By Juliet Duralde, M.A., LPC-A
Imagine watching your child’s first soccer practice….
Last week they met the team and went through the basics, but now they have started running through drills and learning techniques. A few of the kids have played soccer before, but not your child, and it shows. They are tripping over their own feet, missing the ball when they kick, and running in the wrong direction. Halfway through practice, you and the coach deem this behavior as unacceptable and punish your child by sending them to the other side of the field to sit and think about what they have done.
Wait, what? Punishment for not mastering soccer on the first try? Learning how to play soccer does not happen on the first try and usually takes months of practice under the guidance of a supportive coach.
It’s easy to think of skills as tangible assets that we gain over time, like learning to play a sport, write, swim, or ride a bike. What about the softer skills that are not as easy to see? What if we thought of managing emotions as a skill? Or learning the art of expressing how we feel about someone else’s words and actions?
Now go back to the soccer practice example. It sounded ridiculous to send the child who could not grasp soccer skills as easily as the others to the other side of the field to think about their “behavior.” Most of you thought, ‘Wait, he just needs some help!’ So, what if we took the same approach when kids demonstrate “bad” behaviors?
When a child shouts, “I hate you!” an overwhelming sense of fear and upset takes over. If I don’t punish my child and send them to time out, they won’t know that these words are hurtful and unacceptable. You might have a similar thought when your child throws the TV remote at your face, refuses to say thank you, resists getting ready for bed, etc.
First, know that this fear comes from a place of love and devotion. You want the best for your child and do not want them to make choices that will one day have negative, natural consequences. So, what if we use an outburst (like screaming “I hate you!”) as a signal that our child is missing a SKILL. As adults, we (usually) have the tools to respectfully tell the significant people in our life when we feel upset about something. Our children are still learning.
So how do you handle this “signal”?
Logic and reasoning often feel like a fair and rational response to these types of “outburst” behaviors. This might sound like:
“Please calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”
“If you don’t explain why you’re upset, I can’t help you.”
To a calm and regulated person, these responses are useful. To a person whose fight or flight response has kicked in, they feel useless. So, what are some clear steps that you can take to help your child when they choose words or actions that cause hurt? Here are some steps from a play therapist!
Step One: Self-regulation
Parents need to feel safe and regulated in their bodies, too! Check-in with yourself as best as you can in these moments. In her Parent Regulation Cheat Sheet, Elisha Bidwell, LMFT recommends softening any tension in your muscles, humming, taking slow deep breaths, connecting (physically or emotionally) with a loved one, and using self-compassion and empathy (“I am doing my best”).
Step Two: Regulation
Kids need tools for calming their nervous systems and accessing their frontal lobe. When their nervous systems activate a sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (freeze) response, they cannot use the higher levels of their brain (neocortex) to think rationally. The Beacon House UK provides an excellent list of activities that help them reenter the “Window of Tolerance.” Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child, describes the window of tolerance as the zone of arousal where we feel most able to function and socially engage. Singing, humming, swaying on a rocking chair, sitting under a weighted blanket, and many more interventions all help relax the feelings of fear running through their body.
Step Three: Acknowledge and Validate
Now that you and your child have taken a moment to regulate, it’s time to help them name and validate their feelings.
“You want me to know that you feel mad right now. I believe you.”
“You feel scared. I am right here with you.”
“You feel disappointed it didn’t go your way. I understand how hard that feels.”
Big emotions feel new and unsafe. Acknowledge the feeling by naming it. Reduce fear by validating how they feel and reassuring that you will stand by them through it. Most often, children desperately need us to understand how they feel and what they have experienced. Even if it does not feel like a big deal to an adult, it may feel big to a child. Give them permission to feel deeply.
What Comes Next?
Nothing feels harder than accessing the brain of a kid experiencing a big feeling. The only thing even more difficult is keeping your own body regulated. Do not be hard on yourself if regulation does not come easily or work right away.
In her podcast and social media account Good Inside, Dr. Becky Kennedy reminds us that a “good parent” prioritizes “repair,” not perfection! If you yell or feel like you cannot regulate yourself in a your child’s moment of distress, that is more than okay. In fact, it is a perfect opportunity to model repair. Dr. Kennedy recommends lines that communicate safety. It’s not your fault that I yelled. I am working on managing my big feelings, too. I love you. Repair allows parents and children to maintain connection and warmth in their relationship, even when yelling or anger happens.
After a repair, do not give up hope. Be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that you and your child are good people trying your best. Keep practicing regulation in moments overwhelmed by big emotions. Try a few things before you decide which one fits. Perhaps you turn a “meltdown” into a co-regulating moment by humming a tune that helps manage you and your child’s nervous systems. Maybe you swing together on a hammock. Or squeeze silly putty. Find what works and keep going!
Once you have established a sense of connection and calm, you can practice the acknowledgement and validation piece of the puzzle. Come up with a few solid examples to choose from so that you feel less thrown off in moments of distress. If your child struggles to express anger, write out some lines and put them in the note app on your phone for easy access. You’ve got this!
How Do I Handle the Behavior?
Let’s go way back to the soccer practice example. Putting your child who struggled with soccer in a timeout did not help them improve. In fact, it isolated them and made them feel bad. In moments where your child’s struggle with a big feeling leads to a regrettable action, ground yourself in the fact that, in the wise words of Dr. Kennedy, they are “a good kid having a hard time.” You have worked so hard to meet them where they are and regulate their body. Now, redirect them to where they need to go.
I wonder how we can work together to make homework feel less terrible.
Let’s think about how we can get through breakfast without feeling so bad.
Show your kiddo that you are on their side. Remind them that they are good. Most of the time, regulating, acknowledging, and validating does enough to naturally set you and your little one on the path to redirection.
Takeaways from A Houston Play Therapist
Feelings, big or small, deserve to feel heard and understood. Just like you would not punish a child for lacking soccer skills at their first practice, do your best to choose connection over consequences for a big feeling gone awry. Teach your kid to regulate their body and name their feelings. Show them how those steps help reduce the power and fear that runs through our bodies when a big emotion takes over. Give them the skills they need to feel a sense of control and self-regulation.
Most of all, remember that you deserve to give yourself grace and comfort, too. Find a few different ways to regulate your body that feel easy to access in moments of distress. Just like any other skill, the more you practice, the more confident you (and your child) feel using it.
About the Therapist
Juliet Duralde, LPC-A is a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate based in Houston, TX and currently practicing as a play therapist at Brittani Persha Counseling. She specializes in play therapy and primarily works with young children and adolescents struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, behaviors, neurodiversity, and depression. Juliet also incorporates parent coaching and regular parent communication into her work to ensure the entire family system feels equipped and secure.