Steps to staying connected during distress

Alison Lees Relationships March 15, 2017

Last week’s blog post described the role an adult should ideally play in relation to a child in order to optimise the child’s development. We would like to break this down for you further by offering you very practical steps that you can consider when engaging with a child who is experiencing emotional distress.

A child experiencing distress is a very normal and natural phenomenon. Their distress might look like a flamboyant tantrum, clinginess, crying, hurting others or things, refusing to do things, and many more behaviours that I’m sure you could list in your own experience with children. Their immature brains are very often flooded with emotions and big feelings that they don’t yet have the capacity to process for themselves. It is an adult’s job to help calm them down, reassure them, and make sense of their feelings for them.

 When a child experiences big feelings they need an adult to:

1. Identify that he/she is experiencing big feelings 

This means that you need to be tuned into your child to notice when they start to show signs of distress. Very often if you pick up the early signs of your child’s distress and intervene there and then it will prevent the distress from escalating. Being aware of your child’s non-verbal cues (such as nose rubbing, eye rubbing, moaning, becoming more aggressive etc.) will help you identify that your child is starting to feel unsettled. If these early warning signs are missed however, your child will let you know very clearly when their brains have been hijacked by emotions through throwing a tantrum, acting out (appearing to act naughty) and so on.  Being aware of situations or things that commonly trigger big feelings in your child will also help you preempt and quickly identify signs of distress. These triggers might be leaving a favourite place, the end of bath time, having to be in the car for too long, or school drop-offs.

2. Be sufficiently emotionally regulated (cool, calm and collected)

Consider the analogy of being on an aeroplane when there is turbulence. We look to the air hostesses to see whether they are still calm. If they look worried our own anxiety levels often increase exponentially. When a child is experiencing distress, they rely on an adult to be emotionally regulated in order to regulate them. In addition, the air hostess will always tell us that we must ensure we get our own oxygen masks on and normalise our own breathing before tending to children with us.  In the same way in a healthy attachment with another human being, a key component is starting with myself and ensuring I make sense of my own big feelings before I can do that for anyone else. Very often when we are exposed to a child in distress, our own distress is triggered. A child mid-tantrum, for example, is loud, frustrating and exhausting. It is extremely important to identify when your child’s distress triggers your own distress and to learn ways of counteracting it. This might mean taking deep breaths, counting backwards from 10, or taking a moment to empathise with your child. If we understand that a child’s display of distress is merely a cry for help and assistance, it may help us to respond to them more sensitively and gently.

3. Display to the child that his/her big feelings are understood by the adult

This step often occurs quite naturally for most people when faced with obvious emotions of others. For example, you might find yourself tilting your head to the side when you see someone upset, frowning if you witness anger or smiling when you see displays of happiness. This “mirroring” of emotion is a very important element in the connection between two individuals. Your child needs to see that you are able to feel what they are feeling and one of the best ways for you to do this is through your facial expression. Nothing says “I see you and I understand you” better than mirroring a person’s expression. An additional way of doing this is through language. Telling your child that you see and understand what they are feeling is just as important. Sentences like “I can see that you are very upset/angry/hurt and I know what that feels like” display to the child that you have noticed they are distressed and that they are not alone in their distress. You are letting your child know that you are “sitting with them” in their big feelings.

4. Display to the child that his/her big feelings are normal, okay, and tolerable

We are often taught to believe that some emotions are better than others. Anger, for example, is a bad emotion while happiness is good. This unhealthy thinking is something that we should aim at not passing onto our children. All emotions are good, healthy and helpful. How we deal with them can be either bad or good. Talking your child through their big feelings is key in this step. Using sentences such as “It is very normal to get angry when you don’t get your way” or “It’s very upsetting to have a toy taken away from you and it’s okay to feel this way” help to let your child know that their big feelings are tolerable. There should be no shame in feeling big feelings. A sensitive manner and tone is very important while communicating that their emotions are normal, okay and tolerable.

5. Offer a positive reassurance and opportunity for dialogue

We are so often drawn to distracting our children away from big feelings by offering rewards or alternative solutions to stop the emotional display as quickly as possible. Offering rewards to children if they stop crying, or trying to distract them away from their big feelings gives a underlying message to your child that it is not tolerable to sit with negative feelings which is completely counter to step 4.  Instead a healthier response is to offer your child a positive reassurance that you will be with them through their big feelings and that their big feelings will pass. Being physically available for affection (giving a hug, pulling them onto your lap etc.) and using sentences such as “You can be angry for as long as you need and I will be here with you. Is there something I can do to help you?” are essential. If you have a child who is at an age where you can discuss matters, entering into a dialogue about their big feelings is a great opportunity for them to connect to you as well as learn more about their emotions. Inviting this dialogue could be done through saying “tell me more about how anger feels for you” or “what happened when you started feeling this way?” or “do you notice that the last time you felt this way it was also because your brother changed the channel?”.

6. Consistently attempt to achieve 1-5.

A focus on the word “attempt” is important here. Staying connected during distress can be very challenging, especially if you as the adult are distressed as well. There will be many times when you don’t get this process right, but the important thing to remember is that you keep attempting it. Practice makes perfect and although we don’t believe in perfection, we believe in connection. If consistently attempting the steps gets you closer to a better connection with your child, you are on the right track.