By Emily Hanlon
So often, parents want a strategy for how they can best help their children work through big feelings. In fact, I think one of the most popular questions I get as a psychologist is ‘how do I stop a meltdown.’ And the honest truth, although it’s tough to hear, is that you can’t. Once a meltdown has started, the flood gates are open and all that emotion needs to come out.
No amount of distracting, compromising, yelling, or reprimanding is going to ‘fix’ the problem. But do you know what might? Listening. Sounds stupid, but trust me, your own ears are your most effective tool when it comes to emotional regulation. When we try to jump in, children feel as though they cannot problem solve, or their shouldn’t be experiencing the feelings they have, or worse, they feel unheard and alone.
Listening lets your child know you are interested in what they have to say. When your child is talking to you about something difficult, or are trying to work through big feelings, be there for them, but be there in silence. We so desperately want to jump in and fix the problem for us, but that is now what our kids need. They instead need us to listen, not only to their words, but how they are talking, how they are processing a situation, and what they are feeling.
When there is a break, briefly summarise back to them what you have heard. Reflecting back what your child is saying makes them feel heard and understood. And even better, if you haven’t understood correctly, it gives them a chance to correct you and give you more information. For example ‘I can tell that you’re feeling really upset because your brother broke your favourite toy, is that right?’
When children don’t feel listened to or understood, their behaviour can escalate in frustration, which is their way of trying to tell us that we aren’t understanding them and they cannot communicate their emotions properly. However, when a child feels heard and understood, big emotions often start to calm.
So, to summarise:
Listen, listen, listen.
Don’t offer solutions, It’s tempting, but children will ask for help if they need it. The aim here is firstly to make your child feel understood. The goal is not to try and fix the situation or change their feelings.
Listening to children empowers them, makes them feel safe, and shows them that they are not alone.
Listening helps children develop their own problem solving skills, which helps develop their resilience.
Listening to your child can prompt them to talk to you more often because their emotional needs are being met. On the flip side, if they don’t feel that talking to you met their emotional needs, they are less likely to do it again.
A beautiful book I have found on this topic is: The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld. It’s a picture book about how a boy was having big feelings and all these animals tried to help him feel better in different ways (fix the problem, distract him etc) but he didn’t want their help so they all left, except the rabbit who listened and sat quietly while the boy processed all his feelings. Honestly it’s a great book for parents too. I bought my copy from here (not sponsored): https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-rabbit-listened-cori-doerrfeld/book/9780735229358.html