I threw a bag of sunflower seeds today. It wasn’t my finest parenting moment. I was tired, frustrated, and couldn’t shake my irritation. Then I was ashamed about flipping my lid. Then I was worried that my daughter would be scared by my little mom-tantrum. I had a lot of Big Feelings. …And my daughter did something beautiful… She sang Daniel Tiger and stomped her feet for me: “Mad! Mad! Mad! It helps to say I’m mad!” Then she came over and squeezed me as hard as she could and said “Let me take some of that mad away from you, I can help you.” Then she and I jumped on the trampoline together. And laughed. And the mad went away.
This moment was brought to you by Big Feelings.
My kiddo is only 8 and is not a licensed therapist. She has all the same Big Feelings your kid does. So where did all of this “helping Mama with her feelings” come from? She was copying what I do for her every day: empathize and regulate.
We all have Big Feelings because we’re human. Our kids have them, too (duh). But depending on where they’re at developmentally, they are probably still learning to regulate their emotions. This is normal. The screaming toddler in Target this morning? Normal. My kiddo whispered to me “Someone’s having a hard time.” She knows that toddler isn’t being a jerk on purpose.
Behavior is communication. Behavior tells us how someone is feeling when they don’t have the words to.
That screaming toddler was probably having a meltdown because the parent set a limit or said no, and it’s really hard for a kiddo to accept that “no” and feel like someone else is controlling their life. That thrown cup is because a kiddo is frustrated about the milk that they keep spilling and they desperately want to be able to do big kid things. That mumbling is because a kiddo is so mad about screentime ending that their brain is shutting down and they’re in the “freeze” part of fight/flight/freeze.
In the moment, the best thing I can do is to: 1) Stay calm when my kiddo has Big Feelings (“share my calm, don’t join the chaos” is a good mantra), 2) notice what Big Feelings the behavior is communicating, 3) see the “need” underneath, and 4) try to meet the need. And if it’s another mama in Target, give her a thumbs-up and an empathetic “You’ve got this, mama.”
And as we go, we can be teaching our kids about their own Big Feelings and what helps them. Our kids don’t like having big, messy, uncontrollable feelings any more than we do. They want to do well, they want to be the boss of their feelings… but they need us to guide them. This can be a huge learning curve for our kids, but so beautiful when it starts clicking. It might look like a kid stomping angrily to get a calm-down glitter jar, or walking away from an argument with a friend to take deep breaths, or singing Daniel Tiger for a parent.
Empowering Kids to Know Their Big Feelings
In our family, we talk a LOT about Big Feelings.
- We name emotions (ours, characters in books & tv, the cats, etc).
- In calm times, we practice different calming/de-escalaating techniques. This will be entirely different for each kid as each of our brains and bodies are wired a little differently.
- We learn about our “wizard brain” (thinking, learning, creative) and “lizard brain” (fight, flight, freeze, panic, fear).
- We can be a cheerleader for our kids: “I can see you’re frustrated, but you’ve got this! Don’t let that milk carton boss you around, YOU are the boss of your feelings! You’ve got this!”
But thus far, it’s all been verbal/conversation for us. Most kids do great with a tangible, visible way to understand what they’re learning. That’s why teachers have bulletin boards, right?! So, I made a little sheet for our fridge. It was specific to my kiddo and her emotions/needs. It made concrete a lot of what we talk about, and is loosely based on Zones of Regulation. A fellow moderator in the “Parenting with Connection” Facebook group suggested I make a template version and share it with other parents!
Click here to view my 2 Google Doc printable sheets. No catch, no sign-up, no email, nothing. Totally free, because we parents have to have each other’s backs!
4 levels/zones of Big Feelings with Inside Out movie characters. I made 2 versions because some kids have different “core” emotional states. The typical “Zones of Regulation” model uses blue to represent sad/bored. But it can also be common for kids from hard places to commonly be in “freeze mode” (fight/flight/freeze).
- Descriptions of how a child might feel in each level/zone.
- Examples of what might help a child “get back to green”. My daughter and I use the language of an elevator going back up to green level, or noticing that an elevator seems to be going from yellow frustrated down into really mad red.
Just view them in Google Docs, and save/download a copy for yourself. Then change it however you need, for it to be specific to your kid(s).
Once I got the core content put together, I printed it out and showed my daughter. She thought of some things to add. I’d encourage you to write all over it, take it in the car with you, and let it be a physical part of parenting. Sometimes pointing to the paper and saying “You seem frustrated, our list says maybe we could try XYZ” can sound less confrontational to a struggling child than us being the ones to tell them what they need. It’s the paper’s idea. 😉
I hope this helps. Let me know what your kids think of it!