Helping Our Children with Big Feelings
As events in our surroundings unfold around us, we notice changes in the way we experience our world, and sometimes struggle to manage our emotional responses to these changes. While certain kinds of stress that arises from activities such as arousal to novelty and safe exploration are beneficial for our development, prolonged unpredictability or threatening changes in the environment can become very overwhelming.
This is especially true for our children, who may become overwhelmed with big feelings in response to stressors or changes around them, impacting on their capacity to behave in their usual way. Even at a very young age, children have awareness of situations that can cause stress in their environment and can experience the stress of those around them extremely keenly.
How then, can we help our children with their experiences of novel or big feelings?
Signs of stress:
- Increased crying
- A pattern of disrupted sleep (e.g. nightmares, difficulty maintaining/ getting to sleep)
- Clinging to caregivers
- Fearful of being alone
- Play behaviour (e.g. repetitive play, zoning out during play)
- Increased aggression/ anger/ tantrums
- Regression in behaviours (e.g. wetting the bed, wanting to be bottle-fed)
- Changes to eating behaviour (e.g. appetite)
Pause and think
It can be a struggle to manage behaviours like aggression and bed-wetting when we are in a stressed-out state ourselves. When we encounter challenging behaviour, it is helpful for us to pause and think about what our children might be trying to communicate. For example, when we notice some of the signs described above, our children might be trying to tell us that they are feeling confused and frightened by the changes that have occurred in their world.
Explain why things feel different in a simple, age-appropriate way. While young children may not fully understand, having conversations with them can help them to feel cared for and heard.
- Answer Questions
Avoiding our children’s questions and concerns will not help them to manage the situation better, but instead create greater confusion and distress. Answer questions that children may have, in a simple way and without including additional information. For example, if a child asks ‘Can I still talk to Grandpa when he is at the hospital?’, we can respond with ‘Yes, you can still talk to Grandpa over the phone or a video call’.
- Provide Reassurance
Children function within the context of the family, as such, the health and functionality of the family environment is of critical importance for children’s ability to regulate and cope with changes in their environment. When children have to adjust to significant life changes at home and in school, that impact is echoed in various aspects of their lives. Children learn and internalise how to regulate their emotions through close connections with their primary caregivers. Thus, it is important to prioritise spending time with children, connecting with and reassuring them so that they can continue to feel safe and secure.
- Maintain Routines
Keep to established routines, like mealtimes, playtime and bedtime to help children feel safe.
- Help Children Express Their Feelings
Children often find it easier to express their emotions in an indirect manner. For example, engaging in pretend-play with stuffed animals or puppets by saying ‘this puppet is sad, why do you think he is sad?’, or in drawing a picture to show each other how we are feeling.
- Help Children Practice Relaxation Strategies
When children practise relaxation strategies, it can help calm down the nervous system, enabling them to feel more secure. These could include preferred indoor (e.g. sensory play) and outdoor activities (e.g. kicking a ball around), breathing exercises that are age-appropriate for children (e.g. Bunny Breathing), and short progressive muscle relaxation exercises (e.g. making animal faces).
The psychology team at Revive is highly trained and qualified to identify and help clients learn to manage the factors contributing to behaviour difficulties. So, if big feelings are troubling your little person, don’t put off seeking help, give the team at Revive a call on 08 6381 0297.
Vanessa Tan (Psychology Clinical Registrar)