Learning to Tame BIG Feelings

The other day, I heard the words many of us dread: “You’re a bad mommy.” I was also informed by my son that I was teaching the kids how to be mean, not kind.

Honestly, I had to agree with him. The moments leading up to his accusation had not been filled with exemplary parenting. I had yelled and been unkind, throwing around phrases like, “I’m sick and tired of you always ________!” Not my best moment.

So, as he said those words, I knew I had a crucial decision to make. I could dig in my heels, insisting that he deserved what he got and had no right to question me, or I could acknowledge that I had made mistakes and there was truth to what he had said. I took a calming breath, looked him in the eye, and said, “You’re right. I’m sorry for yelling at you. Can you forgive me?”

It wasn’t easy, and part of me wanted to dwell on his behaviour instead of mine. But I knew that before we could go back and deal constructively with his stuff, I needed to own my stuff and repair our relationship so we could move forward with a solid foundation of trust and connection. It took a few minutes before we were back on track, but we got there.

This parenting thing is hard work, especially un-learning our default reactions and learning new trust-based strategies and ways to respond. One of the most difficult yet rewarding aspects of our parenting journey so far has been facing the reality that we have so much to un-learn. It’s been difficult because, well, it’s tough to ‘teach an old dog new tricks’! It’s been more than worth it, though, as we have watched our connection with our kids deepen and strengthen through our efforts to replace our default strategies with connecting, trust-based strategies.

Lately my “unlearning curve” has been all about my comfort level with big emotions. To be honest, I am extremely uncomfortable with big, noisy displays of emotion. I value logic and rational thinking delivered in a calm, non-emotional way. You can imagine how well this fits with the reality of parenting school-age children from hard places!

At times I have found myself responding to my children in cold and inflexible ways when they are experiencing big emotions, especially when the feelings are directed at me in the form of hurtful words or actions. Recognizing that this is neither helpful nor compassionate, and desiring to move forward in a more connected way, I have been working on my own ability to stay attuned and emotionally present in the moment with my children when they are experiencing these big feelings.  I am learning (and practicing) what it means to remain available to them to meet their needs, rather than getting all caught up in my own big emotions. I am learning that big people that respond with their own big emotions are generally not able to help little people tame their big emotions in healthy ways.

This doesn’t come naturally, and it takes lots of practice, but we’re getting there. There are still many times when I react out of shame or anger to those big feelings that are being expressed through inappropriate words or behaviour. As I practice being more aware of my own emotional reactions and continue to get better at connecting with the hearts of my children, I am learning to see past their behaviour while not ignoring it. As I do this, I find that they are more able to let go of the behaviour and talk to me about their feelings, as well as their underlying hurts, losses, and pain.

This certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with the behaviour – it just means that we don’t allow ourselves to get stuck on the behaviour, preventing us from teaching our kids how to express the big feelings that are driving it.  As the authors of The Whole-Brain Child point out, once we name it, we can tame it!

For practical strategies to help you navigate many parenting challenges, including emotional storms, check out The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson.

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