Managing big emotions (yours and your child’s)

One morning a few weeks ago, my two daughters were happily playing together in the backyard. Few things bring me more joy than watching their growing friendship develop. But at ages 4 and 2, the number of minutes that they can play well together without needing the services of a referee still tends to number in the single digits.

On this particular morning they were playing a game of their own making in which they filled little buckets of water and found places around the yard to pour them out. A picture perfect warm fall morning with kids running around, laughing, splashing, and having fun.

That scene came to a screeching halt when my 2 year old innocently poured some water on my 4 year old’s foot. Cue loud objections from big sister, who responded by immediately dumping the water in her bucket on little sister’s head. At this point I jumped in and grabbed big sister away, a bit less gently than I should have. Now I had two crying children.

I was angry. Why does my 4 year old have to overreact when one little thing goes wrong and ruin a perfectly good time? Then it hit me. I was overreacting to one little thing going wrong and ruining a perfectly good time. I couldn’t expect my daughter to have more control over her reactions than I had over mine. The question was, how could I help both of us manage our anger better?

I have long observed that in children, unwanted behavior tends to come from unmet needs. It is their way of communicating that something is wrong. Perhaps they are feeling tired, hungry, frustrated, powerless, or hurt. A child who “acts out” is a child who doesn’t have the insight or ability to express in words the uncomfortable feelings he/she is experiencing and therefore acts out these feelings through behavior, like a not-so-fun game of charades. Responding with compassion and trying to identify the kind of love and care our kids need is the key to defusing tense situations. It also allows everyone to reach a calm enough mental state to be able to focus on finding solutions and developing coping mechanisms for the future, rather than assigning blame.

I knew how to deal with my daughter’s unwanted behavior, but what about mine? I realized the same logic applied to me. Unwanted behavior comes from unmet needs. Was I feeling tired, hungry, powerless, frustrated, or hurt? Come to think of it, I hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast yet because I was so busy helping the kids get ready for the day. I was a little tired, having stayed up late to catch some precious moments to myself after the kids were asleep. I was feeling a little powerless and frustrated, watching my best efforts to raise siblings who loved each other result in typical sibling squabbles. In other words, my reactions were about me, not about them. I needed to step back and take care of my own needs to manage my reactions better.

So how do we fill our own cups when we have little people counting on us almost every minute of the day?

1. Get enough sleep. When I start to feel especially exhausted, I do a 3 day sleep challenge. It’s amazing what a few good nights of sleep can do.

2. Go outside. Just walk right out the door. A simple change of scenery can do wonders. Going for a walk around the block is even better.

3. Take nanovacations. Sure, a 3 day vacation, or even a 1 hour vacation, sounds great. In the reality of 10am chaos, both of those longer opportunities to recharge may be a long time away. My friend Linda Clement, a parenting coach, recommends taking nanovacations, or 2 minute breaks that provide an oasis of calm in a stressful day, or break up the usual routine with something fun. Have a cup of tea. Draw with shaving cream on the bathroom mirror. Jump with a jump rope. Call a friend. Hammer a few nails into a board. You can find more of her ideas here.

4. Give yourself a break. Stop and remember that you are worthy of taking a break and meeting your own needs. You are worthy of love and forgiveness.

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