As I share a story of connecting to tame big emotions, please note: This post is largely based on Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole-Brained Child. If you are looking for a more in-depth discussion of this topic or other parenting issues, please read The Whole Brained Child and No Drama Discipline. You can also find Dr. Siegel’s and Dr. Bryson’s videos on Youtube.
One morning a week I take care of an imaginative five-year-old boy Aiden and his snuggly two-year-old sister Ava. Our play is full of adventure and sweetness; and each week they teach me new things about my heart. This week we built a fort, looked for sea monsters, and planned our defensive measures. As Aiden and I built a long wall of pillows, Ava came and pulled the pillows down, undoing our work. This instigated a howl from Aiden. She frowned, crossed her arms and turned away. Aiden lunged up from the ground, made the angriest face he could, and yelled.
But as I began to say “Woah, woah, woah” aloud, I was very aware that I was angry at Aiden. Thankfully, Aiden immediately began explaining how he was feeling (a characteristic and skill I love about this kid). This bought me time to listen to Aiden with one ear and listen to myself with the other.
“What’s happening here?” I asked the frustrated, defensive part of me.
“I don’t know” I reply sternly, “but I don’t like it!”
This part directed me to shut down Aiden’s feelings and behavior by sighing and saying something like, “This is not how we treat each other!” with a warning edge in my voice.
I’ve chosen this response countless times before and it ends with Aiden and I feeling even more frustrated with each other. The gentler, wiser part of me responded, “Okay, I realize this is not ideal behavior but he’s also 5. He’s learning.” This gentler part understands that naming and observing my feelings of anger gives me space to move toward emotional calm and control.
Aiden finished his explanation. He also knows the first step to calming big feelings- Name It to Tame It. “She messed up the pillows and that made me sad and MAD.” he articulated. Naming his big emotions relieved some of their strength. I saw the sadness on his face and I told him that I noticed how angry and sad he felt. After thanking him for telling me how he felt, his face relaxed, his eyes regained some sparkle, and his shoulders straightened up– he felt heard and valued. Now we were ready to talk about more appropriate ways to express ourselves.
When we connect with the emotional, right-brain of a child by naming and validating their feelings, it helps their logical, left-brain re-engage after it has been hijacked by big emotions. Feeling seen and understood calms our nervous system, which was on red-alert. This happens when we are overwhelmed with anger, sadness, or fear. As we are calmed, out two brain hemispheres begin talking to each other again, something called integration.
Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, authors of The Whole-Brained Child, discuss how important it is to first connect to calm.
They write, “A child can be much more receptive once the left brain is working again, and discipline can be much more effective. It’s as if you are a lifeguard who swims out, puts your arm around your child, and helps him to shore before telling him not to swim out so far next time” (p27).
When I take my cues from the disgruntled part of myself, I leave Aiden out at sea to find his way back to shore on his own while telling him to behave better. All the while, my anger also rules me—my emotional, right-brain. In order for us to learn a different way of dealing with our frustration both Aiden and I had to first name what we were feeling. Then we were both ready to think through our next steps.
Within a couple minutes, the emotions were named, we talked about how to communicate frustration and sadness, decided that our pillows stacks were not working for us, and found some chairs that were sturdier. This incident happened so quickly, but throughout the morning, I noticed Aiden and I felt more connected, like we were on the same team. I wish I could say that connecting with children and with myself happens naturally. Unfortunately, most of the time I quickly jump to rules and left-brain logic in response to emotionally driven behavior. It takes much more work to acknowledge my emotions before reacting to what I often deem silly, irrational reactions. But this story with Aiden will remain with me for a long time, motivating me to take time for both myself and the child I’m with to work it out together.