Your Child’s Big Feelings Are Not An Emergency!

Want to know a secret? Your child’s feelings, no matter how loud or messy, are not an emergency! Parenthood is full of surprises. One minute you’re building pillow forts, the next you’re navigating a tantrum in the cereal aisle. It’s easy to get swept up in your child’s big emotions, feeling like you need to fix the situation immediately. But what if I told you that you don’t need to freak out when your child freaks out. 

Decoding Your Child’s Meltdown: The Science Behind Big Feelings

Have you ever wondered why your perfectly happy child suddenly transforms into an angry-faced, screaming, Mr. Hyde version of themselves? It’s not because they’re trying to make your life miserable (although it can feel that way in the moment!). Here’s a glimpse into the inner workings of a child’s brain during a meltdown.

The human brain is like a sophisticated computer with two main parts: the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) and the emotional brain (limbic system). In adults, the thinking brain is usually in charge, helping us make calm and rational decisions. In young children, however, the emotional brain is much more dominant. It’s like a powerful Ferrari with a less-experienced driver behind the wheel. Meanwhile, their thinking brain won’t be fully developed until age 24! 

When a child (or human of any age) feels frustrated, angry, or scared, the emotional brain takes over. This is the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that kicks in when the body perceives danger. The heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, and stress hormones flood the system. In this state, the thinking brain gets put on hold, making it difficult for children to think clearly, communicate effectively, or regulate their emotions.

This is why tantrums can often seem so irrational. Your child isn’t purposefully throwing a fit to manipulate you. They are literally incapable of accessing the logical part of their brain in that moment. Imagine trying to solve a math problem while your heart is pounding and you feel like you might faint. Not gonna happen, right?

This is why staying calm yourself is so important during your child’s meltdown. Your child needs your calm presence to act as a soothing counterweight to their emotional storm. By speaking in a kind and gentle tone, you can help to signal to their body that there’s no danger, and it can begin to deactivate the fight-or-flight response.

Slow Down and Breathe

Our own stress response is contagious. When we react with frantic energy to our child’s tantrum, it can escalate the situation. Take a deep breath and remind yourself: this is not an emergency. When your child eventually calms down, offer some ways figure it out together.

Remember, Limits Lead to Safety

A tantrum can be triggered by every day limit setting as well. So keep in mind that setting limits isn’t about crushing your child’s spirit – it’s about creating a safe and predictable environment. Yes, there will often be resistance, but that’s okay. Stay firm – but calm.  They learn to cope with disappointment by seeing you handle that disappointment with unruffled understanding.

You Can’t Control What They Say, But You Can Control Your Response

Your child might throw verbal grenades your way when they’re very upset, and it’s natural to want to retaliate. But resist the urge! Big reactions make harsh words more interesting and powerful. Instead, pause, take a breath, and show them you can handle their feelings without losing yours. Acknowledge their feelings while ignoring the words they chose by saying something like, “I understand that you’re angry, and I also can’t listen well when you’re yelling. Let me know when you can talk calmly.”

The Power of Pause: Why You Don’t Need to “Fix” Everything

Our natural instinct might be to jump in and try to solve the problem that triggered their upset. Maybe it’s offering a distraction, giving in to their demands, or launching into a lecture about appropriate behavior. While these actions might seem helpful in the moment, they can actually backfire in the long run.

Why? Because when we swoop in and fix things, we’re essentially taking away the opportunity for our child to learn how to cope with their emotions (with your help). Tantrums, though unpleasant, are valuable learning experiences. They help children develop frustration tolerance, self-soothing skills, and emotional resilience.

So, the next time your child melts down, try this instead:

1. Pause and breathe. Give yourself a moment to collect yourself before responding. Your child can sense your anxiety, so take a deep breath and project calmness.

2. Offer empathy, not judgment. Let your child know that you understand they’re upset. You could say something like, “I know – it’s frustrating that you can’t have another cookie right now. I get that you’re angry.”

3.Provide a safe space. If your child seems overwhelmed, give them the option to go to a quiet place to calm down on their own.

  • 4. Be patient. It takes time for a child to work through big feelings. Don’t expect them to snap their fingers and be okay.

Hold Space for Their Feelings

Your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time. Be their anchor in their emotional storm. Listen actively, acknowledge their feelings, and show empathy. Let them know you’re there for them, even when the emotions are big and messy.

Building Your Child’s Emotional Toolkit

Just like any other skill, emotional regulation takes practice. Here are some ways you can help your child develop their emotional toolkit:

  • Label emotions. Help your child identify their feelings by talking about them throughout the day. For example, “It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated because you can’t reach that toy.”
  • Read books about emotions. Children’s books can be a great way to introduce different emotions and healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. When you’re both calm and regulated, teach them simple calming techniques like deep breathing, counting to ten, or progressive muscle relaxation. 
  • Model healthy coping mechanisms. Children learn by watching. Show them how you deal with your own stress and frustration in a healthy way.
  • Validate their feelings. Let your child know that their feelings are okay, even if their behavior isn’t.

Empower Your Child to Manage Themselves

Help your child understand what’s happening in their brain during a meltdown. Teach them about the “fight-or-flight” response and how to identify their own warning signs. Do they get sweaty palms or a racing heart? Talk about different coping strategies they can try, like deep breathing exercises or squeezing a stress ball.

You’re Not Alone – and You’ll Both Survive!

Parenting is a tough job, and it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed by your child’s big emotions. If you’re struggling to cope, there are resources available to help. Talk to your child’s pediatrician, a therapist, or join a parenting support group.

Young children are still developing the skills to manage their emotions. Their tantrums and meltdowns are not a reflection of your parenting skills. Expect outbursts. Expect that they’re sometimes going to blurt out hurtful things they don’t really mean. Don’t take it personally! What truly matters is that they feel loved and accepted, even when they’re struggling. Tantrums may not be fun, but they’re a normal part of childhood. You’ll both weather the storm, and come out stronger on the other side.

Check out more ways to manage your own big feelings so you can parent with compassion! 

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