Whenever I ask parents what their biggest parenting struggle is, patience is always right there at the top of the list. We struggle to keep our cool in all sorts of situations – when we are rushing to get everyone out the door, when we have asked our child 272 times to do something, when they whine and whinge, when siblings squabble, and the list goes on. Often it is when our children are having the most trouble keeping their cool that we also lose ours. Which we all know is pretty unhelpful in the scheme of things, especially as our children are watching and learning from everything we do. And managing big emotions is hard when you are two or four or six or sixteen. In fact at times it can be hard, whatever age you are!
Being prepared with a strategy for helping children through those times when they are experiencing big or overwhelming emotions such as anger, frustration, jealousy or embarrassment, is one way to help both you and them to work through those emotions more effectively. It’s not about teaching our children that their emotions aren’t important or valid, or that they must be hidden or suppressed, but it is about helping them to find socially acceptable ways to express and deal with their emotions – most importantly, in ways that don’t hurt others.
I like the idea of developing a ‘Calm Down Plan’ with your child (or children) so that they have a plan to work through when they do feel upset or out of control, and think the following five steps provide a great place to start.
5 Steps to Managing Big Emotions
1. Remind myself that it is never okay to hurt others.
It is important to set clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not. In our house, we are not allowed to hurt or be destructive to others or their property. That includes hurting others with our words.
2. Take 3 deep breaths or count slowly to 10.
Helping children to understand that these big feelings are completely normal but it is their reaction and actions as a result of those feelings that can hurt others (and ultimately, ourselves), is an important part of the calm down plan. Taking a few deep breaths or slowly counting to ten gives the child time to recognise their body’s warning signs – whether they be a tense body, clenched teeth or racing heart. When making a plan, talk with your child about how their body feels when they are angry or frustrated and then introduce the idea of taking a few breaths to compose themselves and to form a better course of action then striking out at another person.
3. Use my words to say how I feel and what I wish would happen.
Acknowledging the big feelings recognises that these feelings are legitimate and important and saying what they wish would happen helps to open a problem solving conversation. Of course, what they wish would happen won’t always be an acceptable solution for all parties, and this can often be a difficult lesson for children to learn (and virtually impossible for very young children to learn) and they will often need support to work out a more peaceful solution, especially when they are used to striking out when they feel big emotions.
4. Ask for help to solve the problem.
As an adult I often find talking through a problem really helps me to process it, and children will often need support as they learn to problem solve and find solutions in social situations. Let your child know that it is okay to ask for help when they don’t feel that they can solve the problem and keep these important channels of communication open, so that one day when they are working on much bigger problems than a spat with a sibling or frustration with a friend, they feel that they can always come to you for help.
5. Take the time I need to calm down.
Let your child know that sometimes they just won’t feel that the solution proposed is enough and that they may still feel angry or upset even having worked through each of the above steps, and that in these situations it is often better to walk away or to find another safe way to diffuse those feelings. Next week I will share a range of cool down strategies that children can use to help work through these lingering emotions or to distract themselves from the situation (you can now find this post here). As an adult, it is important to remember that this step is not about isolating the child but about giving them space if they want it, or going to them and supporting them through this final step if they need it.
The 5 Steps Printable Poster
As I mentioned above, it is often in the heat of the moment that these ideas go straight out of our mind and we find ourselves settling back into old habits of getting angry or acting impatiently with our child, rather than helping them work through a plan to calm down and be more in control. This is why I decided to make these five steps into a printable poster. Firstly, to act as a discussion guide as you work out your very own calm down plan, and secondly, as a visual prompt for when you or your child need that reminder and support. Print out a copy and hang it in their bedroom or playroom, or even your living area and refer to it regularly as you help your child learn to process these big emotions!
To download your poster: Click on the poster image below. This will open a larger PDF version that you can download to your own computer. Open the PDF and print. When printing, select “Fit to printable area” (or similar) to ensure the page fits with your printer type and local paper size (these have been created at A4 size). I printed ours onto matte photo paper. Personal, non commercial use only.