By Michelle Mady
We’ve all been there. Your child has an absolute meltdown in a very public place. A teary eyed, exasperated expression and a defeated feeling – and that’s just the adult in the situation. Children can become emotionally dysregulated quickly and without warning. Although we can expect this to happen, and happen often, as they are gaining skills to cope with big emotions, there is something simple we can do to help the process along.
Help them name their feelings.
It might seem obvious to you that they are mad. But they might not be aware that this is the word to describe what they are feeling. Children might think there is something wrong because their body doesn’t feel good. Giving them a vocabulary empowers them to fully feel that feeling without becoming anxious about what is happening to them.
It might seem obvious to you that they are mad. But they might not be aware that this is the word to describe what they are feeling.
I was speaking with a mom of an 18-month-old child the other day. In our conversation, she was venting about some of her toddler’s behaviors. She noted that he would often get impatient and even throw tantrums when he was hungry. “I can’t wait until he can talk more so he can just tell me he is hungry. It will make it so much easier for him to just eat before he loses it.”
That seems like some strong logic. But what if it isn’t?
What if he doesn’t know that he is hungry? He just feels his belly feeling different. And maybe he is getting cranky but can’t figure out why. Thinking is becoming difficult and he is trying to communicate that, but doesn’t quite know what it is that he is trying to communicate. So, instead of waiting for language to develop, add some vocabulary to his understanding so he is aware of his needs. Then, when language comes, he will be comfortable saying he is hungry because he has been taught that this is the name of this feeling in his body.
Although hunger is a physical need and sadness is an emotion, the same plan can help build emotional confidence. When young children feel emotions, it can be strong, and it can feel physically uncomfortable and even scary, further amplifying that emotion and creating a cycle ending in a full-blown tantrum.
When young children feel emotions, it can be strong, and it can feel physically uncomfortable and even scary, further amplifying that emotion and creating a cycle ending in a full-blown tantrum.
Labeling their feelings as they happen can help give them the security of knowing what is happening. Imagine your child wanting your attention RIGHT NOW. You have your hands full putting away the laundry, feeding a younger sibling, and mentally going through your to-do list for the rest of the day. You ask your child to wait a minute. And then? FULL. BLOWN. MELTDOWN.
Now, let’s try this. They ask for you to play, and you can tell your child’s patience is thin. Instead of brushing off their desire, let’s try, “Sounds like you want to play now. I know it can be hard to wait, but I cannot play right now. You are feeling mad. When you get mad you can stomp your feet. First I will finish feeding your sister, then what would you like to play together?”
Not only have you labeled that emotion, but you have also acknowledged that feeling (waiting is hard), offered an appropriate outlet for the emotion (stomping feet), restated the boundary (not right this second), set up expectations (finishing feeding the baby) and completed the cycle with the follow through including giving them some control (then we can play and you can pick what we do).
That’s a lot of emotional support and development from a few quick sentences!
By naming emotions, we tend to talk about them more. We add alternative behaviors, allow the children to feel those feelings and create a safe place for them to express themselves. Reframing our thinking around children’s emotional behavior, and communicating that to them, helps to build emotionally secure and confident people.
About the author: Michelle is a mom of 5 children ranging in age from 5 to 15. As a toddler and preschool teacher, she shares experiences, activities and guidance to other parents, as both a parent and as a professional early childhood educator, at any stage of their parenting journey.
Photo credit: iStock.com/digitalskillet