What helps children work through strong emotions?
Helping our children calm themselves helps them to understand their emotions, and to ultimately learn to solve their own problems as they get older.
Calming a young child might take the form of a hug, or a gentle touch.
“You might come closer to them and hold them or pick them up and scoop them away and just pat their back, or say, ‘Just come over here for a bit’. You help them to calm before you try and explore what’s going on,” Dr Havighurst says.
The talking, when it comes, might simply be validation of your child’s situation. Dr Havighurst suggests a parent could say: “Gosh, that’s hard – I know you really wanted to keep playing with that toy” or “That’s a really tricky situation you are in”.
“That validation helps you feel like your parent or the person you're talking to has got your back; that they're behind you and they accept your feelings. As adults, when that happens there’s something that shifts inside of us. It’s like, ‘Okay. How I am feeling right now is legitimate’. That’s exactly what happens with kids as well,” Dr Havighurst says.
Helping our children name their emotion
When calm is restored, parents can help their children by teaching them to name the emotion they have been feeling.
“You need to stay with them without lots of talking. Stop the explanation, stop the questions. Instead say, ‘It’s hard’, or ‘How frustrating’, or ‘How disappointing’, or ‘Yes, you really missed me’. We are aiming to reflect their feeling and keep that attachment connection,” Dr Havighurst says.
Of course, sometimes, solutions are necessary.
“But often, we jump to giving the solution way too early when the child is still quite emotional and that often leads to the wrong outcome. They have a further tantrum and shut down. It doesn’t work. It’s once the emotion has reduced that they can start thinking. So it’s then you might say, ‘I wonder what would help here?’,” Dr Havighurst says.
Controlling our own emotions as parents
It can be hard for parents to keep their own emotions in check when faced with a young child who is angry, upset or frustrated.
Dr Havighurst offers two important tips here. The first is recognising that as parents, we need to look after our own self-care.
“Selfcare is the nutrition you need to be able to be more patient and more emotionally responsive. When you're all worn out, you can't do that,” she says.
The second tip for parents who are feeling emotional is to build in a pause of 30 seconds before reacting.
“When you are emotionally activated that’s when you flip into your automatic reactions to the child’s emotion which are often more dismissive, harsh or rejecting. To create the pause you could count to ten; go to the toilet; have a big cold drink of water that cools your arousal system, suck on some ice, step outside for a moment, or even just rub your hands together with a cream,” she says.
Tuning in to Toddlers
Dr Havighurst, Ann and Dr Christiane Kehoe recently finished running a trial of Tuning in to Kids specifically aimed at 18 to 36-month-old children. She says Tuning in to Toddlers uses the same principles as for older children, but the use of language is reduced even further. Instead, body language helps toddlers to learn about emotional states.
“You would just say, “Oh, sad” and reflect the emotion using facial expression, body language and tone of voice. Kids don’t always have a lot of language when they are very young, but they respond to your body language: that’s how they learn,” she says.