What Do We Do When Our Kids Have Big Feelings?

Have you heard the phrase, “choked with emotion,” as in, “She was choked with emotion.”?

More commonly, have you ever gotten a lump in your throat?

Last night I was overwhelmed with sadness over losing my dad. Russ held me close, but I began to feel like I couldn’t breathe. I sat up in bed, trying to take long, slow breaths, but that wasn’t enough. I moved to sit on the side of the bed, trying to slow my breathing.

When I didn’t feel much better, I got up and drank some water. I told myself I was fine and I just needed to slow my breathing. It took conscious effort to relax. It didn’t help that by now my nose was running and my sinuses felt stuffed, making it even harder to breathe.

I finally relaxed enough to fall asleep as Russ held me close.

This makes me think about our kids and strong emotions – or “big feelings” as we call them. I’m an adult with the intellectual ability to tell myself I’m physically fine and I can control my breathing.

When feelings get big, our kids quickly lose their ability to use their prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of their brains, and are subject to their more primal, or “downstairs brain,” which is all about fight or flight.

These very uncomfortable feelings of a lump in the throat, or even feeling they can’t breathe well, can push our kids further into panic.

The best antidote is to do exactly what Russ did:

1. Stay close.

2. Stay calm and present in the moment.

3. Be quiet

Our kids can’t process words when they are dysregulated, they will likely only hear the tone of your voice. Stay quiet or make calming sounds, keeping your voice soft and gentle. Russ didn’t ask me questions, he just kept his hand on my back as I tried to breathe slowly.

4. Offer physical comfort.

A drink of water, a soft blanket, your hand to hold, a favorite stuffed animal, may help your child calm.

If a child won’t allow this much closeness, simply sit near. Your calm presence says, “Your feelings aren’t too big for me. You can trust me. I won’t leave you alone when you feel this way.”

We were designed to feel strong emotions, including sadness and fear. They don’t feel good, but they are honest and real. I’ll never forget the day Kalkidan cried gentle tears of sadness, rather than rage, for the first time.

We want our children to learn we are their safe base, the person they can come to when their feelings get too big for them. Through many repetitions of demonstrating this, we hope our kids will let us be side-by-side with them as they learn to calm.

With courage and hope, my friends,

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

8 Comments

  1. Stephanie
    May 10, 2018

    Thank you so, so much for this post. I hardly know how to do this for my children, but I know now it’s absolutely the right way. Please pray for me to be consistent in it. …And, any advice on how to deal with shrieking preschoolers who are rage-tantruming over having their own way would really help me! I feel like I *do* have to put him in time out in another room sometimes just to get him to calm down–that my very presence puts more fuel on the fire. How do you deal with this?

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      May 11, 2018

      Stephanie, that’s a tough situation sometimes. We had a “think it over” chair in the family room and I would start there; it was often enough for many of my kids. I would initially offer support, but if that wasn’t accepted, or like you said, my presence made it worse, I would step away into the kitchen (in the same space) and do simple tasks. For my very hardest child, sometimes it was so disturbing to the other kids that I had to move her, but that was rare because it usually triggered more aggression. Typically, I had the other kids go to another room first hoping that would help. I would suggest trying to keep him near, but if you can’t, a nearby space where you can check in (so he knows you haven’t left) is a good option.

      Reply
  2. Joelle
    May 11, 2018

    Such profound words. Loving you in this very difficult time.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      May 11, 2018

      Thank you, Joelle.

      Reply
  3. Char
    May 11, 2018

    Such a good reminder. #3 is always hard for me as I tend to want to talk, talk, talk.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      May 11, 2018

      Yes, me too! I have to be very intentional not to talk but stay near.

      Reply
  4. Leah
    May 11, 2018

    A good reminder for me!! Thanks 💜

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      May 14, 2018

      You’re welcome, Leah!

      Reply

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