When Big Emotions Happen: How Can Parents and Children Befriend their Feelings?

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In my work with children of all ages and their parents, the central theme that we return to time and time again is what psychologists call 'emotional regulation'. 

Emotional regulation is the skill we develop as humans to literally regulate our emotional experiences.  It is the capacity to be OK with whatever feelings we are feeling and to be able to show and act on our feelings in a safe and hopefully helpful way for ourselves and others.

Easier written than done!

For a skill that is so essential to our human experience and how we navigate the world it is so curious that we receive so little formal input on it.  Most of us remember learning how to ride a bike and to read and write:  with lots of practice, time and hopefully the supportive guiding presence and patience of a parent/teacher.  Yet do you remember learning to name the feelings you were feeling, and how to show them in a safe and helpful way? For most of us, we stumbled through our early emotional lives learning for the most part in a haphazard and informal way what feelings seemed OK to feel and show and what feelings definitely seemed not OK to feel and show.

And that’s OK, it’s just how it was. There is nothing wrong with haphazard (check out my house on any given morning!) or informal, but in my experience, and according to recent neuro-scientific research (and indeed many of the ancient wisdom traditions), there are skills that we can learn that can help us be OK with – and ultimately befriend – our feelings (and those of others) and show them in a way that is safe, true to our experience and hopefully helpful to ourselves and others.

And just like learning how to ride a bike or to read and write, it takes practice, time and the guiding presence and patience of someone who is more experienced than us to mirror back to us our experiences of our emotions in a loving, spacious and contained way.

As parents we take on the role of the more experienced ‘Other’ to support our children in learning the skills to befriend their emotions.  But for many of us – perhaps because of the way we stumbled through our own experiences of learning about emotions, or because of the way we are neurologically wired or a mixture of both, we too struggle with being OK with our emotions and how we show them.  And so, when it comes to being OK with our children’s emotions and acting as a supportive guide to help them to learn these skills we might really, really struggle.

But looking at it from a ‘Skills acquisition’ perspective, we can hopefully let go of any self-criticism, self-blame and guilt, and say ‘Of course’.  Simply put, we may have never been formally shown the skills required to be OK with our own feelings – let alone those of others – not to mention acting as a supportive guide and container to our children as they learn the skills of emotional regulation.

Below I list ways that I have found useful in helping me to be OK with my feelings and in finding the space and compassion to be OK with my children’s feelings.  And ultimately to act as some sort of ‘good enough’ guide so that my children can learn these skills that are so essential to our well-being, our sense of selves and to how we relate to ourselves and everyone in our world.

In the coming posts, I will elaborate on these ways, padding them out with real-life examples.  What’s really important to know is that because this is a human experience, it’s not going to be perfect, or linear in how the steps are followed. (Emotions can be messy, they happen in an instant, they trigger other emotional patterns for us and before we know it, we don't know how we got from 0 to 90 in a few seconds!!). It might feel haphazard and informal ( great!); it might work sometimes and so not well at other times, but please remember that that’s all OK, and these words are here to help you feel into what works and feels right for you as a parent and for your child/children. These are broad brush-stroke steps, play around with them, have fun, take your time, experiment and be curious!

  • Allow the emotion to happen for you: When emotions happen, especially big ones like anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment for you and/or your child, they often take-over.  We often have no sense of what we are feeling, we just know that there is a big feeling happening and it doesn't feel good. Many of us have learned to push away uncomfortable feelings and/or act from the messy experience of over-whelm. By inviting ourselves to allow the feeling, whatever it is, we can give ourselves a bit of space to respond rather than react. 
  • For your Child:  All feelings are OK. When we invite ourselves to allow our feelings, we give messages to our children that it is OK for them to be feeling what they are feeling.  This is essential, as when we learn that some feelings are not OK to have, then we learn to push them away.  We don't make our feelings happen: they just appear and they eventually pass. When children know that it is OK to feel their feelings NO MATTER what they are, then they attach less negativity to them, feel less over-whelm and ultimately learn to respond rather than react in a safe and helpful way.
  • Naming the Emotion:  This comes with inviting yourself to allow your feelings.  When we can name them, even silently (I'm feeling so.....! ) to ourselves, it can lessen our felt sense of over-whelm.
  • For Your Child: Helping them name their emotions. This is a really useful tool, but it can be over-used.  As parents we help our children learn language by naming objects etc., ( do you want the cup?); we scaffold their learning process with prompts and cues in the environment.  Likewise we can help scaffold our children to name their feelings so that they can put a name to their experience.  Instead of just feeling this huge big unpleasant feeling, they can learn that these feelings have names - and that implicitly we all have these feelings, and that they are OK! Tentatively naming their emotion for them works well, because you are only guessing yourself at what they are feeling ( I wonder if you're feeling sad right now, rather than, you're feeling sad). 
  • Being Present with our children: While tentatively naming our children's emotions can be really useful, it is only truly effective when we marry it with our Presence. Our presence is an availability that we show our children that we are there for them, and in some way we understand. This could mean a hug ( I wonder if you're feeling sad, would a hug help?) or it could mean giving them space in such a way as they know that you're still 'with' them, supporting them ( I wonder if you might need a bit of space to feel what you're feeling). Knowing how best to be available to your child ( and to yourself!) can only be known in the moment, and it can take a lot of trial and error.  Children are amazing at feeling into whether you are really being present for them, so typically they will show you in some way if they have felt seen/heard by you: a shift in their body language, a change in their voice...something to indicate that they feel supported. 
  • Expressing/showing our emotions in a helpful way: Emotions require some sort of expression, even if that happens internally, in a quiet way, such as sitting and opening up to the emotion. But often, we simply need to show them externally! The difficulty lies with showing our emotions in a safe and helpful way, rather than bouncing off the big strong emotion we may be feeling in a way that can be hurtful or harmful to ourselves and others.  When we can tune into what we are feeling ( by allowing and naming the emotion) we can then express what we are feeling more clearly, with words and with actions.  We have more space to consider how our words/actions might affect the other ( whoever that might be). When we feel seen/heard, it allows for us to express ourselves more truthfully. I know well how difficult this can be, but when we learn to feel into this way of showing our feelings for ourselves, then we model it for our children, and they too will hopefully learn helpful ways to show emotions.
  • For your Child: Showing their emotions in a helpful way:  I encourage my children to name what they are feeling, and to express it in a way that allows the emotion to be represented in some way.  For e.g., for my pre-schooler daughter, I encourage her to stamp her foot when she is feeling angry, as well as say what she is feeling. That way, the anger finds a safe physical outlet.  This is rarely the only way she shows her anger, but it allows her to feel her way into whether it might be more helpful than hitting or wrecking the place! As parents it is our role to put in boundaries when our children are acting in ways that are either harmful/unhelpful for themselves and/or others.  This is also an essential component of helping our children to regulate their emotions. The rule of thumb I try to use ( this doesn't always happen!) is:  give them space to express their emotions as long as they are not hurting themselves or others (or wrecking the place too much!). I typically find with my school aged daughter that when she has the space to do this, it allows the feeling to pass more quickly with less drama, and then we can talk about it when everyone is grounded once again.

Essentially, the message I try to give them ( again, not always successful :0) ) is: All emotions are OK to feel; there are helpful and unhelpful ways to show them, can we find the more helpful ways?

And we are still - and likely always will be - learning the more helpful ways :)

Julie Meehan © 2017