Sunday, August 7, 2011

Emotional Training Wheels for Your Young Child

One of the most common questions I get from parents who come into my office is how to calm their young child down when he is in the midst of a “meltdown,” a “tantrum” or a “fit.”

Ideally, by a certain age and level of development, a child should be able to mostly maintain calm and not get – or stay - too upset in the first place, but often that just isn’t possible given the situation, a parent’s ability to help soothe a child, and the child’s own capacity for regulating his emotions. (Of course, this ideal also becomes entirely beside the point when a parent is feeling overwhelmed, is in public and feeling the pressure of onlookers, or isn’t at all sure what to do to get his or her child to calm down.)

It is so vital to remember that as parents, we are our children’s first and most important teachers. This is especially true when it comes to learning the crucial skill of managing emotions. While this ability is something we adults often take for granted, for children handling emotions well is a skill that has to be learned and supported to the point of mastery just as we help our children learn how to walk, read, or ride a bike. In other words, managing emotions just isn’t something a child can learn without an adult by his side.

I often use the words “regulation” and “dysregulation” to talk about this. We initially teach infants about regulation by picking them up when they are fussing or crying, using motion such as gentle rocking or words like, “There there, it’s okay,” to help them feel better. When we take such actions, we essentially serve as “training wheels” to help baby learn how to feel soothed, to even know that he can be soothed and calmed.

As babies get older and grow into toddlerhood, we move beyond these very basics toward teaching them about the sophistications of emotional regulation.

I have many parents who come in and tell me that when their children are upset and falling apart, they try to help by encouraging them to “use their words” or “tell me what’s wrong.” I hear the best of intentions in their explanations. Here’s what I tell them, and what I want to remind you of now:

When a young child is having a “meltdown,” he usually isn’t thinking about how much better things would be if only he could use his words. He isn’t thinking in terms of words. All he knows is that he feels just awful inside, that there is a yucky mess inside the middle of his body and he doesn’t know what to do with that feeling. Hence, he screams. Or hits. Or may shout out horribly mean words at his mom and dad.
So what is a parent to do in such a situation?

Maintain Calm
First things first: maintain calm as much as you can. Like finely calibrated seismic instruments, children pick up on every nuance of our inner quakes and are affected by them. If you are agitated and angry and inadvertently convey this to your child by your actions or words, your child will likely respond in kind.

Mirror: Tell Them What You See
Secondly, since your child can’t sort out his feelings or needs in the midst of falling apart and verbalize them to you, tell him what you see. This can be conveyed (calmly) in words such as, “I see you’re upset…I see you are very angry right now…I see you are frustrated and sad.” Or, “I know you’re mad. I can see that,” and then you may add, if needed, “But hitting and kicking isn’t okay. We don’t hit and kick even when we feel mad.”

By holding up a mirror (so to speak) in the moment when your child is clearly overwhelmed and confused, you are helping him learn how to put names to his feelings. He may even gratefully think, “Oh! That’s what this yucky stuff inside me is called!”

Be Consistent
Thirdly, as always with helping a child to learn any new or emerging skill, consistency is key. If you are able to consistently help your child name and validate his feelings, he will eventually be able to do this more and more on his own. Before you know it, the training wheels will come off and he’ll be flying down the lane to naming all those difficult feelings and using his words rather than acting them out.

The bottom line is that the more you can put into words what your child is feeling or needing for him, the better he will feel – and act. Not only will he learn how to identify emotions, he will also feel that mommy or daddy understands him enough to notice and say what they see is going on. This is a great comfort to any child.