Kids are born with a wide range of emotions, but they struggle to understand them or communicate them effectively. Even adults struggle with emotional regulation, so it’s no surprise that this is harder for children. Kids don’t have any innate knowledge of what their emotions are or what their feelings mean. They also don’t know how these emotions can affect their bodies. They may feel tense, fidgety, have an upset stomach, a headache, or be out of breath. When they are physically and emotionally overwhelmed, they may meltdown, scream, hide, or get angry. Tantrums are normal behaviors throughout early childhood largely for this reason, but they usually lessen as the child starts school and can express themselves and self soothe. However, being emotionally overwhelmed can trigger these behaviors in older children as well.
What kids profoundly need from their parents is help and understanding as they learn how to feel and process their emotions. Kids want to be heard and understood; when this doesn’t happen, they can become louder and more volatile with their behaviors and words. This can be challenging for the parents, since most don’t know what to do in these scenarios. They may become anxious, frustrated, or have an increase in marital distress as they try to understand their child’s behaviors. Know that you aren’t alone in your confusion and frustration; parents want what is best for their child and it can be devastating to not know what that is.
When children are emotionally overwhelmed, what they often need from a parent is to just sit with them and listen. This can be difficult when you are frustrated with their emotional behaviors but try to take a deep breath and sit with them. Start by asking them what is going on: what are they feeling, why are they feeling this way, what preceded these behaviors, how are their bodies are feeling, and what do they need. Let them know it is okay to feel these emotions, even sadness and anger. The only thing that isn’t okay is when they let the emotions hurt someone else or control them. Help your child find a way to externalize their emotion or express it. This can be through talking, drawing, writing, or any way that helps them understand it or process it. Instead of a tactile processing, they may need a physical form of expression and release such as jumping jacks, running, or progressive muscle relaxation. Lastly, children may need calming skills such as deep breathing or cuddling with a parent to fully relax and reengage positively. When kids are walked through their emotions, they learn how to process them and grow to do this on their own. This is a learning process, for both a child and a parent, but it can be a huge step of growth in this relationship as you model and teach your child how to positively manage their emotions.