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,