Big Feelings and What to do with them? : Tips on How to Help Your Child with Self- Regulation

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Wow! Feelings are amazing and terrifying- think of your first love and how it was exciting and overwhelming all at once and now imagine being a young age and feeling everything and not knowing what it is or why it's so intense or how to calm down again. This is what happens with children and self-regulation and this is why it can be difficult as a parent to know and understand what's going on and how to help.

Let's begin with first defining self-regulation and how biologically it impacts the brain and body. Self-regulation begins in early childhood as children start to feel more and react to the world around them- like my 2 year old daughter I have nicknamed My Little Hippo for her cuteness and dangerously aggressive nature when provoked. This is when temper tantrums and undesirable behaviour are more prone to cause parents to question their major life decisions. This is because the parts of the brain particularly in the Limbic system where emotions, desires and memories are located work in different levels- this is where you might hear the terms Neocortex ("newest" brain functions of language, emotional cues and self-control), paleomammalian (limbic system mentioned above) and the reptilian brain (oldest and primitive brain functions).

Huh? Here's a breakdown on how it was explained to me: Your 2 year old daughter has been operating in the reptilian brain and managing life just fine when all of a sudden all these milestones and experiences are being felt in her paleomammalian brain and yet her mommy is trying to get her to operate with her neocortex- her body reacts by creating a fight, flight and freeze response and her mother hides in the closet, waiting for the moment to pass... because her 2 year old daughter's brain hasn't fully developed so the mother hiding is essentially asking her 2 year old to do something that can't be done. So what can she do? While this mother can do the following:

  1. Hide... just joking... but distraction is a good way to help a child reset- Peek a boo, oh oh where's baby? crawl away or jump or build a tower to give the little hippo an opportunity to self-regulate/calm herself down.

(FYI: my little hippo as I write this is screaming over socks. This is not the first incident of

2. Remain Calm - wait- calm- how? well this is where Mommy needs to operate from her neocortex but guess what? Mommy's reptilian brain is kicking in and now there's two reptile brains fighting it out in a flight, fight and freeze response... yup this is where the grown up needs to appear and remain calm. This is easier said than done when you don't have your own stress or your aren't tired or you aren't hunger.


I saw this picture on Facebook and I love how it shows how the brains respond between parent and child with affection.

Here are quick tips for yourself and your child:

Deep breathing calms the sympathetic nervous system, focusing on your senses (distraction), naming feelings (yours and your child) : I feel frustrated, you look/seem angry because ..... , I wonder if we/you can get new socks, do you want this one or this one? , be with them and support them by holding their hand, hugging them, turn off other noises or dim lights, share expectations of behaviour once your child is calm and READY TO LISTEN, try to not 'fix' the situation or soothe them too quickly- for example my daughter and son if they have a big emotion often run off to cry and I check on them and ask if they need a hug or are ready to talk and they say NOOOOO or yes and that's when I step in, prior to this I remain a safe presence for them by letting them know - I'm here for you and I give you space.

Begin showing your child strategies before the storm hits- practice deep breathing, play games of self-control (freeze dance, freeze tag, duck duck goose, Simon Says, Red light/ green light, hide and seek, yoga, read books about emotions and feelings, if you need to self-regulate show them how you do it (modeling is huge for children to learn social cues) - for example: I'm feeling frustrated I can't clean the house. I need help - Can you help me? I'm hungry- let's eat.

And finally sometimes we have to ride out the storm- stay with them while they cry and let them calm themselves down.

Some great deep breathing techniques are blowing bubbles, blowing a light object across the floor or table, blowing up a balloon, have a stuffed animal on your tummy and move it up and down without falling, use your body to breath such as open wide stance for inhale and exhale with a hug.

(Stay tuned in the VIDEOS for next week where I'll show some great breathing and yoga poses for children and adults to do for calming the mind and body)

Self-regulation is a new skill and it takes practice and time to develop and there will be days when you feel like a rock star and others days where you hide and it's all ok. Remember self-regulation is a process as a child's brain develops and gives them the ability to control their behaviours, and emotions in a particular situation. There is no one event that will fix the tantrums and if possible try to see them as opportunities to help your child manage those big feelings, stress and self-control. We can't fix their feelings or take away their stress but we can support them through situations by teaching various skills to handle whatever comes up in life.

PS The socks that my daughter was crying about were forgotten at the mention of going downstairs (distraction)

Resources and References:


Calgary's Child Magazine: Sept/Oct 2018: Dealing with Big Feelings: Teach Kids how to self-regulate

Self-Reg: How to Help your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life By Dr. Stuart Shanker with Teresa Barker,response%20to%20a%20particular%20situation.&text=When%20children%20share%2C%20listen%20to,they%20are%20practicing%20self%2Dcontrol.

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