Helping to soothe your child’s anxious feelings is one of the most precious gifts you can give them. Every time you help soothe your child’s big feelings, your child develops a trust that their difficult feelings can subside. Over time (a long time), and with your help, children eventually learn to regulate their own emotions.
The reality is that parents don’t always know this. They often find themselves at a loss about how to manage or change their child’s “difficult” behaviour (e.g. tantrums, defiance, not listening, refusing to participate, bed-time struggles). The problem with the behavioural management approach is that it may not consider the feelings that the child is experiencing – the feelings that underly their challenging behaviours.
Behaviour is communication
When children ‘act out’, ‘misbehave’, ‘don’t listen’, withdraw, what are they actually communicating? Usually, young children don’t have words for the overwhelming feelings inside them. And they certainly don’t know how to make sense of them.
Children’s challenging behaviour may be a result of major life changes or experiences.
Examples of such experiences include:
These are just a few examples of experiences that can impact children and result in them feeling emotionally disorganised or overwhelmed. What we may see, is their challenging behaviour.
Take for example the child who gets a new sibling. While many children delight in the experience of having a new sibling, others can struggle. Often, it’s a mixed bag of feelings. An emotional storm may be brewing in even the most excited of siblings.
When a new baby comes into the family, the older child has typically been through the pregnancy that may have resulted sickness and/or reduced energy levels in their mum. Then there’s the anticipation of the baby being born and the child being separated from his/her parents at the time of the birth. Although seemingly excited to be an older sibling, the child may be affected by these changes, and may feel insecure and displaced.
Often there is a regression in the older sibling’s behaviour - this is normal. What we may see, is their challenging behaviour.
Suddenly, a mum and dad who were exclusively theirs are shared by a newcomer to the family that everyone is cooing over. He/she might feel pushed aside. The child might feel angry that the new baby is needy and has access to mum’s body in a way that the he/she no longer does. Watching mum breastfeed might bring up feelings of envy that are hard for the older sibling to understand.
Mum and dad are likely to be exhausted and the older sibling may not be able to make sense of this. The older sibling may tantrum, regress (needing parents more), and unhelpfully, be labelled as “difficult”.
This storm inside the child needs to be processed and understood. For this to happen, parents need to see the feelings that lie beneath the behaviours, and help the child put words to them.
Are you feeling angry because Mummy has to feed the baby again and you really wanted to play?
Are you feeling sad that baby won’t stop crying?
You so wanted to read your book with me, then baby started fussing?
Are you feeling a bit cranky that baby needs me so much?
It doesn’t seem fair does it?
The first step in helping children to process their feelings is showing them that their big feelings don’t scare or upset you. That you are there for them is all of their emotional chaos. Then, children need to be heard and validated. With kindness, understanding, and patience, big feelings can settle.
When the big feelings settle, there can be a space to come up with a solution.
How about I read your book to you while I’m feeding baby?
When I’ve changed baby’s nappy, I’ll put him in the carrier and sit down on the floor with you to play leggo.
How about when Daddy gets home, you and I have a bath together and play with your dinosaurs?
To have empathy for your child’s emotional world, it might be useful to think about a time in your life when you felt like you had a storm going on inside you. Certain experiences leave us feeling anxious or unsettled, and in these moments, it can feel as if we are falling to pieces on the inside. You may feel like nobody else can see this, but you feel awful. You might not even know what you need at such times and may find yourself withdrawing, getting angry or feeling quite tearful. These overwhelming feelings can impact how you function, as well as your capacity to think clearly and make sense of things.
What can help is having a trusted friend or therapist sit with you and tune into your emotions, show they understand you (without judgement), and help you to disentangle the knots of overwhelm that you are feeling inside yourself. With this, you might find yourself breathing deeper, and thinking clearer. Overall, feeling calmer.
The same applies to children. They don’t have words to say what they are feeling, but their behaviours reveal something to us – that there is a storm inside them.
A word from the author
In my psychology practice, I often encounter parents who have trouble when it comes to helping their children manage their anxiety and other difficult feelings. This prompted me to write a psychologically based children’s book drawing from both theory and clinical experience. The book is titled The Storm Inside Katie with characters that are easy to relate to and identify with for both children and parents.
My aim was to provide an accessible resource that reads like a story for children but helps parents understand the impact of overwhelming feelings and the various ways in which parents mays respond to children when they are feeling afraid or unsettled for various reasons. The book also provides an opportunity for meaningful conversations between parents and their children
These communications may coincide with parents trying to deal with their own difficult feelings and experiences, which can all feel quite overwhelming. It can be extremely difficult to organise your child’s feelings if you are feeling emotionally unsettled yourself. If you are struggling, it may be helpful to consult with a psychologist to address the storm inside you, and to receive guidance in making sense of and responding to your child’s storms.
Written by Clinical Psychologist, Beverley Marcus
Copies of The storm Inside Katie are available to purchase by emailing email@example.com to place your order.
Posted by Dr Renée Miller