Here is a situation that might sound familiar to a lot of parents. You have just finished a long busy day at the office, you are sitting in traffic about to pick your kids up from school, thinking about the day that was, what you are going to cook for dinner? Hopefully you can get Johnny to football practice and Sarah to soccer training on time! Will you have time to walk the dog too?
Upon arriving to school, the kids pile into the car. You ask them how was school and get not much back other than a shrug. Upon dropping Johnny to football practice, he seems grouchy and when you tell him to cheer up, he yells at you for no apparent reason and slams the door! “Right, no TV tonight!”. He’s been acting like this a lot recently and nothing you do seems to be working. Why is he behaving like this? What makes it so easy for our kids to act out when you do so much for them?
This is not an uncommon situation, and many parents deal with this on a day-to-day basis.
What we may often struggle to notice is that behaviours can be the consequence of emotions. Generally, a child who experiences big emotions is not going out of their way to engage indisruptive or rude behaviours, but rather this is the coping strategy that they are choosing at the time to try and alleviate their difficult feelings. While the emotion behind a child’s bad behaviour does not get them off the hook, it can open a dialogue between child and carer. One where emotions can be validated and discussed, boundaries set, and limits negotiated.
You see, across town a similar situation unfolds, Ella starts to get argumentative with her mum on the way to her swimming lesson. Her mum pauses and notices that there could be an emotion driving this behaviour. Mum regulates her own emotions before responding to Ella’s. She asks Ella an open-ended question free from judgment; “Ella you seem frustrated, tell me what is happening?”. Side-by-side dialogue has been engaged and Ella begins talking about how she is feeling anxious about swimming lessons recently. This is not the first time Ella and her mother have engaged in conversations like this, consistency has been key to this communication style and Ella knows that this is a safe environment for her to talk about her feelings.
By allowing your child a safe space to explore and validate their emotions they may gain greater understanding as to what drives their behaviour and begin to engage in more beneficial coping strategies. Below we have provided five steps to exploring emotions with your child and assisting them in engaging with positive coping strategies.
Pause and regulate yourself – utilise a range of mindfulness strategies. Commonly ourimmediate and understandable response is for our emotions to raise to the same level as the kids and go straight to punishment for problematic behaviours. However, if we want kids to engage in self-regulating behaviours it is important that we model this in our own lives,particularly when put in difficult situations.
Once you have grounded yourself, you may take a second to explore where this behaviour is coming from. In this step, we open the dialogue and can gently help the child to consider potential emotions preceding their behaviours. This step can take practice and it is important to be patient.
You do not always need to solve the problem! While it is appealing to jump into problem solving mode, listen carefully and validate their feelings. In this step we propose that all emotions are normal to experience and part of living. By normalising the experience of emotions and talking about them, your child will be better equipped to cope with such emotions. In this next step, try to support the child through tough emotions with the assistance of co-regulation.
Keep the communication lines open and make yourself available to assist them. Be consistent with how you respond to your child’s emotions so that they can expect a calm and supportive approach. Have a toolbox of strategies to help your child regulate or co-regulate. Keep in mind that whatever strategy we practice when we are emotional is what we will get good at.
It’s OK to stuff it up sometimes, we are human after all. The important part is reflecting on your parenting practices, acknowledging and praising yourself when you get it right and being honest and identifying when you could have done things a little different. If we are mostly consistent in our practices, you can expect that your child will continue to develop and grow with these same habits.
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