As I walked into the third microschool of the day with two other Prenda employees, I was greeted with an energetic little girl. “Hi! What’s your name?”
Before I could answer, she proceeded to grab my camera that was hanging around my neck, then she latched onto my hand to show me around. I had only known her for 30 seconds, but I could already see she was inquisitive and a little fiery ball of energy. The microschool Guide was a pro at redirecting her and the other students as they showed us what they had been learning all year. About 15-20 minutes into the visit, it was time for a science experiment. The little girl’s energy only increased as she couldn’t contain her excitement that we were there.
The excitement came bellowing out of her little body causing her to make a poor choice. After she was kindly corrected, she lost it and started to cry. She stormed out of the room, slid down the wall, and crashed into the floor while she sobbed.
The Guide immediately joined her on the floor in the hallway, and although I couldn’t see them, I could hear the two of them taking deep breaths together. The Guide had some other great words of wisdom to share before they both returned to the table ready to continue the lesson. Kids have big emotions. Some more than others. Some way more than others! A big part is development, their brain wiring, and environment.
I am a mom to three boys who all have big emotions compared to peers their ages. They are twice-exceptional so they struggle with self-regulation. It can be challenging to say the least. However, what I have learned is they simply don’t have the developmental tools they need to calm themselves without any help. Often, adults don’t know what to do with those emotions so they try to stop them which can make them get bigger or can lead to other challenges. I witnessed how quickly a child can calm down when given the right tools. I’m sure breathing isn’t enough some days, but it was just what that little girl needed on the day of our visit.
The younger the child, the more frequent the emotional outburst may be. However, if the outbursts continue to happen into school age, that is usually an indicator he or she has difficulty with self or emotional regulation. The great news is there are many ways you can help minimize or even get rid of the explosions (if it gets to that level) altogether. Kids are 100% dependent on adults to regulate and lack the tools, so let’s give them some they can use every day!
Temperament can play a huge role in whether or not a child loses it or struggles with emotional regulation.
Some kids, especially those who are neurodivergent tend to have a hard time because they are lacking developmental skills and neural pathways. This can result in big feelings whether it’s excitement or anger. This is especially true if the child is tired, hungry, or in need of sensory input.
All three of my boys are differently wired so angry atomic bombs often go off in my house. I keep meeting parents who have the same experiences in their homes as well. The way we can help these kids is to educate ourselves as to what is going on beneath the surface AND give these kids the tools to regulate. For most of them, you can pull the tool out of your imaginary toolbox at any time, any place. These can work in public or in private.
The amazing part is the more your kids use them, the better they will become at regulating on their own. In fact, I tested it on myself by taking deep breaths every time I grab the steering wheel in my car. Now, I don’t even have to think about it! I immediately start to breathe deeply as soon as I start the car which helps train my brain and body to have this similar reaction when I start to become dysregulated. To help my kids remember all these tools, I made a Calm Down Tool Box. We have a copy in the car and on the fridge.
Every kid is unique and responds to different tools at different times.. This is why it’s good to have options and to practice them often, not just when the child is losing it.
Before I head into the strategies that help manage emotions, it’s important that we unpack what emotional regulation is in the first place.
If you are like me, you will find all of this fascinating. My goal is to help you realize what is going on “underneath the iceberg” so that you, too, can remain calm while the child you are working with or parenting becomes regulated in their autonomic nervous system.
Self Reg, as the cool kids call it, is the ability to control both our behaviors and emotions. In regards to helping a child with big emotions, this is called Emotional Regulation.
The brain is complex so to break it down: Self Reg is the ability to calm ourselves down when emotions are high and to get emotions back up when we are down in the dumps.
All people, old and young, experience demands all day long. From the moment kids wake up, they need to do what it takes to get themselves ready and out of the house and then off to school or whatever activity is planned that day. The demands don't end until they close their eyes in bed at night. Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to these demands of life. I like to think of it as the gears turning in our heads when something arises we don't like or when our brains detect a threat putting us into our stress response (fight, flight or freeze).
Think of the characters in Disney's Inside Out. They are helping the little girl regulate her behaviors and emotions to provide for her best life. Some kids' "Anger" guy is a lot stronger and beats out the others often.
Being able to regulate emotions is in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) or commonly referred to by psychologists as the "cognitive" or "thinker" brain. This part of the brain does not fully develop until we are in our mid-20s! No wonder kids can have a tough time with this whole regulation thing…their brains are under-developed. The more developed part of the brain is called the limbic system or what is known as the "reptilian" or "caveman" brain. The strong emotions come from this part of the brain and stem from the amygdala which works together with the PFC.
Do you see the disconnect?
A child's emotional processor is far more developed and ready for battle than the part of the brain where focusing attention, planning, reasoning, remembering instructions, decision making and adjusting social behavior comes from. Aha! Here is the question we should be asking in regards to anger, frustration, tantrum-like whining or any kind of big unpleasant emotion: How do we give a child the skills necessary to help the undeveloped part of the brain connect neurons?
The mindset we need to first become familiar with is that kids' big emotions mean they are struggling or they are lacking skills.
Our children are not trying to be difficult, they simply have a lot going on in their brain and they need some assistance!
How does that saying go? We can't put their oxygen mask on without putting ours on first. The reason we hear that saying a lot is because it is the truth!
There's that regulation word again. By staying calm, clear and concise ourselves, we have the power to influence children’s emotional states in what is called co-regulation.
Because I know how much impact my own emotions can have on my kids, it makes it so much easier for me to stay calm (most of the time). If it helps, a mini-tool you can use is to pretend you have mind-controlling powers because technically, you do! Mirror neurons are powerful!
There are also many ways you can manage your own anger and emotions but that’s for a different blog post.
Now we know what is going on in our kids' brains and why we need to remain calm to help them. A favorite mantra of mine is adopted by Dr. Ross Greene who wrote The Explosive Child (It's a super quick listen!):
“Kids will do well if they can.”
Therefore, it's our job to help them if it appears the inability to help themselves. Here’s a few of my favorite calming techniques…
For my full list, check out my new blog, 29 Amazing Calm Down Tools For Kids to Self-Regulate.
This one is soooo tough for me! When a child is in full meltdown mode, do not try to teach, reason, or explain. I have a secret. There is zero point in talking a lot. It doesn’t go anywhere when the thinker brain is offline.
While the Reptilian brain is in charge, the brain struggles to hear you. A phrase Dr. Dan Siegel uses is, "Don't poke the lizard." When a child is in this state of mind, he or she is not capable of rational thought. Subsequently, they are in survival mode using either fight, flight, or freeze. If you are not attuned to your child, your words are viewed as a threat.
Your job is to give your kids the tools they can use themselves to get connected back to the Thinker brain.