The other day I was on the phone talking with my daughter when I heard one of the grandkids screaming in the background. He sounded pretty terrified. My daughter calmly stopped the conversation to ask her middle child why he was screaming. His response was, he wanted to go outside and couldn’t because of a fly on the sliding glass door. He was screaming because he was afraid of the house fly.
Big Emotions are an important part of a kids life.
Big Emotions are an inescapable part of a kid’s life. What was happening that my grandson was so afraid of the house fly? They feel frightened when something shows up in a child’s life that they didn’t expect and is unwanted. As parents, we may want to try to convince a frightened child there is nothing to be afraid of. “See it’s only a little fly, you’re so much bigger than that tiny fly. Why it can’t hurt you.” There is the thing; logic doesn’t work when our child is afraid. We can’t convince our children out of their fears.
Here is the neuroscience of why you can’t convince your child out of their fears. Your child’s thoughts, “oh no, I didn’t expect that, I don’t know what that is, I don’t know if it’s safe,” creates chemicals and neurotransmitters in their brain. Those chemicals and neurotransmitters travel throughout your child’s body, causing changes in breathing, heart rate, and other sensations that your child may not understand. Once your child feels or becomes aware of those sensations (emotions), they can’t unfeel the sensations.
Once we feel the sensations of fear or worry in our body, it is impossible to unfeel them. If we try to persuade our child out of the feelings with logic or saying something like, “It’s only a little housefly; it can’t hurt you,” or “what’s the big deal? It’s only a tiny little fly” What is the message we are sending? We are telling our kids that they can’t trust their feelings. Our children may think, ” Hmmm, I don’t know what these sensations in my body mean. My parent is telling me I shouldn’t trust them, and they know better than I do. Our child learns not to trust their feelings and to look to others to tell them how they should interpret their emotions. What this does to your child is leave them alone and unsupported in their fears. Think about how scary it is to be alone and afraid.
How can I Surround my Child's Fear with Connection?
In my book, Giggles in my Heart, the main character fears the “monster” under her bed. Suppose your child is fearful of the “monsters under their bed. How might you surround that fear with your presence and connection? You want to join your child in their fears. What do I mean by this? To join your child in their fear, you connect through curiosity about the fear. Use your curiosity to explore it with your child.
How? Do this in a stepwise fashion. Start by joining your child and get curious with them. Say, “I am thinking about those monsters under your bed and wondering what we can do about them. Tell me when it is you begin to feel afraid of them.” Then ask some questions to get them talking about their fears of the monsters. When does your child start to feel scared of the monsters? Ask, “when do you first start to feel scared of the monsters.” “Is it outside the door to your room?” “Is it inside the room?” “Is it when you are next to the bed?” Continue to explore with them their fear experience.
What you are doing is that you are adding your presence and connection to that experience. Instead of the fear just coming up suddenly and overwhelming your child, they will feel your connection and presence inside the fear. You are opening the space that will let them approach their fear of the monsters with curiosity. When you do this, you are helping them change their thoughts about the monsters just enough that their body isn’t flooded with the chemicals and neurotransmitters that triggered their fight or flight response. One other thing you can add when you do this is to say, “I am so glad we are doing this; this feels important.” Trust that the thought shift is happening as you explore the fear together with curiosity and connection to your child.
How Does Dysregulation Lead to Co-regulation and Eventually to Self-Regulation
Connection is key to helping our kids overcome their fears, stress, and anxiety. A child becomes dysregulated when the sensations in their body (big emotions) overwhelm them. It may be hard to remain calm in the face of their dysregulation. However, our calm presence and connection when they are dysregulated infuse a feeling of calm and connection into the experience. This connection leads to co-regulation and, eventually, our child’s self-regulation. This does not happen overnight. It requires years of co-regulation before your child’s brain is developed enough for them to self-regulate. Then it will be many more years until they are about 25 or 26 years old before the emotional self-regulation portion of their brain is fully developed.
What can I do when my Child is Overwhelmed with a Big Emotion like Fear and has a Melt-Down?
Very little skill-building can happen in the moment of your child’s dysregulation. Remember, their body is overwhelmed by the chemicals of fight, flight, or freeze, and they are in shut-down mode. It is often just about you, the parent surviving the moment. In these moments of my grandkid’s meltdowns and temper tantrums, I place one hand on my belly and the other hand over my heart and take slow deep breaths. I repeat a mantra to myself. As I slowly breathe in, I say, “(child’s name) is a good child. Breathe out, “who is having a time right now.” We are going to get through this. Repeat until your child starts to calm down. This is so essential for helping your child feel less alone with their big emotions.
My first book, Giggles in my Heart is an international best-selling book. Parents tell me this book is a favorite bedtime book. One Dad said his daughter slept through the night for the first time after several nights of listening to my book before going to sleep.