enjoy screaming and crying either. But it is all they know how to do in the moment when they are drowning in emotions they don’t understand.
When your child is upset the first thing you want to do is to connect with them. Get down to their level (or below it if you can) to communicate that you understand they are having a rough time.
Acknowledge their feelings by speaking their truth.
If your daughter is upset because you said she couldn’t have a cookie before dinner, say something like “I know you really wanted a cookie and are disappointed I said no.”
This lets her know that you see her feelings and that they do matter to you. It allows her to feel heard and to see that you are there with her in the moment. This will help her be able to balance out her brain.
Remember how we talked about the right brain being all about the feelings? When you told her no, she didn’t think about the logic behind why she just heard you being mean and not letting her have her way. By acknowledging her feelings you are giving her the ability to activate her left brain and hear your logical response that will follow.
Now that you have calmed the right brain, you need to engage the left brain. So you can bring in your reasoning for saying no to a cookie before dinner.
“I am glad you are excited about the cookies, but I just want you to eat dinner first. That way you can enjoy your meal and then we can all eat cookies together afterward.”
Just give her some simple logic. You can even ask her some questions to pull the reasoning out of her. “But if you eat a cookie now, what will you do with your dinner? Will you still be hungry for it? What about your brother, he will want a cookie too won’t he?” Allow her the chance to use logic for herself by giving her prompts like these.
There may be times when it is not something as harmless as ruining a meal. Maybe your son is throwing blocks across the room at his sister’s head because she is playing with his cars. In that situation, you would want to remove him from the room in order to stop the destructive and potentially harmful behavior immediately.
It will probably cause a tantrum, but you can begin to connect after removing him from the situation. Then move into your redirection and include an explanation about why you took him out of the room.
Strategy 2: name it to tame it
This strategy is something that I think can be really effective because it gets you very engaged with your child in a supportive way.
Sometimes a bad experience can cloud future potential experiences and make us want to avoid them. For example, you eat lemon chicken and get food poisoning. So now you can’t eat lemon chicken without getting sick. But it wasn’t actually the chicken, it was the spoiled milk you drank with dessert immediately after it. But you remember the chicken and that experience and emotion changes the story you tell.
The same thing happens with your kids. And you can easily help them handle their emotions by rewriting the story.
Retell the story together
If your child is having a bad reaction to a situation, ask them why. They may simply say they don’t want to or they don’t like it. And that’s okay.
Take the time to sit down with them and talk about it. It is best to do this in an informal setting. Like while you color together or play a board game. That way there is less pressure and your child is more likely to open up while they are engaged in an activity.
Prompt them to begin telling you the story of the bad experience. And help them to name the emotions they felt, good and bad. As necessary, be sure to add in details that they are missing and logic they don’t see due to their emotional overload.
Like for a child who gets upset when you leave him at daycare. He remembers you dropping him off and leaving while he cried. But you know there is more to it than that.
You gave him a hug and told him you would pick him up at 4 pm. Then you said goodbye. His teacher took his hand to comfort him and led him to the table for his snack. You then showed up at 4 pm just like you promised.
By filling in those crucial details, you can show your son that he is safe at daycare with his teacher that cares about him. And that he can count on you to be there when you say you will be.
By using this strategy you will help your child to name and understand emotions. You will also give them the chance to enjoy events that are not as traumatizing as they may have seemed at the time.
A key to this strategy is to allow your child to tell the story but to guide them and step in to make sure they have the details and the order of events correct. That way they will be able to use the left brain and the right brain together to fully process the situation.
Help your child handle their emotions
It can be challenging to help your child with their emotions. It is one of the most exhausting parts of parenting because it takes from the time they are born until into adulthood to really complete that part of the job. But by understanding the basics of the right and left brains, you can use these 2 strategies to help your child handle their emotions more easily.
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