Got a little one with big mad feelings? Here are 6 things to DO when your child feels mad...
1. Offer safe movements to get those mad feelings out! Jump, run, dance, wiggle, squeeze/hit a pillow, or "fire breathe"!
Big MAD feelings come from the part of the brain that operates our FIGHT/FLIGHT response system. So when we get mad our bodies react by getting ready to respond to the “threat” by either fighting or fleeing. If you think back to the last time your child got mad (or maybe even the last time you got mad) you could probably see or feel that process happening. Maybe you noticed their muscles tense up, their fists clench, their eyes narrow.
The mad feeling is happening IN our bodies. A great strategy for getting to a place of calm, is to find a way to release that built up energy.
2. Validate their feeling while ignoring their upset words/actions. Upset brains can sometimes say or do things they don't mean.
Have you ever said something you didn’t mean when you were upset? Maybe during an argument or disagreement with your partner or a family member? If so, that is totally normal! Upset brains sometimes lash out by saying or doing things that they don’t really mean! When we are supporting our kids who feel mad, it can be made even more challenging when they lash out and say hurtful things to us. Those words and actions are coming from the “feeling brain”. It can be helpful to think of them as being a part of the same system we talked about above: an automatic process as a result of the brain trying to protect us and keep us safe.
What we want to do is VALIDATE the feeling. Connect to that “feeling brain” and let it know that we can see and understand they are mad/angry. Empathizing with the feeling is a super simple (and effective!) strategy for soothing the “feeling brain” and getting the “thinking brain” back online.
One important note, validating the feeling doesn’t mean that you are reinforcing the behavior. Feelings are okay and it is okay to be mad, but it is not okay to hurt people. The thing is, you can’t effectively teach that lesson when the child is still very upset. That lesson can come later, when the “thinking brain” is back in charge.
3. Avoid asking questions or placing more demands.
When the “feeling brain” is in charge, the part of the brain that handles logic, problem solving, and even complex language takes a back seat. This means it can be incredibly challenging for children to process language and respond to requests in the heat of the moment. The best thing to do, is to wait until they have cooled down a bit before you start asking questions.
This is also why it isn’t a great idea to try to reason or use logic with a child who is super upset. Their brain is simply not ready to process and follow logic and reason. Make it easier for both of you by employing some of the other strategies and giving them time to calm down before adding logic to the mix.
4. Respect personal space. Touch can be calming or it can cause kids to become even more upset. Allow them space if it is safe and offer closeness/affection as a way to calm down.
Remember that Fight/Flight system that is designed to respond to threats in the environment? Now imagine a child whose FIGHT response is activated and there comes a large adult who grabs them - how do you think that system might respond?
If you thought: “Get more upset! Fight harder!” you would be correct ;)
Maybe the adult had come in with the intent to hug and soothe. For some kids, physical touch can indeed be very soothing and comforting. For others, it can absolutely make things a whole lot worse. As a parent, the urge to reach out and hold our upset kiddo can be SO strong. But it is okay if you have a child that needs space when they are upset. Providing comfort in the way that your individual child needs makes you an incredibly loving parent!
5. Decrease stimulation: dim the lights, reduce excess noise, use a calm voice, and use slow/relaxed body language.
A great manta for those moments should be “reduce extra stress”! Dim light, turn down the radio or TV, offer soothing, or even perhaps help them find a comfortable place that naturally reduces stimulation. My son loves to go into a little pop up tent with the lights off when he is upset.
Pay attention to the messages that your voice, face, and body might be sending. If you are feeling tense or frustrated, there is a good chance that your child will pick up on that. Their Fight/Flight system might even perceive that as a threat! Try to slow down your body movements, relax your face, and speak softly.
6. Check in with yourself. Upset adults have a hard time soothing upset kids. Aka "you can't fight fire with fire". Take a moment to breathe, move, sip water, etc. Then you can share your calm.
Just as your child’s feelings are valid, your safety and feelings are valid too. If you find yourself getting upset, that is okay. That is your “feeling brain” kicking in to protect you. The problem is, upset grownups cannot soothe upset children. 2 upset brains will likely just continue to get more and more upset.
So, take a moment to pause. Breathe deeply. Move your body to release tension. Sip some water. Grab a piece of chocolate. Allow your “thinking brain” to come fully back online so you are able to help your child. It is a great time to walk the walk and model healthy coping strategies.
Remember, big feelings are a natural and normal part of the human experience. By helping our little ones through their feelings we give them the tools to manage their feelings safely.
P.S. Need more information? Check out The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegal or Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker