Parents Help Children Cope with Strong Feelings
When her one-year-old daughter began screaming in a store and threw herself on the floor, “at first, I felt embarrassed,” recalls Los Angeles mom Nancy DeLeon Meeker. “[Then] I realized the priority was my daughter’s well-being. Rather than getting mad at her because I felt embarrassed, I just sat on the floor with her and supported her, saying, ‘I know this is really hard. You’re frustrated and you want to leave.’”
Parents and educators share strategies for staying connected with children who are struggling with strong emotions—and helping children learn to cope with these difficult feelings.
Shift your perception
A meltdown is a child’s way of saying, “‘I’m overwhelmed! I have to release some feelings before I can deal with the situation,’” says Patricia Wipfler, a mother and director of Hand in Hand in Palo Alto.
When we realize meltdowns are normal, Wipfler adds, it’s easier to help children through the experience—“all that needs to happen is the parent being close and offering kindness until the child [is ready to do] something else.”
The term “tantrum” implies a child is purposely misbehaving, adds Marguerite Wright, mother of four and psychologist at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital. Shifting our language allows us to see these experiences as “panic attacks,” when a child doesn’t know how else to deal with their feelings, she adds.
Meeker’s family is from Guatemala and she says the culture she grew up in saw tantrums as a sign of disrespect, something that got children a spanking. “[Spanking] is all my dad knew, and that’s why I took [parenting] classes, to learn something different.”
“Staying connected [when my daughter has strong emotions] allows her to learn to deal with her feelings and helps me understand my child more,” Meeker adds. “And at three, [my daughter] asks for space instead of expressing herself through a push. She can tell us what’s going on with her—and that gives us a chance to support and maybe even help her. Many [adults] have trouble doing this! This process takes longer, but it’s worth it.”
Connect with your child by listening
When Meeker’s husband was away for a few days, her daughter “was pointing at the door and looking sad,” recalls Meeker. “I asked her to use her words and she said, ‘I miss Daddy.’ I said, ‘I know it’s hard, you’re thinking about Daddy and you’re missing him. You’re thinking about how he normally walks through the door and missing him.’ She cried for 45 minutes. I told her, ‘It’s okay to be sad. [But] Daddy always comes back.’ She kept saying, ‘Yes, I’m sad.’ I encouraged her to take a deep breath and it seemed [to help].
“After she calmed down on her own,” adds Meeker, “we pulled out a map and I showed her where Daddy was and I described what he was doing. We looked at pictures of him. It would have been easier to say, ‘Well you’ll be okay, Daddy will come back.’ But I feel like we’re doing a good job because she can tell us what’s happening with her.”
Meltdowns can be a strategy for expressing unmet needs, adds Nancy Kahn, a mother of two and a trainer for Bay Area Nonviolent Communication. “I want to understand my children’s needs,” she says, “and that requires me listening to what they say or what their body language says—Are you wanting to be your own boss? Are you feeling annoyed and wanting to play more?” Children may also be hungry or tired.
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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