As a mom I have been guilty many times of brushing off my kids’ big emotions because it wasn’t convenient or fun to deal with them. But as my children have gotten older, I’ve realized I can’t expect them to learn what I’m not willing to teach. If we want our kids to reason calmly, self-regulate, and offer empathy to others, we have to show them how to do it.
It’s hardly helpful to tell a child to “stop crying” when something has upset them. We don’t say this to other adults! Why? Because we know it’s not that simple. Not all tears are the same – sometimes a kid is being selfish and manipulative and sometimes they are genuinely upset by something that may or may not seem “justified” in your adult eyes. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. Helping kids learn how to cope with disappointment, sadness, or fear is rarely going to be convenient. Raising kind, caring adults with some degree of emotional intelligence takes effort.
But how? Sometimes knowing where to start when the drama unfolds is too overwhelming.
About a year ago, I felt convicted that I had been impatient with my children, repeatedly deeming their troubles “unworthy” of my time. What would happen, I wondered, if instead of threatening or bribing them to stop, I stepped into their mess and tried to show them how to handle – or even avoid – an emotional meltdown? How does that even work? After a few floundering attempts, I started making making progress – but it wasn’t until I asked my kids to blow out an imaginary birthday candle that we struck gold.
Here’s what I do now when a meltdown is looming:
1. Come in close. Don’t tower over them – meet them where they are. Kneel down in front of them to be at their eye level, or sit in a chair and pull them into your lap so they feel safe. Speak calmly, but firmly. Smile!
2. Blow out a birthday candle! Coach them through the mechanics of deep breathing – in through the nose and out through the mouth. My little ones struggled with this until I asked them to “blow out a birthday candle” holding my index finger up in front of them. It’s something they can relate to; something with a happy connotation for them to focus on. It becomes a game and they instantly smile! Together we inhale through the nose, and together we blow out the candle so that I can set the pace and slow their breathing. Do this as many times as it takes for them to feel calmer. Sometimes they are happy to stop here without Steps 3-5!
3. Listen. Encourage your child to use their words to explain what they are feeling. Help them name emotions and ask leading questions if they have trouble verbalizing what’s going on internally. If the problem at hand seems ridiculous to me, this is when I’m particularly tempted to bribe or threaten them – FIGHT THE URGE! It’s important to them, and they are important to you. Keep going. Your response, your words, and your reactions will become their “inner voice” as they learn to process thoughts and feelings on their own. And that’s the whole point!
4. Offer solutions. Don’t skip straight to this step just to save time. After your child has been reassured you love them, calmed themselves and expressed their feelings they are ready for a plan of action. The younger the child, the more input you can offer (i.e. my 3-year-old has less of a say in his solutions than his 6-year-old sister does. She is ready to begin her own problem solving, while he still needs to be told what a good solution looks like). Giving them a plan removes the frustrating feeling of helplessness we all despise.
5. End on a positive note! A kiss, a piece of gum, their favorite book – whatever helps them transition back into their day. The time you take to enter into their problem and guide them through it will give them the security and confidence to handle life’s lemons as they get older.