A meltdown, the typical response from a two year old when he is unable to have the thing he wants, can be the ultimate problem for parents. Couple that meltdown with a public display, and a seemingly calm and confident parent turns into a whining, bribing, pleading yelling out of control adult! Why?
John Gottman a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, tells us to let go of your “Parental Agenda”. He explains that when a child has big emotions and is feeling out of control, it is a time for parents to label the emotion for their child, accept this as a teachable moment, and demonstrate empathy. He further explains that we need to let go of what we think should happen and accept what is. Our response will then come from the part of the brain that calms emotion and problem solves: the frontal lobe.
Taking a closer look at that child who is out of control, we see a child who is developmentally in the “me Stage”: he wants it, and in his mind then he should have it. The parent has set the limit and the child has hit a wall. The limit has been set, but we can still imagine how that child feels…we can empathize with him. By verbalizing his emotion back to him,” I think you’re angry or frustrated”, and saying we know how that feels, we offer the child a moment of understanding, of connection. We can tell him that we wish he could get everything he wants, but as a parent we know that is not good for him. We can use this as a “teachable moment” and problem solve with him, or suggest something else to do. Of course if the child is unable to “hear us”, we might need to wait it out and then offer the labeling and empathy.
Emotion regulation is the ability to understand and manage feelings. When we can regulate emotion we have less stress and can control our impulses. As parents we want to help our children become regulated, as that will increase their ability to learn and problem solve, which are abilities that are tied executive functioning of the brain.
Gottman tells us, “Empathy not only matters, it is the foundation of effective parenting”. We need to create an “Empathy Reflex” and make it the first response to an emotional situation. This skill entails: describing the emotion you see, then making a guess as to why this is happening. This will help you to defuse the anger, and connect to your child in a way that will help calm you both.
This skill, like all skills takes time to learn. Understanding your emotions is the first step in this process. Allow yourself to accept your own strong emotions, label them and try to identify what are the issues that create the most emotion in you. Once you have reflected on this, you can create a mental plan as to how you can handle these strong emotions when they arise. This pattern will flow quite naturally to helping your children to do the same. Meltdowns will still happen but their intensity and regularity will lessen and your ability to stay calm will increase.