Inside: We feel uncomfortable with big displays of emotions because we have been taught that emotions need to be “controlled.” But what if the tantrums and meltdowns we see in our kids are them trying to express big emotions? What if instead of trying to “control” the behavior we could instead help them express how they feel in a way that honors their needs and the needs of those around them?
Imagine for a moment that emotions are neither bad nor good, that they are simply pure energy. Now imagine that you can use that energy however you want to use it — perhaps to withdraw into comfort or to push forward and try to do something hard or to reach out and connect with someone.
This is the theory of functional emotions — the idea that emotions have a function and exist for a reason.
When you think about emotions in this way, you realize that much of what you know about emotion has been colored by cultural messages. That our own discomfort with displays of emotions comes from an ingrained belief that emotions should be controlled, avoided, or dismissed as illogical.
In our attempt to control and avoid discomfort, we end up stuffing those emotions down inside until we become filled with anxiety or we explode. Unknowingly, we may be passing this harmful message of repressing emotions to our kids.
Our first instinct when our children have big emotions is to stop the emotion — to make it better — to fix it. We hurt when our children hurt.
This is especially true for big displays of emotions like tantrums or melt-downs.
What if instead of trying to “control” our children’s emotions we help them express how they feel in a way that honors their needs and the needs of those around them? What if we could help our children see their emotions as helpful rather than harmful? To accept their emotions as a part of life.
Simply emotional energy – neither bad nor good – rather ‘it is what it is.’
The Science of Emotions: Accepting Emotions Leads to Psychological Resilience
The repression of emotions has been solidly linked to health problems, immune functioning, chronic conditions, depression, and more.
Some of the research I have done in children looks at the biological load of emotion — basically, we ask the question: How stressful is emotion in the body?
We compared children who suppressed distress to children who openly expressed their distress and found that the children who suppressed their emotions had higher cardiovascular arousal and greater stress enzymes.
In other words, the biological stress or load is higher for children who suppress their emotions.
In a study with adults, cardiovascular measures were taken after a social stress test. As you would expect, the participants became stressed in response to the test — their heart rates increased, their palms started sweating, and their blood vessels constricted.
Blood vessel constriction or narrowing of the arteries is one reason that chronic stress is associated with heart disease.
Participants were then told that sensations of stress — the racing heart, the sweaty palms — are a functional and adaptable response. That stress can be helpful.
After a second stress test, participants still showed an increase in heart rate, but the blood vessel constriction was gone.
Thinking about stress as helpful instead of harmful made it true. The harmful biological effects of stress were gone.
Repression of emotion leads to a greater load on the body. Expressing emotion and thinking about emotion as functional changes the harmful effects on the body. This is amazing!
If we can help our children name their feelings and experience their feelings, emotions will begin to work for them rather than against them.
The Two-Step Mindful Emotions System
Automatic reactions to emotion are often impulsively lashing out or trying to stuff our emotions down inside and inhibit — neither of these is healthy long-term.
In contrast, mindfully experiencing emotions means we are aware of our emotions, we name them, and we experience them. Being mindful of our feelings leads to being able to respond rather than react.
This is the heart of emotion regulation — flexible responding, rather than automatic reacting.
How to Emotion Coach Your Child Through a Tantrum
The next time your child has a meltdown, see their smallness. See how their emotions are bigger than they are. And in that moment of truly seeing them, you will empathy rather than exasperation.Ashley Soderlund
Step One: Name the Emotion
The first step to mindfully experiencing emotions is to help your child to notice how they feel. To help them to recognize the sensation of anger or worry and to be able to name it.
Naming the emotion makes it less overwhelming because it is identified as an emotion — not who you are. Not as something controlling you. Not as something that will last forever. Naming the emotion demystifies it.
This step alone is so powerful for kids of all ages.
Children are still learning to identify their emotions, so helping them name their feelings will help them feel understood — to feel seen. By naming how they feel, they also acknowledge that feeling without trying to change it or avoid it — a keystone of emotional intelligence.
They simply notice the emotion as a part of themselves.
In this step — do not say: “You are mad.” Instead say, “I notice that you are feeling some mad feelings.” Or, “it seems like part of you is feeling angry,” or “do you notice that you have a big feeling inside?”
This way the emotion is something to notice, not who they are.
It is helpful to have tools for this step to help children identify how they feel. Books about emotions or stuffies with different expressions are wonderful to have in a calm-down space.
Because so many of my readers have emailed me over the years asking about how to do this step, I decided to create an instantly downloadable tool that you can print and use today.
I worked with an illustrator to create a set of printable tools designed specifically for helping children develop the skill to identify their emotions. I just love how the emotions come to life in these characters!
