Seeing children struggle to self-regulate and have big emotional outbursts significantly affects everyone around the child. The most prominent question therapists specializing in big behaviors often get: What can I do to help them?
Children need time and space while experiencing big emotions to regulate, just like adults. It is important to catch that instinctual desire to attempt to fix your child's uncomfortable experiences and allow them the time and space to return to baseline. The first strategy for helping a child with big emotions is being patient. Ride the wave of their big feelings and allow them to come back to center. Once they have regained a sense of calm and you are also composed, you can begin to help them build emotional resilience. These strategies are most valuable when you can practice them with your child often. You may practice a few of these strategies a few hours after a big outburst or allow for more time and review them the next day. Like any skill, these require patience, persistence, and consistency:
Remember that this tool should only be accessed when both parents and the child have returned to a calm place. This skill takes practice. Kids don't innately understand what it means to be sad, mad, or happy. They only learn emotional literacy once the adults around them begin to identify those terms. Children will often first understand what it means to feel "tired" or "hungry" before learning what it means to be happy, mad, or sad since adults often name those feelings first. Help kids name their emotions by exploring a feelings wheel or listing out common emotions. Define those terms and describe what situations may elicit a certain feeling. Children need to know that everyone experiences emotions differently and with different intensities. Help children connect the mind-body by explaining how your body may indicate a specific emotion.
It's essential to model empathy and encouragement when helping your child deal with big emotions. Watching your child break down at something that feels trivial to an adult can feel confusing. By practicing perspective-taking, we can access empathy and provide reassurance to our child. For instance, telling your child, "I know this is difficult, and I'm here for you," or "I understand that you are scared, and I know you can practice bravery and get through this." Providing statements like these helps children tolerate those uncomfortable feelings and reassures them that they have the tools (or you will support them with the tools) to work through difficult moments.
The adage "children do as they see, not as they are told" is as accurate today as it was years ago. Modeling appropriate ways to calm down helps to teach children those essential skills. Adults use adaptive coping skills when they have uncomfortable emotions yet rarely overtly share them with children. Instead, practice verbalizing what you are doing to calm yourself down. For example, "Papa is feeling upset; I am going to calm down by taking five deep breaths." Caregivers can also model the mind-body connection by using emotional language and describing their body reactions. For instance, we may say, "Mommy is feeling frustrated right now. I can tell because my face is feeling hot, and my heart is beating fast."
Modeling appropriate coping skills is the first step to exposing a child to helpful techniques for handling big emotions. You can begin practicing two simple coping skills: belly breathing and visualizing a happy place. Start slow and practice regularly if your child is receptive to directly practicing these skills.
Help your child practice belly breathing by placing a teddy bear or another stuffed animal on their belly while lying down. Have them place one hand on their chest and another on their belly. Instruct them to breathe in slowly through their nose and allow their stomach to rise. Slowly help them exhale through their mouth.
Help kids visualize a real or imaginary "happy place" by describing elements from their five senses (e.g., smell, taste, touch, sounds, and sights). For instance, a child whose happy place is grandma's house may imagine smelling chocolate chip cookies, touching a warm cozy blanket, and listening to their favorite songs. Practice these coping skills for a few minutes each day while everyone feels relaxed, so they become muscle memory for your child.
Becoming distressed by your child's big emotions is a natural reaction. Research shows that highly empathetic parents have an increased stress response from seeing their children in distress. Instead of jumping in to attempt to fix your child's big feelings, remain patient and help model a calm reaction. Once everyone has returned to a calm place, support your child in identifying their emotions and practicing valuable coping skills that will help them now and in the future.