When it comes to life with kids, one common technique parents use to help calm their kids’ big feelings is to name what they think their kid is feeling.
As Daniel Siegel says, “You have to name it to tame it”.
The only thing is, it doesn’t always work.
In fact, on some occasions, you might find that it riles your kid up even more, and then you really feel stuck!
So does this technique actually work and I’m just getting it wrong, or is there more to it that I’m missing?
On paper, naming your kids’ emotions has the potential to help them feel understood, which is validating. And when there is room for our feelings, it makes it easier to tolerate. Just think about how it feels when the customer service rep says “I understand this has been a huge inconvenience for you, but there’s nothing I can do about it”. It doesn’t rid you of your, say helplessness and frustration, but it sure does make it easier to bear. Which is why being able to connect with your kids emotional experience is so important.
Starting from 18 months of age, kids are embracing their fast-growing sense of separateness, but are still very much dependent on you to help them make sense of all the new feelings that come up for them, especially the ones associated with not getting their way. “What do you mean my will doesn’t control you!?”, thinks the disgruntled toddler.
So when the shit hits the fan and you have a kid who’s about to lose it, or is well on their way, most parents make an attempt to tame the tantrum and offer a word to symbolise their child’s experience. For example, what I hear parents saying the most is, “You’re feeling really [enter feeling word here]. That’s really hard for you”. (I sure as hell know that I’ve tossed out a few of those statements in the past decade of motherhood to little avail.)
But more often than not, just reflecting what I think my kid is going through in a word or two hasn’t been affective…
Until I incorporated the MOST integral part of any empathic intervention.
It’s one thing to see someone struggling and, with the best intentions to help alleviate their struggle, point it out to them. As in, “I see this is happening. Boy does that suck!” But it’s a completely different interaction when I see you struggling and I’m going to sit right down beside you and see it through with you, without judgement or criticism. That means that when my kid loses it, I can feel their experience with them without getting overwhelmed by it myself. In other words, I try to help my kids hold their emotions until they can do it for themselves, by holding my own first.
What mostly happens when our kids don’t cooperate, talk back, get extra needy or throw a tantrum, is that we have our own internal emotional reaction. So instead of joining our kids in their struggle and truly connecting with their experience, we get stuck grappling with our own. And what makes it even harder is that we’re often not even aware that it’s happening.
So when the pot starts to boil over, things just aren’t going the way you’d like them to go, and maybe you start to feel overwhelmed and out of control, that’s the time to turn your attention away from your kids’ behaviour, and focus inward on what’s coming up for you. As soon as you’re able to tame your own reaction, you’ll then be able to help your kid tame theirs. As soon as you allow yourself to embrace and move through your strong emotional experiences, you’ll be able to support your kids as they exercise their own ability to manage their own.
This of course is easier said then done, or as one client said to me the other day “I totally get it and agree 100%, I’m just not sure how to do it!”. So if you’d like some help, let me know. You can get in touch with me here. You can also sign up for my free online course Enjoy Life with Kids which I created to help parents connect with themselves so that they can connect with their kids. To get more information and to sign up for the 8-part self study course for free, click here.