The other day I wrote about letting my kids simply feel whatever they feel.
As a parent I am working not squashing my kid’s big, difficult or negative feelings. I am working on not taking my kids feelings personally. I am working on sending the message that it is ok to feel angry, sad, selfish etc.
Those things are about me and how I deal with big feelings, but I am also working on helping my kids deal with their big feelings, and from the response to my earlier post it seems I am not alone when it comes to wanting to help kids deal with big feelings. So today I am going to share a few ways we are working on helping kids deal with big feelings.
Put Feelings into Words
The first thing we do around here when feelings get large is try to put them into words. This is as important for the nine year olds as it is for the three year old who doesn’t have as much self awareness or expressive language. Sometimes when you are feeling wound up and stressed it is hard to know exactly what is happening or how you feeling, and even harder for someone else to understand. So putting feelings into words helps everyone get their heads around what is going on, without assumptions or judgements.
As a student teacher I learned about ‘I messages’ a simple way to express feelings without blame – “I feel ____ when _____ happens.” This is the goal we are working towards – for our kids to be able to give a simple statement of their feelings and they they feel that way. But when you are in the moment, and there is yelling and tears… well… sometimes it’s hard to stop and find the words.
When I need to help my kids find the words I turn the ‘I message’ into a question “Do you feel ______ when ______ happens?”
Do you feel angry when your brother takes the Lego you wanted?
Are you feeling frustrated because you can’t watch the TV show right now?
Do you feel sad because your sister is angry with you?
And for those times when even answering a question is too much I have a stab at it and try and guess what might be going on using statement – “You feel ____ when _____ happens.”
Even if I get it wrong I am at least letting my kids know that I am trying to understand and usually I either get a nod of the head after a few guesses, or it prompts the child into telling me themselves.
Offer an Alternative
While I am working on not squashing my kids feelings, that doesn’t mean I allow them to behave inappropriately.
I spend a lot of time saying things like –
“It’s ok to be angry with your brother but it is not ok to hit him.”
“It’s ok to be frustrated but it is not ok to speak unkindly to people.”
“It is ok to feel cross about having to do the job, but you still have to do it.”
I hope I am sending the message that it is ok to have big feelngs, but how we deal with them is important.
Though simply saying that is usually not enough.
When you are angry and every muscle in your body is tense and you just want to lash out… being told it is ok to feel that way but being stopped from actually lashing out, doesn’t do much to make you feel better. You are still mad, you are still tense, you still want to hit something. So I try to offer an alternate way to expressing anger or getting rid of that wound up feeling.
You can go punch your pillow.
You can talk about it with me.
You can go kick a ball really really hard.
You can go outside and yell at the trees.
You can write or draw about how you feel.
Now that we have figured out what they are feeling, helped them redirect that feeling… now we need to help them calm down.
For some kids, just going off to yell outside is enough to help them calm down, but one of my kids really struggles to get control of his big feelings, even when he want’s to. I need to help him find ways to calm down so he can move on.
Figuring out the best way for your kids to calm down isn’t always easy. For some kid spending time alone, or snuggled under a heavy blanket, or outside may be what they need, but those things don’t help my boy. I once tried telling him to ‘take a breath’ and in between gulping sobs he told me he couldn’t, and that was my light bulb moment!
The idea is to get him to calm down by taking some big breaths, and I do that by making it into a silly game we call ‘Blow Me Away’. After he’s had a good cry I will hug him and whisper in his ear “Blow me away!” Then I pull back, take a comically deep breath and attempt to blow right into his face. He immediately laughs and tries to avoid my breath and then tries to blow into my face. It’s a little gross, but it works!
Set a Limit Then Redirect.
For some kids, doing all of the above is great, and wonderful and helpful… but sometimes those things don’t help your child deal with and then let go of their big feelings.
For some kids, and I have one of them, the raging and crankiness can go on and on and on even after you have talked about their feelings and helped them channel them into more appropriate behaviour and given them a chance to calm down.
I’ve tried letting my rager go, giving her space to just yell and cry and be cranky… but experience has shown me that this doesn’t actually help her, and often just makes things worse. Once she gets past a certain point it is like she can no longer see a way out, she can’t calm down and that makes her feel worse and the anger and sadness just compound the longer it goes on.
For that child I need to set a limit. A very firm limit.
“You’ve had 20 minutes to be angry and get your feelings out, now it is time to move on.”
Moving on involves finding something else to do on your own, or being given a task to do (she is nine, but for younger kids I’d just offer a choice of two things you know they would like).
The tasks I offer are always something that involves physical movement, but not a lot of thought. I have found things like building lego, or folding washing, or painting, or walking to the letter box – something that involves her body but is easy for her – gives her an opportunity to fully engage in the new task while she slowly lets her anger or sadness ebb away.
More Resources and Ideas
I don’t know about you but I am always glad to find out I am not alone when dealing with these parenting struggles. Here are some stories and helpful ideas from other parents and professionals.
Teaching Peace to an Unpeaceful Child
Be a Peacemaker eLesson from Playful Learning (affiliate link)
Helping Children Manage Big Emotions – free printable poster
Fostering Emotional Literacy in our Children.
Emotional Intelligence Face Activity
Helping Children Recognize and Practice Kindness in Speech
When Extreme Emotions Take Over a Toddler
There are loads more of great blog posts and resources online for helping kids deal with big emotions. I’ve listed my favourites above but I’d love you to share your ideas and links in the comments too.