Understanding how emotions function in humans has been instrumental in guiding how I parent my three children, and it’s one of my favourite pieces of education to teach parents when we begin treatment together. Having a framework to lean back on in moments that our children are dysregulated helps parents to know what’s happening moment to moment for their child, what to do, and when to do it. The way we respond and the timing of our responses are important. This framework provides the reassurance and confidence that parents need to respond effectively to their child’s emotions for years to come.
Three truths about emotions
- Stress is inevitable at every stage of development. Human responses to stress come in the form of emotions.
- Emotions come in a wave- they have a beginning, a peak in middle, and an end.
- It is critical for humans to experience the full wave of emotion to achieve long-term emotional health. This means they have to experience the discomfort of the peak of the emotion and have the confidence to know that the emotion will come down the other side.
Think of the last time you had an intense negative emotion.
Be it sadness, guilt, shame or anger. It’s uncomfortable. We are all motivated to get out of this state, and we generally know that all things pass and that the intensity of emotions eventually comes down.
Children don’t have a fully developed frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that helps us do many important things for planning and organization and is also critical for regulating ourselves. As such, having an intense negative emotion can be unbearably uncomfortable for little people- for them, it sometimes feels like it will never end! This explains why children have tantrums, cling to parents, become aggressive, or shut down and withdraw. When their emotions come on fast, the urge that goes along with the emotion is hard to regulate, and the result is often an unwanted behaviour that comes out of the body. This is also why they need you to help them to regulate their emotions. They need your co-regulation.
I believe that how we respond to our child’s emotions are predictive of how our children will learn to regulate themselves in the long term. So, how we respond to our child’s emotions matters- A LOT. I know that as parents, we are doing the best we can in tough moments with our children, however sometimes- with the very best of intentions- we respond in ways that hinder or prevent the learning of important emotion regulation skills.
Here are two common parent traps that I often see parents fall into when they respond to their child’s emotions:
1. Parents respond to their child’s emotions by allowing the escape of the wave of emotion. Sometimes, parents have difficulty seeing their child upset and become triggered themselves. As a result, parents do things to alleviate painful emotions in their children by distracting them, removing their child from a stressful environment or by just working hard to prevent stressors from triggering their child in the first place. Examples of escaping the wave look like giving in to your child’s wish to have a cookie before dinner after you have said no, and they have become dysregulated. Take your child to their first skating class and leave promptly because they are scared and have a meltdown and will not get on the ice. Call your child’s school to ensure your child is placed with their best buddy so they won’t feel uncomfortable at school.
Here’s the thing about escaping the wave:
- The reason we do it is that it works well in the short term. We alleviate distress, kids feel better, on we go….until the next time.
- We are preventing our children from experiencing the full wave of emotion, thus limiting their ability to practice regulating their emotions.
When parents respond to their child’s emotions by allowing the escape of the wave of emotion.
2. Parents respond to their child’s emotions by escalating emotions and adding waves. Sometimes parents have difficulty relating to their child’s pain and/or have challenges regulating themselves. As a result, parents respond by trying to “fix” the problem, minimize their child’s distress, or become frustrated by the intensity and frequency of their child’s emotions. In these situations, parents tend to do a lot of talking, rationalizing and sometimes pleading with their child.
Here’s the thing about responses that lead to escalation of the wave:
- Kids feel unseen, unheard, and misunderstood
- They move into other emotions (often anger) as a result of point (a)
- Parents feel ineffective, exhausted, and at times guilty for how we have responded
- Again, we are preventing our children from experiencing the full wave of emotion, thus limiting their ability to practice regulating their emotions.
When Parents respond to their child’s emotions by escalating emotions and adding waves.
While there are many unintended consequences of our responses to child emotions, perhaps the most concerning is the notion that we may be getting in the way of our child’s ability to regulate their emotions. Remember: It is critical for humans to experience the full wave of emotion. If we respond to their distress by moving them off of the wave via escape or escalation- we are preventing them from learning to experience and tolerate their emotions and develop their own independent coping strategies when painful emotions come up.
We are instrumental in how our children learn to regulate themselves. First, we do it for them, then we do it with them, and eventually, they will be able to do it for themselves.
So….what should we do?
Learn to regulate yourself. The easiest thing for me to say and the hardest thing to do! I believe that all parents need to have a reliable way to calm their bodies down to be in a place to parent mindfully and intentionally. Breathe, meditate, exercise- find a practice that will help to regulate yourself every day, and in the moments your child triggers you with their dysregulation. Like any other skill, you need the practice under your belt to draw on the skill when you need it most. You don’t show up to a marathon having never run a mile.
Don’t talk too much. Children can’t take in any information when they are in an emotional state. Talking too much often backfires so save your words for later (see step 4).
Let them ride their wave. The full, ugly, uninterrupted- sometimes very long- wave. Get out of the way. Stay close and let them use your regulation to help regulate themselves. Name their emotions- and let them know that those emotions make sense. Hug them if they will let you, breathe deep, and stay close.
This is the essence of co-regulation.
Do the talking after the wave has passed. If problems need to be solved, repairs need to be made, or processing needs to take place- do all of that after the intensity of the wave has passed when their brain is in a place to hear you again.
The moments when intense emotions fire are challenging. I encourage parents to reframe these moments as little gifts our children give us to help them learn the complicated skill of emotion regulation. The skill of tolerating discomfort, sitting with pain, and feeling the emotion- while limiting (or at least delaying) the unwanted behaviours. They’ll thank you when they are fully launched and prepared to face the inevitable stressors that life throws at them.
There is so much we can do to help prepare our children for long-term emotional health. Check out my prevention workshop on Regulating Your Child for many tips and strategies on being proactive about learning the skills to help children build emotion regulation.