Any parent knows that little kids can cry a river of tears over the seemingly smallest of things.
It might be that they wanted the pink cup, not the yellow cup.
That they wanted one more story after the five you already read.
It might be that brother and sister are unable to see eye to eye because they both want the same toy.
Whatever it is, the tears are never about the thing that seems so insignificant to our adult minds. Rather, it’s an emotional cascade – accumulated minor stresses that suddenly find an outlet. Like a dam bursting, these seemingly trivial events become the gateway for a healing flood of emotions.
“Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”Catherine M. Wallace
And so when we don’t give them the right colour cup or can’t read another story they see a doorway for release…and that’s a good thing (as hard as it can be).
Regardless of what brought on the emotions, children look to us for one thing: to remain with them as they experience this tidal wave of feelings.
They need us to be the lighthouse in their storm.
They need us to stay with them, and hold them through it all.
We Were Made to Feel Shame for Our Tears
Most parents today grew up in the era when “stop crying” “pull yourself together” and “don’t be so silly” were common responses to tears and overwhelming emotions.
Most of us grew up in households that didn’t have the language or literacy to support our tears.
Most of us grew up with well meaning parents intending to turn our weak moments into moments that taught us how to be strong.
We may have had parents who thought the kind thing to do was to make the tears go away by buying us ice cream or a new toy.
Or on the other end of the spectrum, we may have had those who shamed us with threats, name calling and the war cry of “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” It was and still is common to believe the pathway to resilience is to ignore, squash down, deny and push away our vulnerable feelings.
So as parents, we find ourselves navigating blind when it comes to modelling healthy emotional awareness.
It might be that by having learnt to unconsciously push down our sadness, anger and frustration when we were young, we now feel fear when confronted with our own children’s tears.
We may not know what to do or say in these moments because it was never modelled to us.
We might feel we have failed to teach them resilience if they cry too much or too often.
We may worry that too many big emotions mean we have failed as a parent.
In our own unconscious way, we might desperately try to avoid making our children unhappy by avoiding saying no and always saying yes.
We might avoid situations or holding boundaries with our children in case they bring on tears.
We try to keep our children smiling so we don’t have to feel the discomfort of feelings we are unaccustomed to feeling ourselves. We work to keep our children in a zone of emotional expression we are more used to. We, like our own parents, might think that the lack of tears is a sign of a resilient child.
And so we give, bend, and try to please our children so they stay happy.
“We are being ruled by the fear of our children’s upset”Kristin Mariella, Speaker at the Raised Good Online Summit
We are getting our roles as parents mixed up
It is not our job to keep our children happy all the time.
It is not our job to stop the tears.
It is our job to ride their emotional waves with them.
It is our job to say “this is completely normal to feel this way and I am here with you.”
It is our job to BE with them and create the emotional safety for their tears to fall.
An unhappy child is not a reflection of our parenting skills. Unhappiness, discontent, disappointment, frustration and anger are all normal parts of life. An unhappy child is simply a child who needs us to help them back into balance. This is the narrative that needs to change.
Until we lean in and learn to accept our children’s waves of emotion the emotional health of our homes will remain unbalanced.
Our children are wired to release stress and tension through emotional discharge. When we allow our children’s full emotional expression we pave the way for our child to return to balance and regulation. In short, we help build the resilience we so desperately want to embed in them.
How to Hold Space for Kids’ Big Emotions
If compassionate listening and presence weren’t modelled to you when you were a child the blueprint on how to do this will be missing and it can feel really hard to do.
Like any new skill or building a muscle, learning to role model effectively can take time and perseverance. The old ways of thinking and conditioning take time to shift and change. And while, we cannot undo years of programming overnight, small consistent steps in the right direction add up quickly. You’ll notice a difference in your family in no time.
When learning to relate to your child’s emotions in a new way, practise one small thing and internalise it before you move on to something else.
Sitting and being with our children is a practice. Over time our tolerance for their strongest emotions builds when we consistently commit to being the calm presence in the room. You aren’t going to be a Zen Master every time, there will be moments when the sheer bigness of their emotions overwhelm you – you are human after all.
If you’re feeling triggered or overwhelmed by your child’s meltdown Kristin Mariella, Author of the beautiful children’s book ‘Sometimes I Cry Sometimes I Laugh’ suggests “Instead of trying to coach your child through deep breathing while they are upset, focus on calming yourself with your breath. Don’t even think about telling your child to take a deep breath unless you’ve done it a hundred times when you’re losing your cool.”
Next time you’re with your child when they’re having big feelings try repeating the following mantras to yourself:
- “My child is not giving me a hard time. She’s having a hard time.”
- “Go straight to empathy and compassion.”
- “It’s not my job to fix her feelings.”
- “Feeling is healing. She’s going to feel better afterwards.”
- “Peace starts with me.”
- “I’m here to share my calm, not join her chaos.”
- “Slow down. This is not an emergency. I can handle this.”
No amount of coaching, deep breaths or emotion cards can replace the most powerful tool we have for helping our children move through their emotions – that tool is modelling. So, how do we do it?
How to Model Self-Regulation for our Kids
With her own children Kristin follows four key steps to model self regulation to her children.
- Model emotional awareness
Try to recognise the early signs of dysregulation within yourself:
- Can you catch yourself before you reach the breaking point?
- Start becoming aware of what this might look like for you, is it a low mood, feeling overwhelmed, rushing, or tightness in your jaw, do you start avoiding eye contact, do you become more serious and your sense of humour hightails out of the window?
Whatever it be, befriend it as a signal to yourself. Get better at catching yourself before you drown in your own dysregulation.
- Model emotional intelligence
When you do begin to feel sad, angry or frustrated try to model awareness of your own feelings in front of your children. State how you feel “I’m feeling tense and overwhelmed,” “I can see so much that needs to be done and I’m feeling rushed,” “I am feeling really upset and down.” By doing this your children will automatically shift from feeling like this is all their fault to, “my mum knows how to handle this and understand this”.
- Model emotional maturity
After naming how you feel and why, modelling emotional maturity is all about taking ownership of your feelings and emotional state. It is about asking yourself “what can I do about what I’m feeling/noticing?” Instead of joining their storm how can you ground yourself in this moment?
- Model Emotional Regulation
How can your children witness you move this emotion and allow the wave to pass? Can you physically move the emotion from your body by shaking it out? Do something that brings you joy, go outside or sit down and slow down, saying “I just need a moment” and head to another room. Wash your hands and face under cool water and take a few deep breaths. Can they witness you asking for support?
Being the Calm in the Storm Takes Practice
There isn’t a fast track way of being with the big emotions that come with toddler and childhood.
Just like there is no quick way to undo the years of cultural conditioning that told you emotions were better in than out.
But, with consistent and considered practice in the moment you will become better at being there for your children when they feel dysregulated. You will get better at lending your calm through their wildest of storms. With time you will be the lighthouse you long to be for them.
If you want to learn more about the power of modelling and holding emotion for your children join me and Kristin and a host of other brilliant natural parenting experts as we chat at the 2023 Raised Good Online Summit starting September 21st! Learn more here and grab your FREE front row ticket.