I don’t know what it’s like at your house during those critical hours with kids home, but over here, we have a lot of emotions going on! Someone borrowed headphones without asking so she’s feeling mad. Someone’s hungry and ate the snack that was out for a sibling so one’s hangry and the other’s defensive. Someone has a lot of homework and they’re tired so now they’re overwhelmed and irritable. And it goes on.
The great thing about living in a family is that being around other people always gives a plenty of opportunity to practice managing our brains. This is true for the parents and for the siblings. But helping your kids manage their emotions can be tricky. For one, you can’t make them do it. Believe me, I’ve tried. It turns out that while we can influence our family’s thoughts and emotions and behaviors, we can’t force any of it.
So how do you help kids sort out (and hopefully change) some of those loud emotions?
First notice your impulse to think it needs to change. Remember that life is 50/50 and all of the emotions are valuable. They’re just our body’s way of telling us things. Managing your own mind and emotions comes first.
Now you’re ready to talk to your kids. I don’t know about yours, but my kids are never excited to talk about feelings, especially when they’re in a bad mood! My favorite tool to use is an emotions chart. It can be as simple or detailed as you want depending on the readiness and age of your child. But the idea is that you have a list/chart/pictures of different emotions so that instead of talking to you, they can just point to the thing they’re feeling. This was a game changer for us! Here’s why.
When our kids are deep in an emotion, they’re relying on the more primitive part of their brain. Talking about and managing emotions is a job for the prefrontal cortex and it takes a lot more energy so our body doesn’t love to shift out of the energy efficient primitive brain. When we have a menu of emotions for them to choose from, it takes some of the pressure off their prefrontal cortex and allows them to ease into their rational thinking. Here’s an example of how I might use this tool.
Mom: Hey buddy, it seems like you’re having a rough time this afternoon. Do you want to talk about it?
Son: [grunts] [then growls]
Mom: Here, can you just point to what you’re feeling so I can know how to support you?
Son: points to “mad”
Mom: oh, you’re feeling mad. I can see it now. I bet that’s why you’ve been [insert behavior, yelling/hitting/taking things]. Is your mad feeling more like frustrated or furious or overwhelmed?
Son: [snarls and points to chart aggressively knocking it out of my hand]
Mom: I think you were pointing to furious, but I’m not quite sure. [Holds chart up again]
Son: [points less aggressively this time and shakes his head, no]
Mom: oh, it was overwhelmed! Can you point to where the overwhelm is in your body?
Son: [points to chest, pauses, points to stomach and head]
Mom: I feel overwhelmed lots of times too. I also feel it in my chest, and for me it’s also in my neck a lot. It’s not very comfortable, huh?
Son: [shakes head]
Mom: Is the overwhelm in your chest more hot or cold?
Mom: yeah, I bet it is! Is it fast like lightning or slow like lava?
Mom: ooo, that’s intense. Does it feel like it’s starting in your chest and then slowing burning it’s way through you, spreading everywhere and taking over?
OK, so a couple of things I want you to notice in this scenario (which is based off of actual events in my living room daily, lol). First, my son only says TWO WORDS. This is not necessarily turning into a gab fest where he’s spilling all of his guts and telling me everything that’s going on for him. Expectations for him are low on my part. I’m looking for pointing and nodding/shaking his head as means of communication. I’m meeting him where he’s at. That’s a BIG DEAL to him. Subconsciously 🙂 It’s the equivalent to kneeling down to speak to your toddler at eye level and it makes a huge difference.
Also, notice that his adverse behaviors have stopped, or at least slowed way down. He’s not yelling any more or hitting his sister or whatever. THAT IS PROGRESS and all progress is commendable. We don’t cheer for runners only when they cross the finish line! We line the course and cheer for them the whole way! If you think he’d be receptive, go ahead and tell him that you’re proud of him for calming down enough to let you know how he’s feeling.
Last, I let him feel normal and not criticized when I sympathized with his overwhelm. No matter what he’s feeling, I can relate to it because we’re both humans experiencing human emotions. When I let him know what it’s like for me, I’m giving him permission to explore inside himself how it’s feeling for him. I also am normalizing his emotions so he’s less likely to layer it with shame for feeling things he ‘shouldn’t’. And the cool part is that when he starts thinking about his emotion from the perspective of the watcher (noticing where and how it feels), it starts to shift him our of his primitive brain and into his prefrontal cortex where good decisions are made, YAY!
I’ll talk more on helping your kids work through their emotions soon! But for now, this is the biggest difference maker in our home when emotions are running wild. I can’t wait to hear how it goes for you if you decide to try it out! Send me an email or a DM and share your experience!