How to Be a Safe Space for Your Child's Big Emotions | Baby Chick

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How to Be a Safe Space for Your Child’s Big Emotions

Photo of Mother and Baby son.

by Quinn Kelly

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

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Picture the scenario. It’s a beautiful day. You wake up early, ready to conquer the day with a full list of activities, including yoga, the grocery store, and a child’s birthday party later. You feel like nothing can get in your way until your child wanders into your room at 7:00 am, crying over their bad dream. As any parent would do, you comfort them and feel like all is well. Until they get mad about the way, their pajamas are rubbing on their neck and work themselves into a full tantrum. The clock reads 7:20 am. You make it through that battle just in time to put… Read More

Picture the scenario. It’s a beautiful day. You wake up early, ready to conquer the day with a full list of activities, including yoga, the grocery store, and a child’s birthday party later. You feel like nothing can get in your way until your child wanders into your room at 7:00 am, crying over their bad dream. As any parent would do, you comfort them and feel like all is well. Until they get mad about the way, their pajamas are rubbing on their neck and work themselves into a full tantrum. The clock reads 7:20 am. You make it through that battle just in time to put breakfast on the table. Your child storms off because they wanted eggs with bacon instead of sausage.

It’s now only 7:45 am, and you already have to talk them off their third emotional ledge. You find yourself frustrated and questioning why their emotions are so big and your patience so small. Yet you love them with all your heart and want to parent them the best you can. You find yourself wondering what the remedy for all this emotion is as you head out the door to yoga. At this point, your child is gleefully singing their favorite song at the top of their lungs for everyone to hear as you load into the car.

Kids and Big Emotions

Children can be full of many things, including life, energy, and emotion. While sometimes their zeal for the ice cream truck can be cute, their passion for needing the dirty red sippy cup in the dishwasher instead of the clean blue one in the cabinet can be exhausting. And confusing. And over the top, if you’re honest with yourself.

Because when you became a parent, you expected to help teach them how to ride a bike and hug them when they fell off, but you didn’t expect to have to be their personal therapist from the age of two. All of the big emotion has left you feeling worn out. And the truth is, some children are more emotional than others. Some children have bigger and more dramatic reactions to each and every little thing in life. Some children roll with the punches, and some children cause you to want to punch yourself with the amount of emotion they produce.

There are many names for children with big emotions. Some call them spirited, and some call them difficult, while others call them dramatic. Whatever term you choose to embrace, you know it when you have a child with big emotions. And you often may feel parenting seems harder to you than others. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you are a bad parent. It is more difficult to work with a child that has high highs and low lows. And it’s okay to admit that.

As parents, we know our job is to help our children navigate, process, understand, and handle their big emotions appropriately. One of the easiest ways to do this is to shift our mindset of a parent being someone who corrects and stops over-the-top emotions to becoming someone who teaches our children how to handle those over-the-top emotions well.

How to Help Your Kids with Emotions

So how do we help these children do that? My favorite technique for this comes from Dr. John Gottman’s book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. And in the book, he teaches parents how to become an emotion coach for their child’s emotions in five easy steps. This is Dr. John Gottman’s emotion coaching steps:

  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions.
  2. Recognize your child’s emotion as a time to teach them and connect.
  3. Listen with empathy to your child’s feelings.
  4. Help your child learn to label their emotions with words.
  5. Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately.

As you can see, Dr. Gottman doesn’t advise you to tell your child to stop feeling what they are feeling. Instead, as their emotion coach, help them understand why they feel what they feel. (Please read the book for a full understanding of this wonderful method.)

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s return to the scenario above about a sippy cup. An emotion coach might use the sippy cup example listed above and say. “I see that you are mad about the sippy cup being dirty. Do you feel frustrated that your cup isn’t ready?” After hearing the child’s response and helping them understand what emotion they are feeling, you could say, “I can understand that you like to use the same cup. I like to drink out of the same cup for my coffee. But when I can’t do that, I choose my second favorite cup. So I’m wondering if you can pick another cup you like just like I do?

If the child then chooses to continue to be frustrated, you would stick within the parameters you’ve set but assure them that you are ready to help them as soon as they make their decision for an alternative cup.

It is also essential to note that parents who help their big-emotion children do not buy into big emotions and yell back. It will only heighten the situation. Instead, you must show them how to stay calm and work through situations instead of losing it — as hard as that can sometimes be. Think of them looking into a mirror of what you want them to see.

And if you can remain in the mindset that you are teaching your child how to handle their emotion instead of stopping those emotions from happening, you may instantly find that it feels easier to coach them through these big moments—all one hundred of them before noon.

Just remember along the way that it is often the children with the most emotion inside of them that have the very most to offer the world as they mature. So keep loving them and coaching them one patient day at a time.