The first step to help kids through BIG feelings

Mar 31, 2024

When your child is upset and experiencing big feelings, is your first instinct to logically talk them through the issue, or help them problem-solve?  If you’re like most parents (me included!), your go-to response is typically to try to talk them through their feelings and help them understand why there is no need to be so upset.  We think that if they understand they will calm down.

This happened to a mom I was working with whose child was anxious about going to a birthday party that involved indoor rock climbing and refused to get in the car.  The mom tried everything.  She reassured her daughter that it was safe.  She told her all of her friends were going to be there and talked about how much fun it would be.  Unfortunately, the talking didn’t help and things escalated.  The mom eventually got her daughter to the party and her daughter ended up loving it, but it was a very unpleasant experience for both of them.

I explained to the mom that when our kids are upset and experiencing big feelings, their bodies shift to their sympathetic nervous system which is the fight, flight, or freeze (survival) mode.  This comes from thousands of years of genetic programming because, for our caveman ancestors, big feelings could mean life or death.  

When our kids go into survival mode, they are operating from their primal brain, and all access to the prefrontal cortex has shut down — and the prefrontal cortex is the part of their brain that is responsible for thinking logically and rationally.

In simple terms, this means our kids can’t think clearly or rationally when they are experiencing big feelings — access to the rational part of their brain has been shut off.

Our attempt to talk our kids through BIG feelings tends to escalate the situation more often than it helps.

So consider working to help your child to calm down first, and then problem-solve or logically talk them through the issue.

How can you help your child calm down?  Start by just accepting how they are feeling, and don’t try to talk them out of it. In the case of the mom with the anxious daughter, that might look something like this: Hey, it’s okay to be nervous about doing something new you haven’t done before.  That happens to me too.

If BIG feelings are a problem in your house, please check out my next LIVE workshop on How To Parent Through BIG Feelings.  I’ll be in Bradford on April 8th, and the event is free and open to the public.  I will explain where BIG feelings and behaviors come from, common mistakes (like this one!), and how to avoid them, and I’ll be teaching research-backed parenting tools to help.  Click here to register.

If this is something that you struggle with, please join us.  Here is what one parent said after a recent workshop: “Mel’s presentation on Big Feelings was so helpful! I not only left there with concrete techniques to try when my child is experiencing big feelings and having a hard time, but I also have a better understanding of why she is experiencing these feelings in the first place! I have begun to implement some of Mel’s suggestions and am already seeing a positive change in my daughter’s behavior and am feeling much more confident as a parent!”

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