The other day I was at the doctor’s with a mum from Bonnie’s. She was very focused on her youngest child who was screaming and crying as he was getting his bandages removed.
Her other child who’s 3yrs old was calling for her mother to get her a balloon. I tried to help but I didn’t know what she was asking for. I couldn’t see any balloons. I was trying to talk to her but she wanted her mother. She kept on going up to her mother and saying balloon, louder and louder and eventually pulling at her mother’s clothes. The mum was still very focused on her youngest child but she could tell that her 3yr old was heading for a full meltdown and knew she had to do something about it before it would spiral out of control. So she got down on her child’s level and listened. She realised balloon meant the rubber glove, as this must have been what they did together last time they were at the doctor’s. So she grabbed a rubber glove and blew it up like a balloon. This made the 3-year-old calm down instantly. She’d felt heard and was now happy.
If children are feeling unsafe or unheard, it will come out through the behaviour they display E.g. having a meltdown. This is the brain just feeling overwhelmed, and at this stage, they are unable to foresee what the consequences to their behaviour might be.
The key is calming the brain first and foremost.
To do so they need a person that they feel safe with. This could be their parent, a teacher, a grandparent. They need someone they can go to if they feel unsafe. There will always be a hierarchy of safe people for a child. Usually, it will be their primary caregiver, but if their primary caregiver is not around it may be the teacher.
They may need some way to calm themselves down through movement by repeating some kind of pattern. I often see parents pick up their crying child and rocking them in their arms. This is creating a soothing pattern through movement. For older children the pattern can be anything from swinging, rocking, drumming, drawing/colouring, taking 60 breaths, jumping on a trampoline, clapping hands or even drinking water (which helps with rehydration but also the pattern of drinking is calming to the brain). All these things have a movement and create a pattern, which soothes the child.
Once the child is calm we can use emotional connection techniques.
Dr John Gottman developed an emotional coaching tool, which is a 5-step process, helping parents respond to their kid’s feelings:
Recognise that an emotion is happening, if we are too busy or distracted this is easily missed. You understand your children better than anybody, and you are most likely to tell when they’re having an emotion.
Intimacy and connection is what your child is after. So stopping what you are doing and connecting with them by listening or simply giving a hug. This takes time, but it takes much more time if they go into a complete meltdown. It also teaches them that they can trust the world.
Validate the kind of emotion they are having. E.g. “You seemed scared when you heard yells from outside the house. I would have felt scared to.” We need to validate that it’s ok to feel e.g. scared, sad, angry, jealous, etc. We want kids to feel understood and that whatever they feel is ok.
Emotional naming the feeling. Many young children and even adults don’t know how to name their emotions, so this is a good time to start teaching them. Name the feeling you think they are having. If it is wrong they will let you know. This is something we can start doing from birth, as young children understand the intent even if they are nonverbal.
Response for next time. Problem solve how to do it differently next time or what may help fix the issue. Often as parents and carers, we go straight to the Response as we want to fix the problem. But it will be very hard to fix the problem or come up with solutions if the brain is not calm.
Finally, remember that the part of the brain that is all about reasoning and understanding emotions starts to develop at 3yrs old. The development of this part of the brain stops developing at about 20 years for girls, and 30 years for boys. So if we keep that in mind, we will realize that we often expect too much from our children, which they may not be completely capable of doing.
Remember that you are human too and that you may not always respond, as you’d ideally like. Be kind of yourself, analyse how you’d like to do better next time and try again.
Written by Marryanne, photo by amanda tipton