Big emotions can be scary. Anxiety, sadness, anger, and many other strong emotions can quickly engage the body's fight-or-flight mechanism. That's true for adults, and certainly true for children who are just learning about their emotions and how to manage them. Now that school is back in session, spillovers of big emotions at school and at home may occur. Though every situation, family, and child differs, here are a few evidence-based tips for parents to help children and teens navigate big emotions.
Talk about emotions
First, it's helpful to remember that emotions are normal. We all feel them — from the pleasant to the stressful. Children benefit when parents talk about emotions because this helps to normalize feelings and let them know that it's okay to talk about them with you. Regular conversations also help build children's emotional competence and self-regulation skills. This can be as easy as labeling your own emotions when they arise, connecting emotional labels with specific body cues, and discussing coping strategies that could help. For example, you might tell your child, "When I feel worried, I notice my muscles and my voice shake. I find trying paced breathing and a grounding activity helps me feel better. Would you want to practice with me?"
Leave room for tough emotions
Parents often do not want their child to experience tough emotions. But try to hold off when your parenting instincts kick in to say, "I need to fix it!" While you are a great resource and guide for your child, sometimes your child just needs you to be there. Never underestimate the power of being present with them. Social support has been shown to increase resiliency, so simply sitting quietly with your child can reduce their stress levels. Listen to their concerns nonjudgmentally. Validate their emotional experiences. Even if you do not necessarily feel the same way, these are very real concerns for your child. Additionally, people often respond to the tone of others around them, so model calmness. This will help show them that they can remain calm, even when feeling a storm of emotions on the inside.
Children and parents can try different types of coping strategies to help manage tough emotions. Paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two examples of helpful ways to calm the fight-or-flight response that may follow big emotions
Sometimes, emotions are extreme and really challenging to manage. During these times, grounding is a powerful tool to help children remain focused on the present and create some distance from distressing thoughts. Physical grounding strategies involve focusing on senses or surroundings, such as focusing on the feeling of their breath as they do a breathing exercise, or on the soles of their feet as they walk. Another popular option is "5-4-3-2-1," where you name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Or you could assign colors to each number.
Anchoring is another strategy that can help children learn to handle overwhelming emotions. As the name implies, this strategy relies on visualizing dropping an anchor and grounding oneself in the present. There are different versions of anchoring strategies. Parents can try this guided practice:
- First, acknowledge that your child is experiencing tough emotions: "I can see this is difficult, and if you will allow me, I want to help you." Then prompt your child to visualize dropping an anchor.
- Guide your child to push their feet into the floor.
- Ask them to straighten their spine and notice their back.
- Continue to guide your child to ground by engaging the other senses, such as focusing on their breath expanding their lungs or the feeling of their shoulders as they roll them.
- Reacknowledge the presence of the big emotion and reflect that they can move their body and exert self-control in the presence of this emotion. For example, "I see you are feeling angry. Notice you have a body around this emotion. One that you stretched and moved." Prompt them to continue to do any of the grounding methods described above — whatever strategy is most helpful to them.
- It can also be helpful to remind them that you are here with them, "Notice that I am here supporting you and we are a team."
Know that anchoring is not designed to make the emotion go away immediately. Instead, it can help a person calmly ride out the emotional storm so they do not get carried off by the emotion.
Practice these new skills
One final point that I like to share with the children and parents I work with is "practice makes better." Perfection is rare, but repeated practice helps train the brain to learn new skills. Learning is easier during calm moments, so consider finding a regular time to practice self-regulation strategies every day. Guided mindfulness-based practices geared to children, such as those offered on Headspace, Calm, or Smiling Mind, can make this fun and easy. Over time and with your help, your child will build self-regulation skills that encourage resilience in times of stress.