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Diane McGregor, Kitchener, ON
What happens when BIG EMOTIONS take over? We’ve all been there.
Your face turns all red. Maybe you make fists. Maybe you stomp your feet. Maybe you get a sick feeling in your gut or your head starts to hurt. Whatever your individual reaction, what is common for all of us is that we feel these reactions very intensely, in our bodies. When our feelings get this big, sometimes we do things we don’t really want to do…..like slam a door. Or yell. Or even hurt someone.
It happens when our emotions—any emotion—are so strong or so big that they seem to take over our body and our brain.
There is a small part of our brain that plays a very big role in all of this: the amygdala. It is responsible for keeping an eye on the world around us, always on the alert for possible danger or distress—and ready to let us know. It is kind of like a junk-yard dog—when all is calm and peaceful, it lies contently by the gate, but when something happens to stress us, it activates—warning us that something is happening.
When the amygdala activates, it sends out signals that flood our brain with activity and a cascade of stress hormones flow through our body. This is when we feel our face turn red, our heart rate go up, our breathing become rapid and shallow. We all have different ways of reacting when our big emotions have taken over but a couple of things are very common in these moments—our body is distressed and we are not thinking with our full ability.
What about when it is our kids that are reacting this way?
Perhaps we have said “no” to something they want to have, or we have asked them to turn off their video game and get ready for bed. Whatever the reason, suddenly they are reacting like this—their emotions have overwhelmed them and they are crying or yelling or refusing to do what we ask.
We often think of these moments as tantrums…or defiance…or “freaking out”. Sometimes, it is a tantrum, but when they seem like it is a complete meltdown, it is because their amygdala has overwhelmed their brain and their body…and they are not able to think clearly.
What can we do in these moments? Typically, we want to set firm limits, say that this behaviour will not be tolerated, increase our demand for compliance or cooperation. Threaten punishment.
Often, we become overwhelmed as well—hijacked by our own amygdala—and respond emotionally. We all know this is not going to work—even as we are acting in this way. We know that we both just get more and more upset.
So, what does work? The same research that has helped us understand how the brain gets hijacked, helps us understand how, as parents, we can help both our child and ourselves.
It’s about CONNECTION. Just as our brain is wired for survival, we are also wired for connection. When we feel close to someone, feel heard and understood, experience loving affection, our brain activates another round of activity and hormones—but these are about soothing and calming our emotions. Connection helps us decrease the intensity of our emotional reactions—it’s like petting that junk yard dog, helping him settle back onto his carpet. When our emotions are soothed, it opens the pathways to the thinking parts of our brain—now we can problem solve, understand another person’s point of view, plan and cooperate. In fact, what we also know is that connection helps to motivate positive behaviour. Connected children—connected adults, too—are motivated to please those they love and are connected with.
So, this all means that when our kids are overwhelmed with emotion, freaking out or even tantruming, they need us to come close—to connect. To understand that this moment is difficult, to offer hope that they will get through it and provide support in doing so.
There are many strategies you can use during these moments. Start by taking slow breathes, sit close to your child, talk in a soothing voice, be patient, touch them with love and affection.
You will be amazed at the difference it makes!
Check out our article, Connection Matters, for more information about the power of connection.
Download our handout with some more tips for supporting our children, and ourselves, through big emotions.
Diane McGregor is the Project Manager for Parenting Now. She is a parent, an aunt and someone who cares deeply about nurturing the children–of all ages–around us. She has enjoyed a long and rewarding career working with parents, children, teens and young adults and is now delighted to turn her skills and insights to Parenting Now.