Five ways to help little kids with big feelings

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Little kids experience lots of big feelings, like anger, frustration, overwhelm, worry, and sadness.

On the inside, these feeling are uncomfortable and often scary. On the outside, they tend to manifest in the same way – crying, screaming, throwing, kicking, etc.

Little kids feel emotions just as we do, but they don’t have the insight or coping skills to deal with them. Even though the trigger for their distress might seem insignificant (he wanted the red cup, not the green cup!) – to them, it’s a big deal.

Intense emotions are especially scary, because they’re associated with a very noticeable physical change (like an adrenalin rush).

Imagine a young child who is intensely angry – perhaps because his favourite blue pyjamas are in the laundry, or maybe because she wanted to eat RIGHT NOW in THAT CHAIR that’s being occupied by another.

That physical change causes a pounding heart, feeling flushed, a knot in the stomach – and little kids might not know what is happening to them.

Even if they’ve experienced intense emotion before, they don’t necessarily make the connection that what’s happening NOW is like what happened BEFORE (little kids find it exceptionally difficult to make these sorts of abstract connections, simply because their brains are so young).

Big feelings plus a big physical change equals a scary situation.

These scary situations are rough to handle even at the best of times (and even for adults, in many cases! Just look at the problems we have these days with stress management and anger management in society).

We can usually tell when kids are getting intensely emotional. They get agitated, erratic, or they seem “just not quite themselves”.

If unaddressed, the feelings build up until eventually, they have to come out. And they usually do in a big way, through meltdowns and tantrums.

Once a child is having a tantrum, it’s the point of no return and the best course of action is to let the tantrum ride out – with our loving support, of course.

But there are plenty of ways we can help kids before the tantrum hits – and one of the ways is by helping them “blow off steam”.

For most kids, their natural tendency is to lash out, and lash out hard. Try telling a four year old to breathe deeply and you probably won’t get much response with that alone. Kids need to move, especially when they’re filled with big emotions.

Here are five ways we can help our kids blow off steam before the tantrums start.

1. Give them a safe object on which to act out their aggression.

Big kids and adults get to play sports, or even do boxing or martial arts as a way of releasing aggression. Little kids don’t usually have that option, so an alternative is to give them a safe inanimate object that they can throw, hit, push, pinch, kick, and shake. A personal favourite is a balloon, which can be quite safely thrown around with little danger to people or property. An added bonus is if the child is able to blow up the balloon – a little diaphragmatic breathing can help blow off steam, too.

2. Confetti time.

Ripping paper can be incredibly cathartic. Give your upset child a stack of scrap paper, old magazines, or yesterday’s newspaper, and let them go to town. Kids are ordinarily discouraged from tearing books or paper, so this is a novelty. They can tear the paper into confetti sized pieces, scrunch it up, and/or throw it around. Once they’ve calmed down, they may even help pick it up (although don’t put any money on it).

3. Horse it up.

Wrestling, or horseplay, can be an excellent way of defusing pent up emotions. When done properly, that is – safely, and with respect. Pin your child to the ground, or let them pin you down, or let them climb on your head. It’s a great way to connect with our kids at a time when they need connection the most. And, an added bonus is that wrestling helps kids learn about boundaries and bodily autonomy.

4. Dance it out.

There’s something about music. Music and rhythm can literally help us access different parts of our brain – which means, we can bypass some of our well-entrenched habits of behaviour (such as  lashing out when we feel uncomfortable). Moving to music, or even better – creating your own – is a great way to have burn off some energy, and maybe even put a smile on everyone’s face.

5. Push the feelings away

No, I’m not suggesting our kids suppress or ignore their feelings. Instead, we can let them push the feelings away – literally. Sometimes, we are the object of our kids’ ire (perhaps because we didn’t get the blue pyjamas into the laungry fast enough) and no matter what we try, they just want to lash out at us. Hitting isn’t acceptable, but there is a way to get the best of both worlds – they can act out their aggression towards us, safely.

Find an obstacle-free area, interlock fingers with your child, and adopt a solid stance (kind of like a boxer). Let them push on your hands, and provide some resistance so that it’s a challenge for them. Let them see how strong they are. Can they push you to the other side of the room?

A word of caution with this one – pull the plug the moment it becomes unsafe (your child is unable to refrain from hitting you, for example).

By the way – these techniques aren’t only for little kids.

Mums and dads get big feelings too – and some of these methods are incredibly cathartic, even for grown ups.

Want to learn more about managing stress as a parent? Check out Chaos to Calm: a new mum’s guide to overcoming stress to become a happier and more confident parent.

And take a look at these articles:

What to do when the tantrums don’t stop and why I don’t recommend using time-out (and what to do instead).  Also check out this article on how to have time for your kids and still live your life.

 

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