Whether it is with our toddlers or teens, we all know what it is like to witness big feelings completely overwhelm our kids. This isn’t just because life can be overwhelming and stressful (though it certainly can be). It is also because the cortex, the part of our kids’ brains that helps them manage big feelings, is under construction from early childhood through adolescence. This means that as their brains grow and develop, emotional storms are just more likely to take over.
If we are honest, we all wish sometimes that we could just put our kid’s growth on auto pilot and just wait for their cortex to develop on its own. Instead, when it comes to emotional regulation, kids need coaching to learn how to settle their bodies, name their emotions, and consider what to do with them. It’s helpful to remember, “Whatever the brain does a lot is what the brain gets good at.”
Big feelings are certainly messy, frustrating, and overwhelming sometimes – for both kids and adults alike. They are also an important part of being human.
Coaching, however, is not always easy. When kids are overwhelmed, their limbic brain (the seat of emotion) can easily hijack their growing cortex (the seat of executive function) and put feelings in charge instead. Experiencing and weathering these kinds of emotional storms is certainly not fun for our kids. It’s also not fun for us adults. That’s why it is so easy to respond in ways that are a mismatch for what is happening inside the brain:
The limbic-to-limbic escalation:
When our kids fly off the handle or get very overwhelmed, it is very easy to respond in kind. In other words, when their cortex jumps ship, ours does too. This is especially common when we are tired, triggered, or overwhelmed ourselves. This is when we find ourselves getting anxious, yelling, blaming, cajoling, or lamenting. Responding to our kids’ dysregulated feelings with our own rarely helps and can lead to escalating battles and power struggles.
The cortex-to-limbic missed connection:
On the other hand, in the face of big feelings it can be tempting to rush at them with our cortex. In other words, we skip right to words and problem-solving. It’s not that talking is bad (naming feelings is so helpful!) but over-relying on them during an emotional storm assumes that our kid’s cortex is engaged when it isn’t. Barraging their limbic brain with words and problem solving can lead to frustration on both sides.
Big feelings are certainly messy, frustrating, and overwhelming sometimes – for both kids and adults alike. They are also an important part of being human. The aim is not to amplify or punish big feelings. Nor is it to skip over them or try to save our kids from experiencing them. Instead, emotional regulation involves feeling, naming and moving through the entire range of emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, so we can learn from them and access our learning brain to consider next steps.
It is helpful to have a roadmap for a different way to navigate emotional storms that is more aligned with what is happening inside our bodies and brains.
Try These Three Steps Instead
That’s why it is helpful to have a roadmap for a different way to navigate emotional storms that is more aligned with what is happening inside our bodies and brains. There are all kinds of models to guide us. Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson offer the ideas of “upstairs brain” and “downstairs” brain in their book The Whole Brain Child. Dr. Bruce Perry offers way to help children re-engage from “the bottom up” using his neurosequential model. We like to think of it as the Three Cs. Next time you and your child or teen are overwhelmed by big feelings, try responding with these three steps:
Before we can learn more about what is going on, find words, or problem solve next steps, we need to settle our bodies enough to reflect on our emotions and get the thinking brain back online. If we skip settling our bodies, things are more likely to escalate and the brain’s executive center isn’t ready to support learning. While tempting, telling a child to “calm down!!” isn’t the point here. Instead, each of us can identify strategies that help us get to calm and practice them regularly.
Calming and settling strategies might include:
- Taking a break.
- Counting, drinking some water, coloring, petting a dog or cat.
- Moving, swaying, or humming.
- Saying “I need space.” Or, “Let’s talk about this when we are both ready.”
- Being gentle with yourself.
Once we are calm, resist the urges to jump right to problem solving or over-reassuring. Connection is the primary way that our children regulate stress and primes the brain for learning. Offering empathy, even in (especially in) the face of tough feelings or challenging behaviors, helps us build the trust we will need for what’s next. This is the time to communicate that, “Our relationship can handle your big feelings.”
Connecting might sound like:
- “This is hard, isn’t it?”
- “I am right here with you.”
- “I can see that you are really sad.”
- “It makes sense that you feel this way.”
- “You have every right to be angry.”
Once we have settled and offered empathy and connection, then we can help our kids’ name feelings and address behaviors. This might be the time that we need to communicate that “all feelings are okay, but not all behaviors are okay.” Coaching might include enforcing a reasonable consequence. It also might include offering opportunities to simply reflect, repair, or problem solve next steps.
Coaching might sound like:
- Emotional granularity. “Do you have words for what you were feeling? I see anger but sometimes underneath anger is worry or embarrassment or something else.”
- Curiosity. “What do I need to know about what just happened?” or ” Why do you think you felt that way?”
- Repair. “What can you do next to make this right?”
- Setting limits. “Because you chose to throw the video game controller at me, you are choosing no gaming tomorrow. We can try again the next day!”
- Breaking things into parts. “It sounds like this is a really hard part of your day. Were there any other hard parts? Funny parts? Surprising parts?”
Don’t forget that us grown-ups have bodies and brains too. These three steps aren’t just for kids. They are for all of us.
We all need the practice.
When we are relatively recharged, this kind of coaching can feel so rewarding! We are better able to greet emotional storms with empathy and perspective. This is because we draw on the superpowers of our cortex to do this.
When we’re tired, worn out, or just busy? Not so much. It’s far more likely that our own limbic brain takes over. That’s why these three steps aren’t just for kids. They are for us too.