It can be difficult to see your child go through intense emotions.
Stopped in their tracks by fear...
Swept away by anger...
Sitting in the cloud of sadness...
You can find yourself feeling torn between wanting to fix it asap, to make it go away and feeling helpless because it is just not happening. There is a middle way: you can be there for your child and help them find their way back to feeling their ‘usual’ self.
So, how do you do that?
First of all, what is that BIG feeling your child needs help with? Anger, fear, sadness, shame... You might want to take a pause and come up with a particular situation that you find tricky. Say your son is scared of going to school and you want him to feel calm and confident enough so that he can go. The clock is ticking, he is in the grip of fear and it feels like the situation is not going anywhere...
Before we dive into ‘how’, I’d like you to check in with yourself:
Do you want your son to snap out of fear quickly with distraction, reasoning, talking them out of it?
Are you prepared to meet him in his fear, to let it in, to share it and then be there until he finds his way through?
If I check in with myself, I can definitely relate with both. The first one: it is hard to see my children in those places and I want to help, and I also know that if I get too busy fixing, my daughter will likely get the message that there is something somehow wrong with how she is feeling, and she should not feel that way and she will end up feeling quite on her own with her fear. I want to be able to do the second one... When I am able to let her fear in, to share it with her, gradually it stops being so big and scary, she is learning to regulate it herself by us being in it together. I think it is really important to acknowledge what’s that like for you. Offer to yourself what you want to give to your child: welcome your reluctance, notice your resistance, make space for those feelings you think you should not have as a parent. It is ok, you are a human being doing your best day after day after day, it’s all good.
Now that we have set the context, where do we go from here?
Step 1. Make yourself comfortable. Find your own calm and confidence. I know it is hard to do it in the heat of the moment, so it helps if you have a regular practice of connecting with yourself: meditating, journaling, mindfulness, seeing your therapist, whatever works for you. If in general you feel quite in touch with your calm and confidence it will be much easier for you to summon them when your child needs to lean into you.
Step 2. Meet him in the middle between the calm place and the scared place. Let his fear in. Feel what it is like to be scared to go to school. Helping your child with their big feelings is not about what you do, it is not even about what you say. It is about how you feel. It is about feeling his fear from a calm place. How might it look in real life?
You: 'You really don’t feel like going to school right now.'
Your son shakes his head and his shoulders drop.
You: 'You’d much rather stay at home.'
Your son nods and snuggles in a bit closer. You hug him a bit tighter and take a moment to reconnect with your calm and confidence. You notice how his breathing got a bit deeper and a bit slower.
You: ‘Those numbers you are working with a very big.’
He lifts his head, looks you in the eyes and nods...
When that dialogue happens his fear is getting less and less intense. You might feel like it is taking forever and you are not even doing anything much, you are just hanging in this funny place, but actually so much happens in that moment. Let me break it down for you:
Your son learns that his fear can be shared. Think about what’s it like for you. Say when you are approaching a job interview: would you rather be able to say to your friend: ‘I am so scared, I feel like I have a massive boulder in my stomach’. And then hear them say: ‘I hear you, it is scary and you’ve got this.’ Would you rather feel like you have to plaster the smile on your face and get on with it?
You are not building up extra layers. It’s a vicious circle: running away from fear results in that anxious feeling that it is wrong, that he should not feel this way, or he might feel ashamed of being scared and the fear grows bigger and so on and so on.
You are helping your child to feel safer in his fear and to learn to regulate it.
It will make it easier to regulate the next time.
You understand how your child experiences that situation and have a common ground to build the solutions on when he is ready.
The main point that I want to get across is that helping your child with their big feelings is not about doing, it is not even about talking so much, it is about feeling it with them from a calm place. When you can stay with your child in their fear, in their sadness, in their anger, frustration, curiosity – it strengthens their sense of security. Secure child is not a sunshine child that seems to be happy and eager to please all the time. Secure child is a child who can feel and communicate the whole range of needs and emotions. They learn that from the countless experiences of their needs and emotions being welcomed. Yes, it is not always pretty or convenient, but it is real. When the child can express all of it – they can get help to regulate all of it. When a secure child is in their happy and settled place, it’s so beautiful to see, they seem to radiate this ease and effortless thereness...