All children can behave in ways that are… not adorable. Big behavior can be exhausting and maddening for even the calmest of parents. But there’s a good reason for this. Children create their distress in their important adults as a way to share the emotional load when that load gets too heavy. This is how it’s meant to be. In the same way that children weren’t meant to carry big physical loads on their own, they also weren’t meant to carry big emotional loads. Big feelings and big behavior are a call to you for support to help them with that emotional load. When you are in front of your child with big feelings, whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection of what your child is feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way, too.
Children communicate through behavior. Behind all big behavior there will always be a valid need. The need might be for safety, connection, sleep, food, power and influence, space to do their own thing. We all have these needs, but children are still developing the capacity to meet them in ways that aren’t as disruptive for them or the people around them. This will take a while. The part of the brain that can calm big feelings, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until mid to late 20s. Of course, as they grow and develop, they will expand their capacity to calm their big feelings but in the meantime, they will need lots of co-regulation experiences with you to help them develop strong neural foundations for this.
The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. Your child will catch your distress (as you will catch theirs) but they will also catch your calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly and insist they self-regulate, but it doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating.
Regulation isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced through co-regulation over and over. It’s like many things in life - driving a car, playing the piano - you can talk all you want about ‘how’ but it’s not until you ‘do’ - over and over - that you get better at it. Emotional regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm that they develop the vital neural pathways to come back to calm on their own.
The first thing to remember is, as much as you might want to fix your young one’s feelings, you don’t need to. They’re safe. They might be struggling, but they’re safe. As maddening as those big feelings might be, they’re doing an important job - recruiting support (you) to help that young, still-in-development nervous system find its way home.
When their feelings are big, it’s more about who you are or how you are than what you do. Your child doesn’t want to be fixed; they want to be seen and heard. They’re no different than you. Meet them where they are, without needing them to be different for a while. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will see it in you and feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there for them. This will help calm them more than anything. Everyone feels safest when they are ‘with.’ Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that.
You might not be able to do this every time, and that’s okay. Here’s how that works: Catch your child’s distress, as you are meant to. This gives you the opportunity to hold that distress with them, until those feelings start to soften. This can be a great thing when you have the emotional resources to do this, but we are all human, and sometimes your child’s fight or flight will raise fight or flight in you. You might get angry or frustrated (sharing their ‘fight’) or turn away and distract (sharing their ‘flight’). Sometimes you’ll be able to give them what they need, and sometimes you won’t. Both are responses of a loving, beautiful parent but sometimes as a parent, you get stretched too far, too.
Whenever you can, validate what your child is feeling, but let your intentions be clear. This means steering away from neutral voices or neutral faces. It’s hard to read the intentions behind a low-monotone, neutral voice or neutral face. If your intention isn’t clear, it can trigger a bigger sense of ‘threat’ in an already unhappy nervous system. Sometimes you might think you’re speaking calmly when you’re speaking ‘neutrally,’ or low, slow, and monotone. The point is, your calm voice might not always be calming. Whenever you can, try to match the intensity of your child’s feelings (through your voice tone, facial expressions, presence) while staying open, warm, and regulated. ‘I can see how upset you are, my darling. You really wanted […] and you’re so annoyed that it can’t happen.’
If they get annoyed with too many words, just breathe and be with, ‘I’m going to stay with you until you feel better.’ You don’t have to say anything if talking doesn’t feel right. Stay regulated and feel what they feel. They’ll feel it in you that you get them. Similarly, if they want space, it’s important to respect that, but stay in emotional proximity. ‘Okay, I’m going to stay over here until you feel better. I’ll be right here for you.’
Big feelings and the big behavior that comes from big feelings are a sign of a distressed nervous system. They are not a reflection of your child or your parenting.
Think of it like a burning building. The behavior is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s tempting to respond directly to the behavior (the smoke), but ignore the fire by doing this. As long as you do this, the fire will keep getting bigger and the smoke will keep getting thicker. Even if you manage to blow the smoke out of the way for a while, it’s not going to be long before that burning building turns the sky a heavy grey again.
Sometimes by dealing with the smoke, you might get a compliant child, but this doesn’t mean a child who is open to learning. This is because the worst thing for any young person is to be separated from their important adults. In the wild, separation would mean certain death. Any discipline that emotionally separates (shame) or physically separates (time-out, thinking chair, thinking square) will drive a young brain to register an even bigger threat. The felt sense of emotional or physical separation will drive children to comply in order to restore proximity back to their important adult, but a quiet child doesn’t always mean a calm child. As long as their brain is in ‘threat’ mode, stress neurochemicals will be surging through your child’s body and keeping the ‘thinking brain’ (the prefrontal cortex) offline. This is the part of the brain that can hear rational information, learn, plan a better way next time, think through consequences, make deliberate decisions, and calm big feelings. As long as your child doesn’t have access to the thinking brain, you won’t have the influence you need to guide them toward stronger, healthier ways of being.
There will be a time for teaching and redirection, but in the middle of a burning building is not that time. When your young one comes back to calm - and it doesn’t matter how long that takes - then have those transformational chats: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can make it easier next time?’ ‘Things are a bit of a mess right now. How can you put things right? You’re such a great kid. I know you’ll have some good ideas about how to do that. Do you need my help?’ Remember, just because you talk about what they can do differently next time doesn’t mean that those ‘next time’ things will start happening. It takes time and lots of practice to learn hard things.
Maybe they’ll need consequences after big behavior, but probably not. The whole point of consequences is to build healthier behavior, so any consequences have to make sense. Often, though, the type of consequences do nothing to teach better ways of being. Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’ try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ They’ll learn a lot more by talking with you when they feel safe, connected, and open than they will by, say, missing out on dessert because they dropped some hefty words while their thinking brain was benched.
An important part of co-regulation is making sure you are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When your child is distressed, you will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. You feel what they feel, they feel what you feel. The capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker.
This can be tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm your nervous system, which you can then use to calm your child’s. Breathe and be with. It’s that simple, but tough to do some days.
But you have to be radically kind with yourself, too. It takes a steady heart to soothe the heart of another, and being that steady heart can be tough some days. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on many of those days you’ll feel the rawness and realness of it all. You’ll say things you shouldn’t say and do things you shouldn’t do. But it’s okay, we’re all human. Don’t put pressure on your child to be perfect by pretending that you are. Instead, repair the ruptures as soon as you can, and bathe them abundantly in the love and the warmth of you. It’s not about perfection. It’s about consistency, honesty, and the way you respond to your child.
Karen began her career as a psychologist in private practice. She has worked extensively with kids, teens, and families, and in educational and organization settings. Experience has taught her that people can do amazing things with the right information, psychology has something for everyone, jargon doesn’t, everyone has a story to tell, short bios are the longest to write, nobody has it all figured out, and the best people to be around are the ones who already know this. Check out her blog, heysigmund.com.
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