We are at the doctor’s office for a well check up. I’m sitting on the rug on the floor, my son in my lap, he’s yelling and kicking his feet, his big feelings currently in charge of his actions. The doctor is patiently waiting (and I think likely observing my parenting skills).
Experiencing Big Feelings
Let’s unpack this scene, shall we? It makes total sense that my kid is having big feelings. We are in a reasonably unfamiliar location. A relative stranger is touching him and asking him to perform (say ahh, hold still, follow my finger, etc). He can probably feel my tension because I’m hoping all my answers to the doctor’s questions are right and that she thinks I’m doing a good job. Of course his emotions are running high. His brain has sensed possible danger and has switched over to fight or flight mode.
Recognizing Big Feelings
In this moment of fight or flight, his ability to hear my logic (indoor voice, please stop kicking) has gone completely out the window. I want to help him get a little separation between his big feelings and his thoughts so he can get back into his body and out of fight or flight mode.
Separating Thoughts from Feelings
I want to help my son switch from “I’m mad” (or sad, upset, excited, embarrassed, hurt, happy, etc) to “I feel mad”. Doing this can help his fight or flight brain turn off and his (slightly more) logical brain turn back on by creating a space between himself and the thought (I am vs I feel). Eventually, when a person has enough space between their thoughts and their feelings they can also create a space between their feeling and their response to it.
How to Help Your Child Handle Big Feelings
There are lots of ways to get a little space. Adults and teens can benefit from simply saying “I notice I’m having the feeling that _____”. Just describing it to yourself that way can get you a bit of distance. For younger kids, it can be helpful to sing the feeling to a favorite tune “I feel mad when you tell me no” (this sounds like Twinkle Twinkle in my head).
Or your child could try using a different voice to talk about a big feeling. That’s what we did at the doctor’s. I whispered in my son’s ear “Can you tell me how you’re feeling with your mouse voice?”. The whispering caught his attention, the suggestion made him giggle, and using the mouse voice got him some space between his thought (fight!) and his feeling (danger!). The rest of the check up went smoothly- I totally earned that dinosaur sticker.