Helping your child to navigate their emotions
We are all born with emotions. What we aren’t born with is the skillset to regulate those emotions. These are skills we have to build.
Children often struggle with experiencing big emotions. Not knowing how to express them appropriately and how to regulate them translates to challenging and big behaviours for parents to navigate.
Sometimes it can be helpful to think of emotions as the waves of the sea. For us as adults, we might experience crashing waves or choppy waters of emotions, but we can mostly acknowledge that waves pass, that tides change and that the waves can be ‘surfed’.
For children, waves are big, they are scary. Children don’t know what the waves are, they don’t know that they will pass and they don’t know how to surf them. Our jobs as parents is to reassure them that the big waves won’t always be scary, that they fluctuate and that they can even learn to surf their waves. Think of your role as the life saver – you don’t want to rescue them whenever they are ‘dunked’ or stop them spending time in the water. It’s important for them to learn how to swim and surf for them to survive – your role is to teach them the skills and be there when they really need you.
So, what do we mean by big feelings? Big feelings refer to the big overwhelming feelings that we all find difficult to navigate – mainly anger, sadness, fear, shame, and embarrassment. It’s really important that we do not label them as ‘bad’. They aren’t something to avoid, as these feelings are natural, healthy and important, so we call them big – they are big waves that can ‘wipe us out’ and lead to challenging behaviour.
Every child is different in relation to how quickly they will ‘learn to surf’ and navigate their emotions. This is a gradual learning process, one where we can have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days. Just like adults, we can be really attuned one day and the next be exhausted, sick, hungry or tired and go ‘backwards’ or struggle to communicate our feelings (hangry anyone?).
However, there are a few different stages in learning about feelings –
Stage 1 – Noticing the symptoms – being able to identify how they are feeling. We can help this by pointing out expressions or using “I wonder” statements. For example “he took your toy, I wonder if you are feeling sad?” or “I see your eyes are big, and you’re holding on extra tight to mum’s hand – it looks like you might be feeling worried.” As you notice and talk about these things, it can help your child to notice them too. You can also point out feelings of characters in books or tv shows, or people you know.
Stage 2 – Adding descriptors to feelings – as they get older, we can get them to describe how intense or big the feelings may be or add additional feelings. For example, using a thermometer to identify what a 2/10 angry response feels like, as opposed to a 10/10. They may also be able to identify additional feelings such as guilt connected to their anger.
Stage 3 – Learning concrete strategies for calming down – teaching them about strategies for working through their feelings. Things like talking to someone, taking deep breaths, moving away from the situation that’s upsetting them or asking for help. Practice these skills when they’re calm.
Stage 4 – Being able to implement calming strategies with big emotions – This next challenge is implementing the strategies from stage 3 in the moment when they are experiencing the big emotions. This can be easier said than done, but is possible with practice.
Stage 5 – Understanding what triggers big emotions – Many adults are still learning this step! Increasing awareness of what situations are often challenging for them and thinking of ways to make those more manageable.
What can help?
To understand what to do with emotions and when, it’s helpful to understand Dan Siegel’s upstairs and downstairs brain. The upstairs part of the brain is where we can make decisions, show empathy, have self control etc. This is where language and conversation are helpful. The downstairs brain is where we respond, where we react – where fight and flight lives – this is when we behave.
It’s not easy to discuss emotions with a child when they are only accessing their downstairs brain – when it is in a state of alarm. Therefore, we need to wait until the child calms down or to help them calm down, before we start trying to talk to them. This short video should help you understand the brain a little better and hopefully a way to explain it to your child, too.
With that in mind – here is our road map:
1. When big waves of feelings emerge and meltdowns/tantrums happen. Be there, be present but resist the urge to fix. It’s important for our children to know we are there and they are not alone. When your child is melting down, or having a tantrum, be there in a safe way. Remind them that you are there when they need you. Focus on keeping your own oxygen mask on using calm breathing or something that keeps you calm and relaxed.
2. When the wave has passed discuss what happened:
a. What happened there?
b. What feelings came up? Can they describe the feeling or the wave?
c. What could we try next time?
d. Restore – apologise if you lost your temper or got frustrated. If your child tries to restore it’s important to give space for this.
3. When they’re calm – try to teach them alternative skills to surf their waves. This could be calm breathing, muscle relaxation, talking about their feelings, taking space etc.
Why we should describe our feelings
As our children get older, it’s important to help them to expand on the questions in step 2 – in particular question b regarding what the feeling was. This is to develop their emotional literacy in how they identify, name and describe feelings.
The Anger Iceberg was first coined by The Gottman Institute. A team of researchers spearheaded by psychologists John and Julie Gottman noted that anger is often the part of the iceberg we can see but underneath are other feelings, such as shame, fear, embarrassment, jealousy, grief etc. It’s important to develop our ability to name some of the more challenging emotions underneath the surface so we can better navigate the feelings.
