Typically I can see it coming in my kids. The wave of emotions start to rise, and instead of being like a typical wave that ebbs and flows, sometimes it turns into a giant wave of emotions that threatens to take us all down. In the past I tried coercing, minimizing the severity of the situation, or sending my kid away to deal with it in hopes of helping them calm down. Instead of a calmer child, those typically ended up feeling more like mass drownings as we all were swept up by the big feelings and emotional waves.
A parent can only drown in these emotions so many times before enough is enough. I finally decided to toss that approach aside and find something that actually worked. After about 10 parenting books, and a lot of effort, I found a super easy strategy to help calm my kids when they deal with big feelings.
Let’s imagine for a minute that you are at the beach with your child who stands as high as your waist. He’s a “big kid” and is able to be independent in most everything he does. You both decide to walk out to the water to cool off for a bit. As always, you’re close enough to help him be comfortable, but not close enough to touch. All of the sudden you see a fairly large wave coming. Your stance, height, and strength is perfect for maintaining your balance making it just powerful enough to take you off guard for a second, but you maintain your spot. Your child, however, being much smaller, less strong, and less experienced will be completely overpowered in by that same wave.
As scary as that situation is, it is very similar to the big feelings we all experience. While some might feel small and unimportant to us as adults, they can easily overpower and take down a child. Being able to brace a child for that kind of wave of emotion, and know how to deal with it when it takes them off guard is an important skill that unfortunately most of us haven’t yet mastered.
Going back to the ocean story, let’s imagine for a minute, that your child is standing right by your side instead of a few feet away. This time, you see the wave coming, you tell your kid what it is, and grab him by the waist and lift him into your arms, help him calm down, and brace yourselves together to face the impact of the wave. In this scenario nobody is taken under, and that big wave was able to come and go without as much effort. Together is the only way of approaching emotions without someone being swept under.
That scenario is the one we all want, it’s the perfect example of how to deal with the waves of emotions as well. The process can be broken down into 4 steps I’m going to call CAVE.
Connect to Calm Down
Imagine being in the ocean with your child and spotting a big wave. What would your first reaction be? Grab your child and brace yourselves together to take it on, right?
The process is similar with emotions, but in this case, the control needs to be in the hands of the child. When emotions come, they feel foreign and overwhelming. Kids don’t have experiencing in handling them, so they can feel very scary. When any person feels scared, they tend to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Essentially, their body is trying to defend itself from any attacks while it is weak. The only way to be close to a child when they feel this way is to show up as a supporter, and take their side to defend with them. Essentially, taking on the big feelings together.
To show up as a supporter, a parent has to emotionally connect. This means showing up as neutral, without judgement, without minimizing the situation, and without advice to make it all better.
The way this is done will differ from one kid to the next because everyone has their different preferences. All three of my kids are snugglers, so physical connection is the easiest way for me to start that process and show up on their side and help them calm down. For others it might just be the verbal connection with statements such as;
- “Hey, it looks like you’re upset, what’s up?”
- “You seem down, what’s going on?”
- “Let’s talk about your day.”
All of these are great ways to open a conversation and show up as a supporter and not be pushed away, essentially creating a strong connection that will hold up until the wave passes.
Acknowledge their emotions
As parents we tend to want the best for our kids all the time. We tend to see things as rosy because our kids might drive us crazy and give us gray hairs, but at the end of the day they are the center of our universe and when push comes to shove, we’d do anything in our power to make life beautiful for them.
Reality is, life happens. Disappointments come and go. Feelings are hurt, and a child eventually has to learn how to navigate all their emotions, not just the fun and exciting ones. While our kids’ reactions to their problems might, to us, seem trivial or unimportant, to them, they are huge.
Just like the wave in the ocean, what was small and fairly insignificant for you, can easily take your kid out and completely overpower him. Big feelings are exactly the same. Taking a minute to acknowledge the emotions from the perspective of your child is important to getting him to calm down, and keeping him from being taken over and sucked into the undertow.
Phrases starting with the words, “it seems like…” or “it looks like…” are great ways to verbally acknowledge their feelings without reflecting our own judgement on the situation. Labeling the emotion as you see it is a great way to connect what he is feeling to the word you use. So, it’s really important to use powerful emotion words when acknowledging the emotion.
Some examples would be:
- “It seems like you are feeling a lot of anxiety about this. That means your heart is beating, and your brain can’t stop thinking about it. Does that seem right?”
- “It looks like this is really causing you a lot of stress. That means your chest is tight, and maybe even feels heavy. Is that right?
- “It seems like you’ve really been disappointed and hurt by all of this. That means you don’t like what has happened and inside you feel sad, mad, or upset. Is that right?”
These fun cards are a great way to help start those conversations about big feelings.
While those sound really elementary, those phrases can help a child identify, verbalize, and calm down those emotions as they come. How powerful would it be the next time this same wave of emotions comes, for your child to say, “Mom, I feel anxiety about ____”? It all starts by acknowledging it and helping your child understand what it is, then the calm down process can begin.
Once a huge wave is spotted, accepting the fact that it is coming straight towards you is important. There are always those people who end up on the news at the beginning of a storm who think they can ride it out. I haven’t seen too many of those people in after videos of the storms, and maybe it’s because they skipped this important step.
Validating what is coming, or validating what has already happened. It’s one thing to say, “it looks like a wave is coming” or “it seems like you are really upset by this.” It’s quite another thing to say, “the wave is coming straight for us and will take you down if we don’t work together.” That difference all lies in validating that those feelings (or waves) are real and are truly happening.
Saying things such as, “I see why you feel this way because …(then relate previous experience your child has had)” or “it makes sense why you feel this way because… (then restate things your child has said previously which led to these emotions) is very validating and comforting to anyone, especially a child. This is like sealing the deal in showing your kid that you are there to support. It’s like standing in the water as the insignificant wave comes at you, knowing you can withstand it, but bracing your child for the blow he will take from it. When the two of you stand together, realize his experience will be different than yours and promise to stick together through it all.
Before a wave hits, people who don’t have a plan will absolutely be knocked down and possibly taken under. Getting a plan together as the wave swells will determine if you and your child will sink or ride it out together.
In the case with big emotions, the child has to be the one in the driver’s seat. He is the one taking the biggest blow from this wave, which means if he doesn’t feel comfortable or 100% committed to a conclusion, he can’t calm down, and the plan simply won’t work.
Being the taller, stronger, and more experienced person in this situation, it is easy to swoop in and try to solve all the problems as they arise. Doing that leaves your child without any tools for weathering the next wave and the one after that. By working through this with you as a sounding board, a child is able to practice using the skills of solving problems, and becomes more confident in his own abilities to do that in the future when smaller waves come along. Empowering kids to solve problems surely takes longer, but in the end, is much more effective and satisfying for them, .
To help guide a child through this process and truly calm down, it’s best to turn statements into questions. Statements about possible solutions, when phrased as a question, will allow the child the opportunity to feel like it is their own thought and their own plan they came up with.
Asking a question is a great way to keep your child in charge while supporting them in coming up with a solution. For example:
- “So how can we ____(state problem)?”
- “What do you think about _____(state possible solution).”
- “What would help you feel more confident about _____ (state problem).”
- “What if ____(state solution), would that help you feel any better about this?”
Whether it is a wave in the ocean or a wave of emotion, the process is the same. While the waves may seem small or harmless to us more experienced and more resilient adults, to a child they are overwhelming. This process will help you both calm down and come out on top together, no matter which wave might be coming your way.
To help make this process even easier and for more examples of how to incorporate it even when you aren’t threatened by a huge wave, check out these other fun activities/games from other bloggers to explore feelings;
Fun Calm Down Activities To Teach Feelings:
Teaching Emotions Balloons Activity from Arts And Crackers
Six Emotions Activities for Kids– From And Next Comes L
Family Dinner Feelings Conversation Starters With “Inside Out” – From The Chirping Moms
“Inside Out” Card Game– From TeachMama
Paper Roll Dolls– From TeachMama
Teaching Feelings Through Songs- From Music With Nancy
Circle Time Feeling Lessons for Pre-K– From No Time For Flash Cards
Best Apps for Emotions– From iGameMom
Great Printables To Teach Feelings:
Managing Feelings Printable – From Kori At Home
Feelings and Emotions Pre-K Printables– From Pre-K Pages
Printable Emotion Word Cards– from PreKinders.Com