Children from hard places often lack the skills and coping mechanisms. These skills are typically taught to children from a young age to help them calm down in times on emotional difficulty, but due to living in a constant fight or flight state, this lesson is missed. Therefore, when children in care experience big emotions it can often in turn look like tantrums, outbursts, whining, defiance, and/or fighting. During times of our children’s emotional dysregulation, it may often feel trying for us as caregivers. The good news is that there are ways for caregivers to help co-regulate and teach children in their home to calm down. This blog post will list a few tips and tricks to use while caregivers are handling their children’s big emotions.
Labeling and Rethinking Emotions – Caregivers can begin aiding children by first helping them understand their emotions. From the time that we are young, humans have five basic emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, and as we develop, we begin to realize how complex those emotions really are. For example, how combining feelings such as anger and disgust would result in the feeling of contempt. As another example, how mixed feelings of a lot of sadness and a bit of disgust would result in regret, but in reverse, the mixed feelings of a lot of disgust and a bit of sadness would result in the feeling of guilt. Some children can be hesitant to identify or acknowledge their negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or fear because they are taught that these are “bad emotions”. Therefore, by helping children label their feelings past the five basic emotions and accepting those
emotions, caregivers can give children a tool to begin to ask for what they need. A tangible tool that may be beneficial while using this technique could be a feelings chart. Our foster team loves this one from the movie ‘Inside Out’ as it displays all of the combinations of emotions one may experience.
Model and Validating Difficult Feelings – When a child is experiencing emotional dysregulation and displaying it through tantrums with hitting, screaming, fighting, or crying it is important to remember where this child comes from. You may never know your child’s full history and experiences; however, children from hard places typically were not subject to a home where their family of origin modeled healthy coping mechanisms and techniques to outlet big emotions. Therefore, in your role as a caregiver, modeling difficult feelings and healthy ways to cope can be very beneficial to children in your care. As professionals, we often tell our foster parents it is okay to tell your foster child that when you get frustrated that you too need to take a minute in the “calm down tent” as well. By modeling healthy ways to deal with big emotions, you are also validating to your children that it is normal to have those feelings and validation is a powerful tool in communicating that you understand and accept what they are feeling. A skill that goes hand-in-hand with this may be using a 1-10 scale to rank the intensity of your emotion. For example, you may have taken the wrong turn to work and now you are going to be late. That escalates your emotional state to a “4”, but later that night you drop your computer and it breaks and that pushes you to a “9” or “10”. Practicing this self-awareness exercise with your children, even in times when emotions may be a “1” or “3” can be beneficial when our emotions get to an “8” or “9”.
Positive Attention and Active Ignoring – One of the most powerful tools caregivers have in influencing children’s behavior is attention. Attention is a reward in itself to children and therefore giving positive attention to good behavior will increase that behavior. Therefore, every time you see that behavior you want to praise it and give a lot of attention to it, all while remaining sincere, enthusiastic, and genuine. For example, you and your child have worked on breathing techniques as a coping mechanism and during a moment of emotional dysregulation, you see your child take a deep breath. Be sure to say, “I love that you remembered to take a deep breath!” and then continue to take deep breathes with them.
On the other hand, withdrawing attention conspicuously or actively ignoring a negative behavior can be used as a way to discipline and reduces the chances of that behavior being repeated. Caregivers can validate feelings while still not giving attention to bad behavior. Therefore, in times of whining, arguing, inappropriate language, or defiance you turn your attention elsewhere that may look like turning your face, whole body, or sometimes leaving the room. However, the most essential piece to this is that as soon as the child does something that you can praise, you turn your positive attention on again.
Special One on One Time – At the end of the day, a caregiver can only be so successful with these techniques if there is not an added level of connection with their child. Connection is important in any relationship as it builds a foundation of strength, trust, and respect. If the relationship between a caregiver and a child does not foster this foundation, there is no room for correction. Therefore, by prioritizing dedicated, positive, one-on-one time with your child regularly, without parental commands, ignoring minor misbehaviors, and just attending to your child, you can build a deeper connection and foundation to build on. Even if this is only five minutes daily, take time and give your child your undivided attention to reinforce that you love them no matter what.