By Katherine Lycke, M.Ed/Ed.S, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern
Picture this: It’s Tuesday and it’s time to pick your seven-year-old up from school. He gets in the car, throws his backpack into the other seat with some muscle behind it, slumps into the adjacent seat, and lets out a huff. Your stomach squeezes because this is his norm and you know what’s coming. You gingerly peer over your shoulder and ask the dreaded question “How was your day, honey?”
Long story short, by the time you get home your kiddo is yelling, slamming his backpack into the corner, and wailing because he cannot have another fruit roll-up for snack since he already had one with his lunch. Fury is trumpeting from his little lungs, tears staining his face, and he is swearing you are the worst mother to ever exist. Your shoulders slump in defeat, because this has become little man’s normal mood on school days.
Is he yelling about what he needs to yell about?
Children are notorious for temper tantrums; it’s part of the job description of being a small human. While these temper tantrums can be for seemingly “silly” reasons like the balloon wouldn’t stop floating, or the chair was a little too squishy, these fits are pretty serious. Just as when they were infants, it’s our job as parents to question the actual reasoning for their distress, regardless of their age.
The root of any child’s temper tantrum lies in emotional regulation. This is our innate ability to respond to our emotional reaction to our interpretation of life events. When we are infants, our emotional regulation skills are near to none. We cry when we’re sad or angry, laugh when we’re happy, and so on. As we age, we learn from caregivers, media, peer interactions, and society how to regulate our emotional reactions in an acceptable manner. I’m sure we’d give a co-worker a weird look if they threw themselves on the floor crying if they received constructive criticism from the boss or accidentally spilt their coffee.
A core skill in emotional regulation is our ability to take overwhelming emotions and make them manageable. By “regulating-down” we can respond to our emotions rather than react. This skill is a major focal point during childhood, however it does not get the overt attention it should. We teach our children not to hit or bite others when angry, but we don’t actively think to teach them other ways to cope with their uncomfortable emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, or frustration. The result is a core belief of “I need to suppress this uncomfortable emotion, because that’s all I know what to do with it.” This suppression leads to situations where “the straw that broke the camel’s back” meltdowns occur.
So, now what? Using reflective listening skills
Our first step as parents is to foster a culture of emotional acceptance. We can do this by sharpening our reflective listening skills. In theory, it sounds simple, however it’s a tough skill to master. Simply put, it is listening with our full attention, and acknowledging their feelings by giving them a name. For example, a way for the Mom to utilize reflective listening with her scowling seven-year-old when he got in the car would be “I see your arms are crossed and your eyebrows are scrunched. You seem really angry right now.” Instead of asking an open question of “how was your day”, here you are acknowledging his inner experience and inviting him to explore his thoughts and feelings. This can be incredibly validating for not only children, but for humans in general. By utilizing reflective listening and stating what we see when we notice our child experiencing an emotion, it creates an atmosphere of “your feelings are valid and ok here”. This invites the child to fight the urge to suppress his feelings, and instead creates a safe space for him to explore his thoughts and feelings. Once they have words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to find comfort in that and begin to actively problem solve.
Helping kids manage overwhelming emotions
Next, we can begin to teach our children other ways to manage overwhelming emotions. It is easier to teach children coping skills whenever they are emotionally regulated, but beautiful teaching moments present themselves in the midst of a temper tantrum. Let’s take the seven-year-old wailing because he could not eat another fruit snack. Here, Mom could use reflective listening skills to recognize his anger.
“You are livid that you cannot eat the snack you want.” “I see you crying and stomping your feet.” “You wish you could have your favorite snack right now!”
Next, we offer him tools. For example, you can offer a child a piece of paper and ask them to show you how angry they are by scribbling or drawing a picture of how they feel. Another tool could be to get him moving. You can ask him to show you how mad he is by jumping up and down as hard as he can, or sprint to the mailbox and back as quick as he can. This begins to introduce him to the idea of healthier ways to express uncomfortable emotions. Remember to use your reflective listening skills throughout this part of the process. The more regulated he becomes, the better able he will be to explore his feelings and thoughts.
The more we are able to join our children in their overwhelming emotions, the less intensity they will begin to experience these emotions due to building their capacity to sit with uncomfortable emotions instead of reacting to them. This can be harder than it sounds, however if you are able to even begin to build your own awareness of reflective listening, you are on the right track, Mom and Dad.