How can I help my child and myself handle big emotions? The clinical term for “big emotions” is emotional dysregulation, which is the inability to control or regulate emotional responses.
The process of emotional regulation is complex and lifelong. Theoretically, we learn this skill first, the skill of relating to others second, and the ability to reason last. But, unfortunately, the skill of regulating is often not developed.
Think about the last time you lost your keys or cell phone. A family member asked, “Where did you have it last?” and you blew up. That person approached you with reason, but you responded without regulating your emotions. When dealing with difficult emotions, we must ensure regulation first, relation second, and reason third. Every time…In that order… Every time!
As we grow, emotional regulation skills develop through the rhythmic motion of play: running around the playground, swinging, kicking a ball back and forth, going across monkey bars, bouncing, throwing, and dancing. This rhythmic cycle starts when parents begin pacing or rocking to calm their crying infant. However, parents must continue to teach and model rhythmic motion skills to teach their children emotional regulation.
In my opinion, this is where toddlers’ use of handheld devices is most detrimental to development. If the child is given a phone to “help him calm down,” instead of being held and rocked or encouraged to engage in rhythmic motion, he is not learning how to naturally self-soothe. Instead, your child is learning to distract himself from difficult emotions. As parents, we all need to intentionally incorporate rhythmic movement into our daily lives: running, walking, dancing, etc. We need to say to children, “I am really angry about something that happened at work today, so I am going for a walk to help my brain and body calm down.” Parents must model that they are not overwhelmed by their big emotions. As children grow older, they will imitate what we model.
We model the skills of relating by showing empathy. The best way to relate through empathy is by telling stories. In younger children, we talk about what just happened. For example, “You grabbed the cookie, and I would not let you have it, so you started to cry.” We relate to older children, teenagers, and adults by talking about a time we went through the same thing. Do not “one up” the other person just to say, “me too”. Remember, it is alright for them to feel big emotions! They will continue to experience them throughout their life. They just need to know that they are seen, heard, and understood.
We attempt to reason only after ensuring regulation and relation have successfully occurred. The step of reason usually occurs minutes, hours, or sometimes even days after the emotional dysregulation occurs. If we wait until our children can reason, their brains are optimized for the learning process.
Truthfully, the most common error I observe is that parents model emotional dysregulation. Therefore, your children’s ability to manage difficult emotions is directly related to YOUR ability to manage their uncomfortable feelings. Before reacting, make sure you are regulated, have spent some time compassionately relating to yourself or another person, and are fully able to reason.