My Mindful Emotions Toolkit includes an Emotion Poster, Emotion Cards, Emotion Wheel, and Emotion Thermometers. The thermometers help your child to begin to think about emotions as energy as well. You can see more here: Mindful Emotions Toolkit for Kids.
Step Two: Hold Space For The Emotion With A Flexible Choice and Build Emotion Regulation Skills
After you help your child name and notice the emotion, you allow for them to feel it and reset.
Resetting or recentering is a step we often miss in helping our children manage emotions — but coming back to yourself can help strengthen your child’s sense of self — their core beliefs about themselves, security in themselves, and their confidence or self-efficacy.
Emotions come and go. In the “calm” times we have self-energy — theorized to include the 8C’s — Curiosity, Calmness, Clarity, Courage, Connectedness, Confidence, Creativity, and Compassion.
The gateway back to self-energy is through sensory activities — doing things that are immersive and that your child loves to do. This is what you are scaffolding for your child to in the second step.
The second step is to give your child a choice — ask your child, “do you want comfort, space, or silliness?™“
With that choice, you are giving your child a strategy for how to handle that big emotion and also to recenter back to their self-energy.
Some children want comfort when they are upset and seek connection. In the midst of a tantrum, these children may be soothed by a simple hug.
Other children need space to feel the emotion. They need a break. They are easily over-stimulated and need to process that emotion.
And some children, usually highly spirited children, need a stress release, they need to vent the feelings of anger and frustration inside. This is where silliness and playfulness can be a good choice.
The Mindful Emotion Toolkit™ helps to introduce children to this choice. Included in the toolkit are 21 regulation cards divided into the categories of Comfort, Space, or Silliness™.
The cards use mindful techniques that build emotion-regulation skills like mindful breathing, silly venting, sensory activities, and yoga poses.
It can also be the case that different situations or different emotions call for one of these three choices.
When a child is really angry, space or silliness strategies might be more effective than comfort. Research shows that enhancing anger with aggression, like punching a pillow when you are mad, can lead to poorer cardiovascular outcomes.
But silly venting — where anger turns to laughter and releases pent-up stress, can relax the sympathetic nervous system.
Comforting when angry can actually escalate the emotion in some children. When children are sad or worried, they may be more likely to seek comfort.
An Example: Two-Step Mindful Emotions System™
You are in the parking lot, and your 3-year-old wants to run. You scoop her up, and she starts to hit, flail, and scream. She is mad because her impulse to run has been blocked.
As your child is flailing in your arms, you say:
“It is okay to feel angry, but not to show your anger with hands and feet. Are you feeling angry?”
Your child replies with a wail of frustration, but the flailing stops with your acknowledgment:
“That sounds like a mad sound! It is not safe to run here, and I will keep you safe. You can choose if you want comfort, space, or silliness™.”
Your child says — “I feel mad! I want to be silly!”
“Okay, silly faces while we get in the car seat, let’s go!”
Building a Foundation for Emotional Intelligence
This is a deceptively simple strategy that helps your child develop a strong foundation for emotional intelligence. With these two steps children will learn that:
- Emotions are just a part of them — that they are not who they are.
- Feelings come and they go.
- Once they recenter they see that they have self-energy separate from emotional energy.
- Our feelings can be a message about what we might need or what we might learn.
- Emotions are not scary. We can experience them and send them on there way.
With these two simple steps, you are doing two powerful things: Honoring how your child feels and giving your child a way to regulate that emotion. And you can do this anywhere! Even in a parking lot!
Keep in mind that the parts of the brain underlying regulation are just barely organized at age three and will continue to develop until about the age of seven.
This system works for both younger and older children. Younger children are learning how to identify emotions and make a choice that feels right for them. For older children, the system helps them realize emotions are just one part of them and that they can choose how to respond and then recenter.
Your child will not always be able to do these two steps. That is perfectly and developmentally normal. That is also why it is important that any strategy that you use is no more than two steps. Children will struggle to identify how they feel and the emotions may be so big, it is hard for them to make a choice.
In these moments, use a basic Feeling-Break time-in and help to scaffold these skills with them by using tools and printable prompts.
With consistent use over time, your child will be able to use these strategies on the fly without tools or prompts! By consistently guiding your child through these two steps you will build a foundation of healthy emotion regulation that will serve them their whole life.
These practices lead to awareness of our emotions. Being mindful of our feelings leads to being able to respond rather than react.
Mindfully experiencing emotions means we recognize our emotions, we pay attention to them, and we acknowledge that emotional energy, stuffing down inside is no longer needed. And without needing to “control” your child’s emotions, your own stress, your own biological load, will be lifted as well.
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