It can be REALLY challenging to have the answers and 'rise to the occasion' when our children test our limits, and patience! Often their emotional outbursts can be so intense and reactive for us that we feel lost and overwhelmed by this whole parenting gig.
What I'm here to tell you is, you've go this! you CAN do it. you actually already have everything inside of you that you and your child need.
Sometimes we just need a little help to find it and that's the purpose of this blog! Let's get honest and practical about how to help our children learn and develop emotional and empathetic skills.
1 – tears are a release mechanism within the body and the psyche. When feelings build up, creating a feeling of chaos on the inside, tears are the release valve that allow it all to flow out and the body to emotionally and sometimes physically reset.
Kind of like a pressure cooker; the small daily moments of pain, fear, anxiety etc all buildup or ‘heat up’, creating an internal ‘disregulation’, a variation of ‘pressure’ if you like. The very next moment of upset or pain, it could be the cookie that broke, the thing you said no to etc acts as the pressure valve; like the straw that broke the camels back, it’s all too much and the valve ‘releases’. Now the valve is open, it allows kids the opportunity to cry out everything that’s been ‘cooking’ for a while and the ‘steam’, aka tears, release until there is nothing left.
You know how good you feel after a good cry, it’s no different for kids. That’s why sometimes it can feel like they’re ‘overly sensitive’ or their reaction completely disproportionate to the event. Feelings stack, they don’t go away and our children are not yet developed enough to recognise that they need ‘a good cry’, they don’t have the language to ask for it, so they rely on ‘events’ that create the tears initially, the gateway to connect with what they have ‘stored’.
You know how shut down and ignored you feel when the person you’re venting to doesn’t really listen, or really hear what you are saying, or understand your point of view, or empathise with your feelings. It’s likened to you trying to tell your bestie about something really emotional for you and they answer their phone in the middle of it, or don’t acknowledge what you’re saying and instead jingle keys in front of your face, or hang up on you because they can’t deal right now.
Would you feel more soothed because you’re emotional tirade had been stunted? Or would you feel more stifled, perhaps angry, by the emotions that are now stuck and unacknowledged?
It’s no different for kids. Tears are a form of communication and a functional part of health. Tears actually release stress hormones. To suppress, ignore or side-step tears, is to drive feelings deeper into the body, those feelings don’t go away, they don’t disappear.
So our role becomes, not to associate tears with pain (our own pain),but with healing and a ‘truth telling’ from your child to you. Just sit with the tears till there are none left. Don’t distract them, don’t avoid saying “no” so you don’t have to ‘deal’ with the fallout – what if the fallout is exactly the opportunity they need to get out what’s stored up?
2 – tantrums are another way to move feelings through the body. Continuous melt downs are a sign that the deeper, underlying feelings have not fully released so they constantly ‘stop/start’ trying to finish what they started.
It can be hard to hold the space for a tantrum, particularly when it is tornado-like and our children are ‘frothing at the mouth’ or hitting and kicking. So I understand the desire to stop it, to avoid it or hitting a point where you can’t hold it anymore. Often the tantrum can bring up some big feelings for us from our own childhood – how we were responded to, what we internalised from those experienced, powerlessness etc, which can add an extra layer of difficulty when we must separate our own story from what’s going on with them.
Unresolved or incomplete feeling release will result in a ‘continuous’ tantrum, constant limit testing and all out defiance. They are seeking the sweet spot from you to create the ‘wall’ which they can then safely release against and ‘let out’ what’s feeling bad in their body.
Does this mean you have to do this, there and then, in a public situation where we don’t feel safe to hold it? NO! If you don’t feel safe to be grounded, empathetic and present, then neither do they! Kids have incredible internal barometers for our emotional state and will ‘know’ intuitively when we are ‘available’ and when we are not and therefore whether it is safe for them to really let go and be completely vulnerable with their feelings, or not.
If the ‘release’ is in someway interrupted, distracted or stopped, these feelings don’t go away, they are sitting there just below the surface and you will always have time and opportunity to face them – remember the broken cookie phenomenon – it’s never too late and you’ve never missed your chance to heal.
