Meltdowns, tantrums, hitting, biting, screaming, crying, demanding. There’s not a parent on the planet who doesn’t feel triggered when their kids find themselves stuck in their brainstem, where FLIGHT, FIGHT and FREEZE rule the day.
Not surprisingly, the hardest moments for us to be with as parents are the most important. Navigating emotions with our kids.
How can we help our kids dig their way out of the many dark places they find themselves in the course of a day? One thing’s for sure, if we’re a family that allows for feelings, we are going to see big emotions expressed on a DAILY basis.
There will be only orange popsicles left when green is the color your child wants. Birthday parties and too much sugar. Bedtimes that get missed. Friends that don’t want to play that game right now and siblings that want the very same toy. Building emotional intelligence as a family can help us navigate all of the above and more.
Here are five things you can do to help your family build emotional intelligence (EQ):
1. HOLD EMOTIONS AS SACRED
Repeat after me: “If I have kids (humans?) in the house, feelings there will be.” And I mean daily. Big, messy, sometimes scary and often times ugly feelings. Once we as parents stop feeling broken because we fear our kids are broken (or why the hell else would they be acting so damn emotional all the time and what the hell did I do wrong?!?! Yeah, been there myself more than a few times), it’s amazing how much energy we can free up to then help our kiddos manage their freak-outs. This first step for building EQ requires very little action from us, but a whole-lotta effort.
Holding emotions as sacred. This mostly happens inside of us. When you begin to fully accept children’s big emotions as sacred (even as they melt down right before your very eyes) the shift in you, though often a quiet one, will be notable in two important ways that even a baby can discern. 1) through your accepting/present eye contact and 2), by the expression on your face and your body language as a whole. To cue your child’s brain with your body language in a way that helps them feel safe, simply squat down, uncross your arms (if they are crossed as mine tend to want to be) and be available. Offer hugs more than demand them. Sometimes hugs help – and sometimes they make your child want to scratch your eyes out even more than they already did a second ago. Depends. 😉
2. HELP KIDS “NAME IT TO TAME IT”
This second step is just as simple as it sounds. Your child didn’t get the color popsicle they wanted and as they crumble to the floor in disappointment you say, “Wow, you really like orange popsicles don’t you? You really wanted the orange one. You are feeling so sad (or mad or disappointed, whatever it looks like they are feeling) you didn’t get the color you wanted!” Then pause. Allow your child the time and space to take in the reassurance you are offering.
In naming and not judging your child’s feelings, you are modeling high level emotional intelligence (mindfulness, acceptance, self control, empathy and even kindness). You are teaching them even though you are not preaching to them.
3. SHOW KINDNESS WHEN IT IS UNEXPECTED
In this third step to teaching EQ, practice pausing, breathing and standing by quietly as your child expresses him or herself. If you hold this space long enough, you might find your emotional child melting into your arms rather than your angry child, retreating to their room feeling upset and confused, blaming YOU and your reaction to their upset as the cause of their angst.
With sobbing child in arms, you might find yourself feeling a little bit surprised and maybe even relieved. Do not be fooled. It’s not over yet. Continue to hold the space. I like to say to myself, “ZIP IT” right about this moment because the drive to preach in this teaching moment runs deep. Remind yourself, the moment is talking to your child much louder than your words ever could right this second. Let your kindness do the talking. Allow for the moment and focus on being there for your child not being right. You can always talk things through later to drive home the finer points when things are less emotional and true learning stands a real chance of happening.
Your child will internalize your unexpected kindness. And heck, you just might be on the receiving end of it one unexpected day soon.
4. OWN YOUR OWN EMOTIONS
If you can own your own emotions instead of projecting them back on your child, what happens on the other side is magic. The aftermath of a child with big emotions, fully expressed and met with love, will astound you.
In the matter of the wrong colored popsicle, after an accepting hug and some tears shed, you might see your child take a deep breath, collect him or herself a bit, and then move those little legs quickly over to the freezer to grab an orange popsicle, somehow now seemingly oblivious to the fact that the thing still isn’t green like they’d been so torn up about just a second ago. It’s not that they don’t care anymore, it’s that they did care, they felt heard, and now they’re over it. Consider it payback for holding your SH*# together in step #3.
5. TEACH KIDS TO CONNECT WITH NATURE AND THEIR BREATH
What can I say about the calming qualities of nature and tapping into one’s breath that you don’t already know? Mostly, we just need to remember to use these two powerful yet simple tools to help our kids regulate their emotions. It’s not rocket science, we know they help. They are free and nearly always an option.
From the infant who won’t stop crying until we walk outside, to the toddler who is stuck inside and bouncing off the walls until sent outside to play. Once outside, this same child begins to channel their energy into countless creative games. Nature is the ultimate balancer. It has so much to teach us.
And as for connecting to our breath? This is the most important tool we have for finding and living from our center. Just check-in with your breath the next time you or your child is upset. I bet it stops.
Go outside and breathe. Two of my favorite tools to encourage my kids to do both of these things are by yogi and author Emily A. Filmore. If you have trouble getting your kids to settle down for bedtime, both of these will be a welcome addition. My twins and I read and practiced the postures in “It’s A Beautiful Day for Yoga” before bedtime nearly every night when they were three. It helped us connect on those night where all I wanted was for them to go to sleep so I could snatch a moment of alone time for myself. Through connection, movement and breath, I was able to get those heads on pillows that much quicker. 😉
In summary, parenting from a place of non-judgment in the face of an unhappy youngster can be challenging. Start by simply repeating the following: “Emotions are sacred, emotions are sacred, emotions are sacred…” and over time, put the above five steps together. Odds are, when you were little, no matter how amazing your parents were, your big emotions were not always met with this sort of acceptance. For many, they were more likely met with a look of disapproval, harsh words, and/or maybe even the backside of a hand.
So be gentle with yourself. Take baby steps and celebrate yourself when you nail just one of these five things.
We don’t need to be perfect parents, just human ones, living, loving, growing and healing right alongside our kids.
And when that moment comes and you feel yourself calmly meeting your child’s big emotions from your center, believe me, healing will occur; and not only for your little people, but inside of you as well.
PS: If you liked this post, join our community of mindful parents. You will receive gentle parenting tips as well as a free gift direct to your inbox — Hug Each Moment Kit, a journal for you to keep, helping you to write love notes once a year to each of your children from birth to ten. (And a promise – I protect your email with my life — no spam allowed!)
Suzanne Tucker, CEIM, Parent Educator:
In over two decades as a physical therapist and parent educator Suzanne has help thousands connect on a deeper level to themselves and their families, teaching Infant Massage and Positive Parenting to organizations and individuals all over the world. Creator of My Mommy Manual, a website/community inspiring parents to “look inside (yourself) for instructions”, author and co-founder of Brentwood Center of Health, a holistic rehabilitation center, Suzanne lives in Saint Louis, Missouri with her husband, their four children, and far too many pets to mention.