A mom of an 8-year-old asked us this…
“I don't know what the deal is lately, but I feel like I'm dealing with a teenager. When I try to help her with calming, or offer validation/empathy or suggestions for strategies when she's feeling those big feelings, it may work momentarily but often ends up in something where she digs her heels in and says only a certain thing will help, like punching someone or screaming right here right now…when I explain that's not ok but here are some other options for expressing anger she refuses and turns her anger towards me personally. Then [after she gets it all out] the next hour it's “I love you mom and snuggles and apologies”. What's with this crazy roller coaster?”
This is tough stuff. I imagine you’re feeling frustrated, sad or even concerned…
Here is a little bit of research and then a few steps to calm the storm of emotions.
Research on Emotions
Children thrive when they feel connected. They trust that they will be understood, loved, and protected. When children feel disconnected from us, they don’t feel safe. That means they don’t think well and they can’t regulate their emotions….
Thousands of studies on parenting can be boiled down to this: coaching children so they develop emotional intelligence and self-discipline is the single best way to create happier, more responsible adults. Punishment merely creates more misbehavior.
Steps to Calm the Emotional Storm
Create a calming plan
It’s a personalized plan for each member of your family to do when the “big feelings” come. You can create your very own with the worksheet here. If your child doesn’t want to do the plan that’s okay… you do your plan for yourself at least. When you have found your center, it’s a lot easier to respond effectively when your child has “lost it”.
Set limits, if you need to
I don’t know if this is happening, but if she is trying to hit you… make sure that you are gently protecting yourself. It's okay for you to say, “I don't want to be hit. I'm going to put my arm here because I don't want to be hurt.” It’s important for kids to learn to use words rather than hitting, and to set limits to keep everyone safe.
Examine your own feelings/judgments/fears about this situation
Are your own thoughts making you scared or angry? That’s totally normal too! When our kids have a hard time it’s easy to think, “I’m not a good enough mom” or “She’s a bad kid” or “Something is wrong” etc… Dr. Laura says, “Conflict is part of every human relationship, and all parents sometimes get angry at their children. But when we allow our anger and fear to hijack our reasoning brain… our child begins to look like the enemy. We don’t see our child’s perspective at those moments.” Examine those deeper feelings and thoughts, either with a friend, a professional, or a journal. Bring your thoughts and feelings to the light so you can clearly see your child, without fears and anger clouding your vision.
Create a mantra
What can you tell yourself, that is comforting and true, to give you a new way to relate to this situation… like a mantra or a kind saying. Something like, “Conflict is growth trying to happen” or “This is what it looks like before it all works out” or “This is the most important thing I'll do all day.”
Once you've said your own mantra to yourself, examined your judgements/anger/fear and calmed yourself, it will be easier to give her empathy for what she's going through. Remember, empathy doesn't have to be expressed in words. Empathy could just be your presence or even saying “Oh” “Hmmm” “You didn't want that to happen” and “I see”.
Here’s the Key
All of us, humans, calm down when we’ve been heard, regardless of whether our problem is solved!
That means, with your kids, you don’t have to solve the problem in order for them to calm down. Listen to their feelings, rather than offer them solutions. Chances are, once they’ve unpacked their backpack of emotions, they’ll feel connected again and they’ll know what they can do to solve their problem.
Cecilia and Jason Hilkey