3 – Children set us up to feel as they do. This is actually a gift because you don’t have to guess how they’re feeling and you don’t need to feel ‘in the dark’ about ‘what’s wrong’. If you take a second to check in with yourself, to focus on what you are feeling, you’ll know exactly what they’re feeling. You and your child are in a dynamic that is so interlinked, you will mirror each other emotionally.
You know how when you’re having a rough day, you want everyone else to pick up on that and ‘give you a break’, but instead it all goes very quickly down hill?
Or when you’re seriously vibing motherhood and yourself, how everything feels somewhat effortless and enjoyable?
Family dynamics are intricate and endlessly fascinating. Your child will do or say exactly what they ‘need to’ in order to produce the exact same emotion/s within you as they are feeling within them – it’s a pretty profound, but unconscious, dynamic and you can use it to help tune in with your child.
4 - Children are just seeking to be heard and seen. If they are repeating themselves, repeating a request or words or repeating a behaviour, they have one or both of the following ‘going on’:
They haven’t felt heard and understood
Boundaries are unclear
All we ever want as humans is to be understood and accepted as we are. Children are no different. When we feel like someone really ‘gets’ us and is able to empathise with us, we feel somehow held and released from the ‘grip’ this emotion has on us. Children are no different. Your child is just asking to be acknowledged in their feelings or experience of a situation.
Does your child’s reality need to match your version of reality? No! Does it matter if I think their reaction is ‘ridiculous’ over such a ‘minor event’? Nope. Their experience is theirs to have, not mine to judge through my adult understanding and perceptions.
So don’t offer insight, or your perception on things. Don’t say “me too” and make their experience yours. Let go of the anxiety of knowing how to ‘fix’ this situation, how to make them ‘feel better’ or get over it. Just sit in what they are feeling, thinking and perceiving – their experience, not yours. Paraphrase back to them what they’re saying, “you really wanted that …. Cookie” “you’re mad with mummy because you really wanted that toy” etc. Match their tone to emphasise you get them. Offer “I’m feeling really…., I wonder if you are too?” or “you look really…. angry” – name it to tame it! Giving our children language to their experience helps them develop skills for handling themselves emotionally as they grow.
Boundaries. When we don’t know where we stand with someone, or we don’t’ understand the ‘rules’ within an environment, we feel a level of insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety. Children are no different.
If the boundaries or ‘rules’ within any situation are unclear, like a wild animal pacing a fence line looking for the weak link, children will constantly test the limit until they understand exactly where they stand, what is expected or allowed. When you are congruent in your choices and boundaries and clear on their communication with your child, they will not need to test it. If sometimes you’ve said “no”, sometimes you’ve said “yes”, or sometimes the limit has been “x” and sometimes its been “y”, children will continue to test, unsure of where they stand. Our children are always asking us to step up to our boundaries and ‘captain the ship’ so they don’t have to. There is security and comfort in clear guidelines.
5 – what we are repressing, they are expressing. This is a super interesting one! Our children, from conception, are biologically and epigenetically ‘hard-wired’ to express what we repress. What this means is that they will push our buttons so precisely, we are tested to our limits – different limits and different buttons for each child because we grow and change (therefore repress and express different aspects) with each child. The evolutionary, or possibly spiritual, purpose of this limit testing is to help us grow and heal by highlighting our ‘sore spots’; our unhealed and wounded parts.
So when we find our child’s behaviour particularly challenging, it’s worth asking ourselves what they could be expressing, that we are repressing; either because we’ve made it ‘wrong’ or an unacceptable part of our personality, or potentially because we are unconscious of this aspect of ourselves.
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We believe in finding your authentic voice as a mother, understanding the emotional triggers your children bring up and having a toolkit to help both you and your child develop a strong and connected relationship.
Julie Tenner is Co-founder of Nourishing The Mother and is The Pleasure Nutritionist. Julie is a Naturopath, specialising in women’s and children's health, with specific focus on awakening women to their full potential – health for the mind, body and soul – creating lasting life change for you and your family by “coming home” to your magnificence.