When Kids Have Big Feelings

I think I’ve finally arrived as a parent.
Marigold told me, “I hate you!” yesterday.
Most people really struggle with that. Who wants to hear those words come out of their child’s mouth? What an awful thing to say!
But really? Do your child truly hate you when they say that? Wasn’t he cuddled on your lap kissing you only a couple minutes earlier? Wasn’t he happily reading a book with you until you said it was time to brush his teeth? So where on earth did this unexpected explosion come from?
Hmmm. Let’s look at the situation–maybe she is disappointed that it’s time to stop reading books with her beloved daddy or mommy, and it’s time to brush teeth (I admit I drag myself to the bathroom to brush mine.) Maybe she is sad to quit doing something enjoys to do something that is a drag. Maybe she is having big feelings! What she means is, “I’m really upset and frustrated that I doesn’t get to do what a lot more fun.” Period.  It’s not a reflection of me as a parent nor does it mean she is a terrible, rude, rebellious child.  She simply is four and is expressing her feelings in the only words she knows how to use.
One of the hardest things to remember with small children is that they don’t automatically know or even remember (even tho’ we’ve told them a million times) how to respond appropriately. In the moments of huge frustration, they don’t think, “Oh, I need to express my feelings appropriately.” Goodness, I don’t respond appropriately when I’m frustrated, oh, the majority of the time. Where’s my bag to hide in? Wait, that is it exactly! The problem is many of us haven’t been taught that big feelings are normal and how to deal with them appropriately. We hide our feelings. Too often feelings aren’t considered acceptable. But feelings happen. They just are. We can’t control our feelings, but we can control our responses to feelings. However for most of us, that doesn’t happen naturally. We have to consciously switch our brains and choose to respond instead of reacting on the fly. And that takes practice. It requires lots and lots of practice, lots of do-overs and ‘Try again’.
“Try again” is one of the best parenting phrases I’ve learned. It goes hand-in-hand with scripting and modeling. First you have to show and tell your children what to say and do over and over and over and. . .you get the idea 😉 , before you can expect them to remember and respond appropriately.
I often use ‘try again’ on myself, “Why on earth are you. . . oh! Honey, can you please help me?” or “I’m sorry I snapped at you, I felt upset, and I meant ‘Would you help me?'”  I use my words inappropriately far too often. I’m in the habit of saying, “Honey, do you want to hand me my book?” instead of “Will you please hand me my book?” I’ve been working on asking appropriately for at least a couple years now, and I still don’t get it right.  I am working to remember to ask appropriately when there are not big feelings attached to my request. I just want my book and am typically trying to get a toddler to sleep and don’t want to disturb her. It’s much harder to express what I need or feel when I am having big feelings.
A side note: I love the phrase ‘big feelings’. It covers a multitude of big feelings–anger, frustration, disappointment, depression, sadness, puzzled, harassed, aggravated, stymied, rejected, startled, excited, overjoyed and on and on. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend finding a feelings chart to print and hang up.
One of the most important things I am learning to do is to identify my feelings. Because big feelings were not acceptable when I was a child, I turned all of them into anger. Anger was safer to express. Since showing feelings besides happiness was not acceptable, I didn’t learn to identify my feelings and deal appropriately with how I was feeling. Now as a 31-year old woman, I am learning. I feel a bit behind the curve most days. 🙂
So how does this tie in Dobsonian/adversarial parenting?
Well, when The Parent is out in public, any time the child is out of control, The Parent looks bad. The Parent is not in control of the child. *gasp* Oh the horror!
Newsflash: I’ve learned that I can’t control other people’s feelings. Not my child’s, not my mom’s, not my husband’s, not my neighbor’s. Not even my own. What I can control is how I respond to my child’s big feelings. The only person whom I can control is *ME*. Only I can choose my words and my actions. Thus, I can model how to act and speak when I have big feelings. I can stop reacting and choose how I want to respond and say to myself, “I don’t like feeling embarrassed when my child is screaming and lying on the store floor. I can yell at her to get up, or I can speak calmly and help her calm down instead of escalating the situation.”
When I start getting upset that my 4-year old still has not put her pajamas under her pillow, and I tell her to every.single.day, I remember Marigold only 4, and she doesn’t remember every single thing I’m trying to teach her. At this age, children are building on the framework of structure and repetition. They delight in singing the same line of a song over and over and over. Actually, I think the theme of 4-year olds is “Over and over and over.” 😀
I am working on making that structure happen and reminding Marigold and Violet what happens next. They are too little to remember every thing that has to happen. I don’t want them to have that stress, nor do I need to burden them with it, but I can work to make transitions easier, and I am working on a simple, visual, daily activity chart for them and a routine for me. This way I am setting them and me up for success.
Tools:
Setting kids up for success
realistic expectations
scripts
try again
repetition/habit
feelings chart
speaking calmly/not escalating
daily routine
modeling
do-overs
reflecting feelings
responding vs. reacting
All people have big feelings, and these tools are useful for communicating with anyone who is upset. These are tools that I try to use daily and mentioned in this post.  I will expand on each of them and give examples, so watch for When Kids Have Big Feelings (Part 2)!
Oh yeah, so what did I do when Marigold shouted, “I hate you”?
“Yes, Marigold, you sound upset (reflecting her big feelings).
I know you don’t want to put your shoes away (identifying the thoughts that caused her big feelings).
When we put them away, then it’s easy to find them next time. (explaining and redirecting).”
Later when she wasn’t upset, I kindly reminded her that we don’t use our words to hurt people and explaining, “When you say ‘I hate you’, it hurts people’s feelings. Instead when we’re upset, we say what we’re feeling. How do you feel right now? Let’s practice!” To which she replied, “I feel silly!” 😉
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5 Responses to When Kids Have Big Feelings

  1. Pingback: Dealing With Big Feelings | Why Not Train A Child?

  2. mamabbme says:

    I want to print this out and just hand it to parents on the street. Thanks for sharing!

  3. MorningGloryGirl says:

    Thank you! ❤
    My biggest hope is that I can help other moms transition easily to graceful parenting. There's lots of stops and starts, but it's day-by-day and step-by-step!

    There's so much to learn, and it is such huge paradigm shift that it's overwhelming.

  4. Rebeca says:

    Thank you for this. I have one kid in particular for whom EVERY feeling is a big one. It’s so hard to remember that and validate him without while helping him learn better actions to accompany the feelings. I really appreciate your blog as I move toward a more gentle and grace filled parenting style. Blessings!

    • MorningGloryGirl says:

      Big hugs to you, Rebeca! It is hard, especially when every thing is a big deal.

      I have a hard time remembering not to get caught up in her big feelings and to remember that I’m not responsible to always make her calm and happy. I am working on reflecting, “Your voice sounds upset.” “Your face looks angry” and giving their feelings words.

      I also know of moms of older kids who talk through situations and feeling and explain neutrally, “This situation is a 3, your reaction is a 5.” I don’t recall the exact script, but it is helping kids identify there are times where big feelings are appropriate. Of course, we need to remember that to a 4 yo not getting an extra turn *is* a big deal! 😉

      Blessings on you as you learn more in your journey!

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