This question is also a good opportunity to teach your child about the strength and/or intensity of their emotions. Some feelings are small and easy to ignore. Some are challenging but manageable. Some are so big that they overwhelm us. Your child may find visual tools helpful for these discussions – something like a thermometer to show where their feelings are at e.g. boiling point or starting to heat up.
At first, you may need to label for your child where you think certain behaviours are on the scale and what you notice they need e.g. space, as this can be difficult for them to determine. However, gradually, you’ll ask them to add to their thermometer themselves and describe how they’re feeling. Eventually, our goal is for them to notice when they’re “heating up” and use soothing strategies to “cool down.”
Zones of Regulation
An alternative to this is Leah Kuyper’s Zones of Regulation. This framework helps children understand and categorise feelings and help them to communicate how they're feeling in a safe, non-judgmental way. It also helps children to identify and remind themselves of strategies and tools to help them move between zones. There is no bad zone, but it focuses on helping children to learn and use strategies that would help children move into their “Green Zone”.
The four zones are:
- The Blue Zone – low states of alertness – when they may be feeling sad, tired or bored and their brain and body feels like it’s moving slowly
- The Green Zone – a regulated state of alertness – feeling calm, happy, focused or content – this is the ideal state for things like school work or when trying to play with others
- The Yellow Zone – a heightened state – feeling stressed, frustrated, anxious, silly or excited – we might see the child wiggling, seeking stimulation, having trouble listening and distracted
- The Red Zone – having big, intense feelings – feeling angry, panicked, raged with explosive behaviour. In this zone – the person feels out of control of their behaviour.
You can then work with your child on helping them to identify their zones and how to best help them get to and stay in the green zone. This provides a great shared vocabulary to discuss their feelings in and to add and build skills into different zones.
Talking to your child about feelings
This really can be challenging, as we sometimes aren’t attuned to our own feelings. But the following are some great steps to guide you in the process:
- Provide children with prompts, such as visual reminders of ways they can manage big emotions. This might be visual cues in their room, or a calm box, or a special toy – like a Brave and Able Breathing Buddy.
- Help them to learn skills and language around their emotions. You could observe “You seem very frustrated.” Or “I see your smile, you must feel happy.” Using emotion words can make children feel seen and increasing a child’s ability to communicate is key to handling anger and frustration. Remember the saying – name it to tame it, as Dan Seigel mentioned in the above video. Help give them the language to know the feeling and feel like they can manage it.
- Look for opportunities when playing or when together as a family to introduce regulation activities. These can include stop and go games where you move from excited (go) to calm (stop), like dance/freeze, musical chairs, what’s the time doctor wolf etc.
- Use social stories and discuss events before they happen to start processing feelings early. For example, talk about what to expect at a birthday party, or at the doctor and let them know what is expected of them and what they can do if they aren’t coping. You can encourage them to ask you for help, get some space, have a special signal etc. This can be expanded by using play – for example playing doctors.
- Explain fight, flight and freeze – it’s important to help them understand why big feelings can overwhelm us and make it hard for us to think about how we act. Explaining the physiological aspects of fight, flight and freeze are important to normalise and explain what is happening in their bodies, something like:
When we feel like something might hurt us, or hurt our feelings, our brain signals off its own kind of fire alarm – this fire station is often called a fight, flight and freeze response. This fire station’s job, like real fire fighters, is to keep us safe. The Fire station keeps us safe but isn’t very good at knowing whether something dangerous is happening right now or was just a memory or something we are worried about. Sometimes when a situation, or somebody, or a feeling reminds us of something that has happened before, like a memory, this can set off the fire station too. When the fire station ‘goes off’ – just like if it goes off at school or in a building, everything else has to be evacuated, and stops working. This includes the part of your brain that helps us make good decisions, it can think things through, and solve problems and can help us understand different perspectives. When the fire station goes off the brain thinks what is most important in keeping us safe and alive – and therefore all our energy goes into our body (e.g. our muscles to help us run, our heart beats faster), and it takes away all the energy from our brain - That means that when we are in fight/flight/freeze, we can’t “think” clearly – as it doesn’t have the energy to do its job. When we breathe slowly and calmly, or do something to calm our bodies down – it tells the fire station we are safe, and our body and brain go back to normal – we can learn, and think again!
- Use Dan Siegel’s concepts of left and right brain. We need to connect first with the right brain – someone’s emotional brain via touch, empathy and validation. For example, give your child a hug, and validate their feeling e.g. “it’s okay to feel angry – I am here”. Then connect with their left brain, their logical brain, when they are calm. Explain the boundary and make amends “it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to hit, next time, let’s try to stomp our feet when we are feeling angry”.
To wrap it up
None of us were born knowing how to surf our emotions, or how to regulate them. Part of our role as parents is to help teach our children that emotions might be uncomfortable, but they can’t hurt us. We can nurture their ability to manage their emotions in a healthy and adaptive way.
Be patient as your children learn how to navigate feelings and be patient with yourself as you help them to do so.
Written by Dr Lauren Moulds, Principal Psychologist, Big Little Steps Psychology for Brave and Able