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Coping with “Big Feelings”: Our Children’s and Our Own

When it comes to raising children, we can be certain they will experience a wide range of emotions that will often test our resolve. While the experiences vary across the seasons of parenthood, we may find it difficult to cope during any (or all) of these times. I often have clients tell me they experience feelings of guilt, shame and frustration related to their own struggles with emotional regulation. The truth is that we ALL become dysregulated at times, and the triggers for this will likely change as our children grow. First, it can be the overstimulation of noise, clutter and feeling “touched out” during the baby and toddler phases. Soon we find ourselves in arguments with adolescents striving for more autonomy and coming to terms with a shift in the relationship. So how can we keep ourselves regulated while also supporting our child(ren)? Here are a few tips that may be helpful in not only allowing for more peace but also a stronger bond with your children:

1) Validate and Share

When our children come to us with a problem, we often feel an immediate urge to take it on as our own and solve it. While we can’t necessarily force this instinct away, we can choose to react in a constructive and supportive way. Say for example that your child comes home after school crying, saying an argument with a friend has led to the worst day of their lives. Instead of something like “it can’t be that bad” or “tomorrow will be better, you guys always make up,” try validating what they are telling you. This could look like “I know how much it hurts when you and ____ argue; this has been a very difficult day for you. What can we do to make this day a little better?” This shows that you have heard them, understand they are feeling a certain way and that you are not minimizing their struggle. While we may well know that this is not the worst day of their lives, suffering is relative to our own experiences.

Once you have validated their feelings and experiences, sharing something related to your own personal experience can help them feel more bonded to you. This could look like sharing something brief related to your own worst day at school, your own experience having disagreements with friends at their age and generally just letting them know you’ve been there.

2) Respond vs React

At first glance, these two words may seem to have the same meaning. They are indeed synonymous, but when it comes to our personal relationships, they can be vastly different. When we respond to negative behavior rather than react to it, we are encouraging our children to express their emotions. If we meet their emotions with anger, or reactivity, this may lead to fearfulness to express emotions going forward. This may also occur if consequences are overly punitive/reactive, which may lead to avoidance, dishonesty and lack of trust. Meeting our child’s emotionally-charged behavior with the same type of behavior is reactive. Essentially, we are meeting their yelling and/or “tantruming” with yelling. As difficult as it may be during that moment, doing our best to respond calmly, in a level tone and with validation can do wonders for de-escalating the situation. Responding, however, gives children the space and permission to express their big feelings without criticism, guilt or shame. In doing this, you allow them to be angry or frustrated and express empathy.

3) Take a breather (or a few)

Everyone needs a break sometimes, and there is no shame whatsoever in taking one. If you find yourself escalating and experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety or frustration, step aside and allow yourself to breathe. Three full seconds, in through the nose, three out through the mouth, until you feel your heartbeat regulating. For day-to-day stress management, do what you can to support yourself and your well-being. We often give so much to our families and push ourselves to the bottom of the list. Prioritize what makes you feel centered, step aside from difficult moments and give yourself permission to rest. It may not be easy but it’s worth it.

By Maura L. Johnson, LCSW, PMH-C


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