Helping A- deal with big emotions

Big emotions are part of childhood. Sometimes there’s no way around things, you just gotta go through them. I’m lucky that W-, A-, and I all seem to be pretty even-tempered. A- still has the occasional meltdown, but if I have the flexibility of soothing her, it usually passes quickly.

Helping A- learn emotional regulation is one of my big responsibilities. I think about it more than about teaching her academics such as letters or numbers, or self-care skills such as buttoning shirts. She’ll get the hang of academics in school and she’ll pick up self-care through practice and self-motivation. Emotional regulation, however, is something that many grown-ups still struggle with, so it probably benefits from a more thoughtful approach. The better we get at managing ups and downs, the easier it will be to learn other things.

There are several skills I can help her develop, such as:

  • Oral communication: She can head off frustration by asking for things, explaining how she feels and why, and understanding what I say. I help by focusing on expressing what she wants and feels. I liked how Happiest Toddler on the Block recommended dealing with tantrums by first helping the kid feel heard, which is surprisingly enough also a tip I remember from Never Split the Difference, a book on hostage negotiation.
  • Problem-solving skills: We can figure out ways to deal with challenges. I can help her develop these by thinking out loud and asking questions.
  • Waiting skills: These help us deal with situations where I can say yes, but only after a little while. I can help her develop these by suggesting and modeling strategies, and helping her develop a sense of time.
  • Coping skills: These let us deal with things outside our control. I can help her develop these by empathizing, telling stories, and modeling strategies.
  • General skills: These let me to say yes to more of her requests. For example, teaching her knife skills when she’s calm lets her help me in the kitchen, which avoids some frustration-related tantrums.

There are also skills I can work on myself, such as:

  • Anticipation and preparation: If I try to keep us both on an even keel so that we don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, everything is easier. I can also anticipate potentially challenging situations and prepare for them.
  • Empathy: The better I get at taking her perspective, the more effectively I can connect with her, and the more patient I can be.
  • Developmentally appropriate expectations: These make it easier to pose just the right level of challenge, and they also help me avoid frustration on both sides. Learning about child development definitely pays off.
  • Playfulness: A- often responds better to absurdity than reason. The better I play with her, the easier it is for her to follow along.
  • Transition skills: These help us when we need to move on from an activity she likes more than what’s next. Aside from timers, it can also help to have musical cues, visual supports, playfulness, and flexibility.
  • Improvisation: Getting better at going with the flow reduces friction and stress, and it lets me take advantage of her interest in things. I can minimize external commitments and get better at being in the moment, too.
  • Observation: A- wants different things at different times. The better I’m attuned to when she wants independence and when she wants closeness, the better things go.

A-‘s hot buttons:

  • When she’s tired: She’ll flail about for maybe ten minutes making lots of requests. I grant the ones that make sense, and then try to snuggle her to sleep. It helps to be flexible, like not worrying about leaving something on the stove.
  • When I don’t understand what she’s saying: We usually recover from these after a few minutes, when she accepts that I want to understand and starts answering my questions.
  • When I forget to let her brush her teeth or use the toilet before I do (“First A-, then Mama!”): Normally not an issue unless I really need to go or I’m distracted. Solution on my side: go to the bathroom some time before I need to, and stay more focused
  • When I eat something she didn’t seem to be interested in, even after giving her a heads-up: (“No, Mama, I want the whole sandwich!”) Solution on my side: serve her smaller portions, let her ask for more, accept food waste, or simply serve family-style instead of plating.
  • When she wants to play with me and I’m focused on something else: (“No Mama cook! Focus on A-!”) Solution on my side: try alternating A- time and me time, and support skills for involvement and independent play
  • When we need to go to the hospital, dentist, or ocularist: (“I don’t want to go to the dentist!”) No way around this, gotta go through it. I work on empathizing with her, handling it in a matter-of-fact way, helping her recover afterward with a trip to the playground or family centre, and talking to her and making books about her experiences and reasons why we do things.
  • When I push her toward something she’s not ready for: We’re experimenting with mostly going at her pace, although sometimes I check if the hold-up is on my end and she’s actually ready for something.

I mostly need to watch out for my self-care, since it’s easier to be patient with A- when I don’t feel sleepy and I don’t need to go to the bathroom. I err on the side of more flexibility rather than productivity, so I don’t worry about trying to get lots of things done. I like looking for opportunities to involve A- in household chores and everyday life, although anything we do manage to do is definitely a bonus.

Still, A-‘s going to have to figure out that I can’t reverse time and do other impossible things, and that people also have valid desires, and there are things out of our control. I’m looking forward to working in more ideas from Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioral therapy as she becomes more capable of thinking about thoughts. In the meantime, there’s so much for both of us to learn.

She’s usually happy, so I get to practise anticipation in the background while helping her develop skills. When she does get upset, it’s great to take it as an opportunity to work on my skills or practise equanimity. Then, when she calms down again, I can help her develop coping and problem-solving skills. We’ll go through this cycle many, many times in life, so I may as well embrace it and make the most of it! At least I get to practise with training wheels (a toddler who’s easily amused by funny noises) before, say, tackling teenage drama.

Anyway, that’s how I’m dealing with the current stage: a healthy dose of luck because of our temperaments and fit, and a thoughtful approach. Everything is fuel, even this!