If it were up to me, I would definitely be raising bubble children, wrapped up in cushiony material to prevent any bumps or bruises and a permanent barrier between them and the outside world. No sickness, no pain, and no sadness. Of course, that’s not the real world. It’s impossible to shield ourselves, let alone our children, forever.
I decided to sit down with a child psychologist and ask them about how to help our kids when they are hurt or frustrated. We can’t stop the pain, but we can teach them healthy coping mechanisms to navigate these large feelings in a constructive way.
Cortney Bindrich, Ed. D., a licensed school and clinical psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist, had great insights about how to approach tough moments with our kids. She reminded me that big feelings live in little bodies. We need to acknowledge those feelings and let them know they are normal and OK. The bigger obstacle is how to talk to them about it or how to work on the problematic behavior that can come with those epic feelings. Here are the most helpful takeaways from our conversation.
1. Check in with Yourself
When I was in elementary school and my father was grieving heavily for multiple losses, I started getting intense migraines. I couldn’t go to school or do any activities. My parents took me to a neurologist, who couldn’t find any underlying cause for the headaches. I would lay in a dark room with tiger balm on my temples and hope that I could wake up without any pain. At the time, my mom started to suspect it had to do with anxiety and started walking me through some great exercises to help me with breathing and meditation.
It was very helpful, but looking back on it, I wonder if sitting down and talking about my father’s depression (in an age-appropriate way) would’ve brought us out of that period much sooner. We were so focused on what was going on with me that it didn’t occur to us to look at the environment around me.
We were so focused on what was going on with me that it didn’t occur to us to look at the environment around me.
When you are trying to work out what is going on with your child, make sure to ask yourself where you are emotionally too. Kids pick up on cues from you and can internalize something from you, and because they don’t know how to process it, it can look like acting out or tantrums. If you can have a conversation with them to alleviate their fears and concerns about what’s going on with you or the larger world, you might be able to see a difference in their behavior.
2. Time-Ins Instead of Time-Outs
“Less language is better,” Dr. Bindrich said. When a kid is acting out, there’s usually a much larger feeling going on underneath that, but they’re overwhelmed. Take a moment to sit with them or next to them quietly. In this moment, language won’t help at all because they’re in a heightened state. Take a break, let them experience the emotion, and try not to comment on the emotion or judge it. A couple of things you can do include taking deep breaths, hugging a lovey, and taking a moment to draw.
Once they’ve calmed down, take the chance to decompress what happened, like saying,”It seemed like you were having some big feelings right then. Let’s chat about that for a moment.” It’s important to stay age appropriate here, but that doesn’t mean shying away from the conversation. Make sure to be mindful of the language you use during this time. You don’t want to give the message to your kids that they are bad. Maybe say something like, “I love you, but I didn’t love your actions.” Message it as a behavior issue rather than a child issue. We are all allowed to make mistakes because we’re human. There’s no need to ask, “Why did you do that?” Instead, discuss how they could express themselves more clearly next time, in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
We are all allowed to make mistakes because we’re human. There’s no need to ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ Instead, discuss how they can express themselves more clearly next time, in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
This method gives children the message that experiencing big feelings is part of life. How we process them is important because we shouldn’t be hurting others in order to do that. It gives them opportunities to channel their feelings into more productive coping tools in the future.
3. Positive Reinforcement
“Overall, kids are dying to be loved and to be good kids,” Dr. Bindrich said. So when you see problematic behavior, they are in need of attention from you. Luckily, there are effective ways to help them work toward positive attention rather than negative attention.
Dr. Bindrich gave a great example about bedtime routines. Her own child struggled with the nightly routine of bathing, brushing, books, and bed. Initially, when her child would start to dilly dally or refuse to brush his teeth, he had consequences, like losing a book when you don’t brush your teeth. All of a sudden, they started having meltdowns every night.
She switched over to positive consequences by making a star chart of chores that earned him books for reading at bed. If you brush your teeth, you earn a book, or if you go potty, you earn a book. So if the child is delaying or refusing a task, the language can then become, “OK, I guess you won’t get to earn a third book then.” After that, the nightly meltdowns went away, and bedtime was no longer a massive battle. “It’s best to start with things that they’re going to do anyway (brushing teeth) and then build the activities up from there,” Dr. Bindrich suggested.
The major caveat is consistency. It’s not magic. The children won’t be able to switch their behavior overnight. So recognize that these are skills, and just like everything else in life, the more they practice, the better they’ll get at it. You have to stay consistent with how you practice it. Kids learn through modeling, not just what we say, so the more consistent we stay with our own behavior, the more they connect the dots.
You have to stay consistent with how you practice it. Kids learn through modeling, not just what we say, so the more consistent we stay with our own behavior, the more they connect the dots.
4. Tools can Help
My grandparents died in 2016 within one week of each other. At the time, my nephews and niece were so little but so very perceptive. My 4-year-old nephew came up to me one day and said, “Thamma (my mother) is sad because her mommy and daddy died. That’s why everyone here is so sad.” I was shocked at how perceptive he had been, even at the age of four. It was overwhelming to have a conversation with him about grief and loss at that age, but I staggered through it somehow. After speaking with Dr. Bindrich, she pointed me to some great resources from the Child Mind Institute that can help you navigate hard conversations with your children.
One of the biggest scary topics you may be talking about this year is COVID. Sesame Street made a great video for parents to help with guiding the conversation. You could watch this ahead of time and share the parts you feel would be helpful with your little ones. If your child needs to get a nasal swab, watching this video with them can help alleviate the stress and fear of it.
As much as we may want to wait to have conversations with our kids about hard topics (and for when they will understand and be able to process things better), the truth is that life doesn’t wait. There are so many unplanned moments—this pandemic is one of them. Nothing we do will actually shield our kids from the truth. Instead, we can take the opportunity to show them how we navigate the hard feelings and let them know that it’s OK to grieve and be upset.
Nothing we can do can actually shield our kids from the truth. Instead, we can take the opportunity to show them how we navigate the hard feelings and let them know that it’s OK to grieve and be upset.
Half the adults I know don’t handle big feelings well, so it’s no surprise our kids struggle too. The more we help them create healthy habits and processes, the better their long-term mental health might be. We may not be able to surround them in bubble wrap forever, but we at least can teach them how to better cope with the world.