Emotions are hard! This topic comes up the most during conferences, Parent Clubs, and Parent Education Workshops. While it may seem that as Montessori teachers we have this secrete language to talk with children, we don’t. We simply allow them to experience what they’re feeling and encourage them learn how to self-regulate these feelings when appropriate.
Here are five things to keep in mind when helping your emotional child…
- Model self-love and emotional responses
Can adults have tantrums? You bet! I had one this morning when traffic was stopped on Independence BLVD and I realized I might be late to work! We’ve all had moments in which we weren’t displaying our “best” self. Cut yourself a break, we’re human. The best thing to do when we have an “adult meltdown” is to take a minute to calm ourselves down. This may mean we have to walk to another room, we may have to take a few deep breathes, or pour a glass of wine. Whatever helps us through the moment, we can model for our child. (Although they can’t drink wine.) If we yell, a child learns to yell. If we speak unkindly, a child learns to speak unkindly. It’s hard to be self-aware when we’re so upset, but if we expect a child to have that same ability than we need to practice it ourselves.
2. Connection before correction
One of the building blocks of Positive Discipline is to have a connection with your child before correcting them. As infants, your child was soothed by you when upset. I’ll even bet you knew exactly what each cry meant. Just because your child is a few years older doesn’t mean he suddenly doesn’t need to feel that same connection with you when he’s upset and trying to regulate himself emotionally. In fact, he may need you more! His emotions are so overwhelming and he doesn’t yet have the words to describe all those new complex emotions. Help him by giving him the words of what he is feeling: “You seem frustrated that your socks are hard to put on.” This connection goes a long way for a child’s sense of belonging and emotional acceptance.
3. Don’t kick a kid while he’s down
When you’re angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, and just plain sad you are already feeling pretty crummy. Imagine someone making it worse by punishing you for feeling that way. Time outs, consequences, shaming, or heaven forbid, spanking, does not help a child with his emotions. Instead, the child learns that the emotions he is feeling are bad and maybe he is “bad.” This could send the message that the child needs to repress emotions and it begins to build up inside of him. It’s a cycle, because then this build up starts to leak out and causes the child to lash out because he’s so scared to show what he’s really feeling. Instead of punishing your child for having emotions, try guiding him through. Give them a space that is safe for him to express himself. That might be a physical space, like a pillow or their room, or it could even be you.
4. Accept emotions even when you’re busy
Every parent knows the sick feeling they get in the pit of their stomach when their child is about to let out a loud cry in the middle of a target. You desperately want to distract your child, yell at him, or even grab him and run… but what about that shopping list you need to finish! Let’s face it, emotions don’t always happen at a convenient time. Instead of bulldozing over his emotions in an effort to get him to stop and move on, let him know you accept his disappointment or frustration. “I know, it’s disappointing that you can’t have the chocolate bar. You really wanted one. I’m sorry that on this trip you can’t have one.” When a parent uses some empathy, the child learns that while an emotion may not be comfortable, it’s not shameful or forbidden. Instead, he can feel accepted and process emotions as they arise instead of hiding them away. He feels understood, heard, and supported, which is something we all want when we’re upset!
5. Set those limits, even if emotions come with it
I know what you’re thinking. But, Sarah, just because my son is upset about not getting a chocolate bar, does that mean I have to give it to him? Of course not! Don’t confuse empathy with passivity. It’s ok that you’ve set a limit… and it’s ok that he is upset. As adults, we have plenty of limits that we live by but don’t exactly enjoy. Personally, I would love to walk into a bank and just take the money I need, but I obviously can’t, that’s called robbery. Stand firm in your limits, you know it’s what’s best in the situation. However, you can have some compassion with your child when they show their frustration. When a child is able to feel anger, frustration, sadness, or worry, they begin to see that emotions are not scary and can process them quicker with less acting out.