We’ve all witnessed it – our serene and blissful child transforming before our eyes over a seemingly small disappointment or discomfort. His freshly built, wooden bridge toppling over with little brother’s touch. Her sock being situated incorrectly within a shoe. The cookie denied. Suddenly our little one’s breath becomes shallow, tears spring to their eyes. Perhaps they let out a howl. Perhaps they flail their arms or legs.
There are so many reasons why a child may find himself in a rapid release of overwhelming emotions, unable to see things in a rational way. Maybe yesterday they had a long ride in the car, energy suppressed, all cooped up. Or maybe bedtime was late with an early rise for school. Now they’ve lost their ability to process things in a balanced way. Maybe they were so excited for school, they couldn’t focus on breakfast and their blood sugar is sending them on a roller-coaster ride. Maybe they took in too much television, toys with bright lights or sugary snacks. Or maybe they are experiencing tremendous development, seeing the world through new eyes and fearful of all these great, new challenges. Whether exhaustion, hunger, over-stimulation or natural development is the cause of a child’s break with their ability to process things peacefully, their ability to overcome these moments – self-worth intact – is all in the hands of their caregivers. These moments can be beautiful and transformative, filled with a parent or caregiver’s love and understanding or they can be sad and lonely times for a child.
When these moments occur in our home, I am learning to bring a more steady and observing energy to the situation and gaining in return a deeper closeness with my sons once the storm has passed. Positioning myself as a headlight in the distance allows my children to be guided back to the individuals we both know they really are, positive sense-of-self intact, feeling loved. It doesn’t work all of the time and sometimes I forget. This is a journey and all we can do is put our best foot forward again and again.
These are a few ways that I have helped my children when they have been overcome by their feelings:
1. When emotions run high there is always time to take a moment and decide how you will proceed. There is time to take a breath and center yourself before responding. Breath deeply, maybe sit down or kneel beside your child and collect your own thoughts and emotions. Maybe find a memory of a time when you have lost yourself and remember how scary and powerful that moment can be. Find a place of compassion within your being. Soften your eyes and release any feeling of needing this situation to be over. It will be over in good time.
2. Resist the urge to convince your child not to feel what they are feeling. Instead, in your most understanding tone, say something like, “that is a very big feeling you are having.” If you mean it, they will know. Then just sit and observe for a moment, concentrating on your breath. There is time for this as well, for waiting, for looking on and being steady. It doesn’t matter if you are in the grocery store, the doctor’s office or in your front yard. Most people will understand your situation. Try your best to ignore those who do not.
3. Without words, stroke your child’s arm or offer to pick your child up allowing them to choose whether or not your embrace will help. Validate their sense of loss or disappointment, upset or confusion with a simple phrase like, “Oh, I have felt that way before too.” “I can understand how you must feel.” After all, aren’t children mirrors of the emotions they witness in the world around them? Often they are simply demonstrating exaggerated version of the very same emotions we experience as adults.
4. For the younger child who may not understand these phrases, try instead saying something like, “Mama knows” a few times and wiping their tears oh-so-delicately.
5. Designate a safe place within your home that you may go to recover from incidents such as these. For instance in our home, we’ve created a “peace circle” (thanks to the suggestion of a wise babysitter and kindergarten teacher). This place is a sometimes circle, sometimes oval, crafted out of various pillows and balance boards where we spend time when we are struggling. As your child begins calming down, you may suggest that you go together to this special place for some comfort. Walk slowly, gently with your child to this space, setting the tone. Spend time there reading or playing quietly throughout the day so that your child’s special place has a positive association. Once the idea of a sacred space is established in your child’s mind, you may create this same sort of place anywhere you go, simply by giving it the same name.
6. Know that these caring gestures do not mean that you should “given in” to the demands, request or situation that brought on the episode. We are not called as parents to allow our children everything they want or think they need but to stand by instead helping them to experience their own – very significant – feelings in a safe and loving way.
7. Observe your inner dialogue when these issues arise and notice whether or not you might be able to loosen your grip and allow for things to unfold in the most natural way possible. Notice any tension throughout your body. Notice where anger may arise. Work to recognize these feelings, validate them and then allow for them to fall away from you. So much of how we respond to our children has to do with our own upbringing. Make certain that your response is in alignment with your present-self, not your child- self.
8. If things are not quieting down or are escalating, try stepping a few feet away from your child and beginning a tactile task. Folding clothes, stacking blocks, braiding yarn. These activities may draw a child out of themselves and allow them to begin again with something new.
9. Allow your child to rebound with dignity maybe saying something like, “wow, that was a very big feeling you were having!” “I am so glad you are feeling better now.” “Let’s go and …..” Try not to lecture your child as to what they should have felt or done differently.
10. And, finally, most importantly, know that what your child needs more than anything when they are falling apart is to have someone by their side who loves them and knows how to put them back together again. Knowing they aren’t alone, knowing someone understands them, the presence of these things, will create fewer and fewer falling-apart moments and allow for more wholeness in your home and in your life again.