How to help children navigate their emotions with Natalie Costa

by | For Parents, Parent Community, Parent Guides

We are coming out of a difficult time and it will take time for things to feel ‘more normal’

As we come out of restrictions we may have expectations that our children will go back to behaving in the way they did pre-pandemic. Some parenting advice can make it feel like we should try and behave as if things are normal even if they aren’t. However families and children have had to navigate a lot of change and instability with periods of isolating, home schooling and schools closing altogether. It’s unlikely that they will suddenly feel calm and confident just because our lives are becoming more like they were before. In addition many children have grown up with the pandemic as a constant noise and disruptive force in the background and it will take time for them to understand that it no longer presents the same challenges as it did before. This is true for parents too who have been on high alert and ‘survival mode’ for a long period of time and may be experiencing more anxiety and worry that they did before the pandemic.

Natalie explains: ‘The after school meltdowns are common for many parents and we’re coming out of a difficult time with so much change and kids have been at school and then not at school. We had a good two years of this. So now they’re learning to socialise again. Learning how to be comfortable in groups. And then there is also the fact that they need to get comfortable with the school system and the way it is structured and has a certain routine. It’s a shock to the system for children. We can forget that. If things feel bumpy then it’s going to take time for us to come out of that. Practice self-compassion for yourself and for compassion for them too.’ 

There are ways we can navigate our way through difficult emotions

We all have times when we find our own emotions running out of control because our child isn’t behaving in a way that we like or they’re going through strong emotions and can’t handle them. Traditionally some parenting advice might tell us to tell our children off when they’re behaving in a way that isn’t agreeable to us. However it’s important that we instead get them to acknowledge that life sometimes makes us experience strong emotions and it’s entirely normal. Natalie has clear advice on how to help ourselves and our children so we can learn something in these times of crisis:

‘For many of us we’re also learning how to work with our own difficult feelings. Just like we are going through those big feelings our children are going through them too. The first tip is to be mindful of your expectations. Understand that your child might feel like they are pushing boundaries but in reality their emotional side of their brain is still developing. When they feel these big feelings it feels really big and they don’t have the words or the tools to think rationally or clearly. Don’t think ‘they are doing this to me’, instead think ‘they are having a hard time and they need me as that safe space for them.’

It’s important to stay calm and manage our own emotions as parents

In the old days parenting advice might have focused on how we could use threats or bribes to manage our children’s behaviour. However this isn’t helpful as it does little to help children understand why they are feeling a certain way and how they can better navigate these feelings in the future.

At times we may be exacerbating negative situations because we’re responding with more anger and frustration rather than trying to think about the our child’s perspective and how they’re feeling. Staying present is important and there are tools that can help with this.

Natalie continues: ‘The other thing is to think about staying calm. Do some work as a parent so if you know that you tend to get angry or snap, what can you do to support yourself in that moment? Think about it before it happens. Are you trying deep breathing to bring you back into the present? Maybe using a calming mantra instead? These tools bring the emotion down a level. We also know when we are less tolerant because we’re maybe tired or dehydrated. What can you do to fill up the tank so you are more tolerant?’

Wait until time has passed and then discuss what’s happened and what you can learn

Sometimes we might feel too upset of angry to talk about what’s happened. We may be struggling ourselves emotionally. In this situation it’s important to wait till the dust has settled and then approach your child and talk through what’s happened. It’s possible to repair the damage if you’ve shouted and lost your temper…as long as you explain why you were feeling this way and apologise.

Natalie elaborates on this: ‘Talk to them afterwards and say something like – ‘remember that time when we both got upset, what would have helped you in that time? And then talk about some techniques that helped you and could help them too so breathing or a mantra for example.’

Remember guilt isn’t helpful unless you address what’s happened and use it to improve your communication

Ruminating about how you’ve failed as a parent and feeling guilty isn’t helpful unless you address what’s happened and talk to your child about what went wrong. Natalie summarises: ‘If you have lost your temper then don’t beat yourself up. You are human. Every moment is an opportunity to try and do better. I often say it’s useful to think about the feeling that is underneath the anger and discuss this with your child. Talk about those feelings and ask ‘what is behind the angry mask?’ Then give them the words for those feelings and ask them to talk about what was behind their own angry mask?’ 

This way you are using the experience to teach your child about talking about their own feelings and letting them know that anger is normal and there are often other emotions underneath that are driving that response.

Most importantly remember that parenting advice is important but we all make parenting mistakes and our main objective is to teach our children to be comfortable in expressing and describing their emotions, having a range of tools they can use to help navigate bumps in the road and know that feeling overwhelmed or out of balance is normal too.

Also find out more about the Moshi app if you are interested in finding out new ways to calm your kids

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