In this post, we talk about managing big emotions in our little children – and what we can do as parents using the gentle parenting approach while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Struggle with reacting to your toddler / child’s big emotions on a daily basis?
Meltdowns seem to get worse and you’re not sure what else you can do?
Feeling frustrated that your child are not obedient?
Firstly, there is nothing wrong with having emotions.
As adults, we experience a range of emotions over the course of a day, what more a child. Yet, most adults expect a child or even a toddler to be perfectly well-behaved and obedient – to stop crying after a certain time limit when they are upset, and to magically be happy and dry their tears when asked to.
Most of the times unfortunately, this is reflective of the adults’ discomfort in big (or negative) emotions with children who act out or have a meltdown – in their own inability to manage these emotions, rather than what is actually going on with the child.
Emotions are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, positive nor negative.
Having emotions are meant for us to express what we feel inside so that we can do something about them. Allowing a child to express their emotions – to cry when sad and to laugh when happy – is healthy.
Being happy is no different from being sad – it reflects what we are going through in the moment.
The reason why as any individuals don’t express their emotions and suppress them is because they have learned to not express them when they were children themselves. Much of it has to do with how the parental figures emulated and taught them to be.
When we or teach a child to suppress / be obedient
When we try to stop our children from expressing what they are going through in the moment, it only makes sense that they will object and ‘rebel’.
It takes 25 years for a human being to fully develop the part of the brain to plan and think about consequences of actions and control impulses, but with the emotional centre of the brain being developed from birth until the age of 5, the brain processes first emotions, stress as well as social bonding.
This is also why it is difficult for a toddler to be reasonable or rational when they are at the age of discovering and learning about the big feelings they are going through. One might remember how they fear certain authority figures in the family such as grandparents, fathers or teachers but might not remember why – we remember the emotions that we pick up as young children.
Teaching a child to stop crying when they are upset or to sit down when they are excited not only teaches them to hide their feelings, it also slows down their brain and emotional development. T
he consequences of not allowing our children to be children has a compounding effect. Research has also shown that this will affect their ability to build healthy self-esteem and secure relationships way into adulthood.
In minimising their feelings such as “It’s nothing to be scared of. Be brave”, “Don’t be silly” or “It’s not that bad”, we actually invalidate their experiences and emotions. They learn not to trust their own body and emotions.
What we can do is to be there for them and show them ways to self-regulate. Children as young as one can be guided to know what feelings they are going through. As parents, we can start with describing feelings and show them ways to express and channel their anger, sadness, joy and other energy safely.
See events from their world / perspectives
A child having a meltdown rarely does it without reasons. There could be a series of events that lead up to them acting out emotionally or when their needs are not met.
As parents we can practice seeing their world from their eyes as a young child, and reflect on the events that led up to the emotional outburst. A noisy restaurant where their favourite toy got lost or broken can be distressing for a child even though it seems nothing to an adult – and emotions pile up when not addressed. Imagine being a child and having to go through that with no space to express our unhappiness!
When we can be in their shoes, we are demonstrating empathy to our children – and they learn to pick this up over time as well.
Giving Them Space, even if It’s Uncomfortable
When a child is upset, we can be understanding initially. But what most adults would like is expecting the child to calm down at the adult’s pace and allowable range. When a child continues to be upset and cries, it can trigger discomfort in the adult – this is when we try to shush them or even get upset with them for being upset for too long!
Recognise that it’s not for or about you, it’s for them. As adults, we can learn to expand our range of discomfort – to continue giving them space and allow them to release and process their emotions at their own pace in a safe manner. We can show them how to regulate their emotions later on, and discuss the why and how later.
Giving our children unconditional love allows them to feel heard, seen and cared for – that they matter and they can occupy this space too.
Be Aware, and Ready to Unlearn the Upbringing You’ve Had
Children learn from adults around them through consistent emulations in all aspect including our body language, thoughts and emotions processing. If we react to situations in a big way, our children learn to do the same too. When we react calmly in a distressing or busy situation, we are role modeling how we regulate to our children as well.
Sometimes, we are unaware of the parenting style we brought forth from our parents. Many have said that they would never be like their parents but went on to display the exact same behaviour in times of stress or challenging situations. It takes a lot of awareness, effort and courage to not be.
Being mindful and aware of our own reactions as parents is important as we are our children’s first important person.
There might be components of parenting that we learn from our parents that we need to unlearn – it is uncomfortable and it’s okay.
We don’t need to be perfect parents, but we can start small steps one at a time.
It is okay to try, and keep trying especially when we have a lapse. It is only through trying that we grow with our children, to empower and equip our children to face the challenges that they will face in future.