It's simple: the way that we respond to our child when they are in a state of distress will become the way that they respond to their own distress as they grow into young people and adults. If we distance ourselves from their difficult emotions, they will learn to distance themselves too. If we respond with anger or tension, they will feel anger and tension too in life's harder moments. If we placate or 'medicate' our upset children with sugar or TV, they will learn to do the same for themselves as adults. And if we cannot tolerate their distress, we will teach them that distress itself is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs.
Ideally, we need to give our distressed child two strong messages to carry forward into their adult lives:
- It is OK, normal and important to feel upset, distressed or emotional sometimes.
- When I feel upset, I can cope.
Here are ten suggestions of ways you might give your small child positive messages about distress and help them to grow up to become an adult who 'copes'.
1. Begin with Yourself.
Take some time to consider your feelings, thoughts and responses to distress - your own and other peoples. How do you cope when life throws difficulties your way? What do you do when your emotions are churning with sorrow, grief or despair? How was your distress responded to when you yourself were a child? And how do you now feel and respond when your own child is experiencing these feelings? What happens to your body, your breath, your thoughts, your feelings? Is it easy or hard for you to stay connected and present, physically and emotionally, at these times? If you think that 'Distress' is a problematic area for you, it might be worth talking this through with your partner, a friend, or even a professional counsellor or therapist. By understanding more fully your own responses and feelings you will be much better placed to help your child.
2. Be Present.
When your baby or child is upset, stay with them. It might seem like you are not helping, especially if they will not stop crying. It might seem as if your presence is not bringing comfort or making any difference. But it is. By being there, you are showing them not just that you care, but that their upset is important, and that it is tolerable. You teach them how to 'stay' with their difficult feelings. If you only do one thing on this list, do this. You don't need to find the right words or even say anything at all. Just be there.
3. Use Body Language
Your body gives messages to others before you even open your mouth to speak. And often when we are in the presence of someone who is in emotional turmoil we can find ourselves unconsciously 'closing' ourselves - folding our arms, drawing up our legs, fidgeting or tilting ourselves away from them. When attending to your upset child, make a conscious effort to correct yourself if you find you are doing this, and to adjust your body to a more open position. Open up your torso and make sure it is turned towards your child, breathe, let your shoulders relax, connect with the floor. If you are hugging your child, let go of any tension in your body or breath and let yourself hold them without resistance. Not only will this give your child the message that you find their distress completely acceptable and unproblematic, but your own physical calmness will also help to soothe them, too.
And if your child withdraws from you, try mirroring: find a place near them and let your body adopt a posture similar to theirs. There is no need to speak, you are already giving out a strong message: "I am trying to put myself in your position, I am trying to understand."
4. Keep Being the Grown Up
When a child is upset, crying or having a tantrum, it can sometimes be tempting to join in. Particularly if you spend lots of time caring for small children, it can even start to seem normal to behave in a childish way. And it might be that, whether or not your are consciously aware of it, this particular situation is reminding you of a similar moment of distress from your own childhood, and awakening your own hurt and needy child within. However, if you are to effectively help your own child in this present moment, you need to try your best to remain in the role of 'adult', and this means being rational, strong and calm. Make sure your voice is low and steady, and that your body and breath are still and grounded. Keep reminding yourself that you are the adult in the relationship, even if this feels slightly fake or as if you are just 'pretending' to be the parent or the grown up. This will allow your own child to feel safe to rage, tantrum or grieve - indeed, to 'be the child' - whilst you hold on tight to the neutral, normal, status quo.
5. Never Ever Threaten, Punish or Shame
When a small child is upset, in particular if they are 'throwing a tantrum', you might feel like resorting to threats or shaming language in your attempts to calm them down. 'If you don't stop this fuss, we can't go to the party', 'Go to your room until you can control yourself' or 'You're being ridiculous - a big baby'. But whilst such an approach might have the 'desired' effect of restoring calm, what you are actually doing is teaching your child that these difficult feelings are completely unacceptable, and that they should keep them locked well away in future. Such a short term 'fix' can lead to serious long term mental health problems. Being fearful of or ashamed of emotions like anger and sadness is a recipe for a tough time in life, struggling to cope with these feelings that are such a normal and essential aspect of being human.
Take your child's distress seriously. The reason for their sorrow might seem ridiculous to you - a spilt drink, a doll that won't be shared - but from their perspective these are highly important matters. Avoid stock phrases such as 'It's not the end of the world', 'Don't be silly', or 'Not to worry'. Allow yourself to view the world from their level and try to imagine how hard the situation must be. Be genuine in your sympathy and offers of comfort. You might find that other family members or nearby adults 'make light' of your child's distress or even laugh. Ignore them. As far as your child is concerned, it is only your reaction that matters. And by treating their feelings with the utmost respect and refusing to belittle or diminish them, you will often find that they are able to move on from them quickly, satisfied that they have been seen, heard and acknowledged.
7. Let Your Body Be An Anchor
Often a child in distress will express their 'all over the place' emotions with their body. Pay attention to your own body and breath and make a conscious effort to keep yourself physically strong and calm. No matter how frenetic your child becomes, keep your own energy still and steady. If it helps, imagine that there is a lovely elastic bubble of calmness surrounding you, that can bend with your child's movements or sounds, but will never pop. Sit on the floor near your child and encourage them, if they are willing, to sit on your lap or in physical contact with you. The calmness of your own body will help to soothe, comfort and 'anchor' them.
8. Let Your Words Be A Compass
Just as your body can be a strong anchor to your child in their time of distress, your words can act as a compass, helping them to navigate their feelings by verbalising them and giving them a voice. A small child can feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, and it can be comforting to hear them being named in a clear and simple way. Don't assume to know everything, but make suggestions, for example, 'It seems like you are feeling really angry ' or 'Perhaps Daddy going away has made you feel really sad'. Using this language of feelings will help your child to eventually do the same, and grow up to become 'emotionally articulate'. They will be able to recognise, accept and understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, and build their own 'inner compass' for the day when you are no longer there to help guide them.
9. Be Careful of 'Distraction'
Often an upset child will be placed in front of the television or given a sweet treat as a form of comfort. This does 'work', but of course in the long run it carries a very negative message. Many many adults resort to eating the wrong foods or gazing mindlessly at the TV as a way of avoiding difficult or painful emotions. Help your child to learn that it is ok to stay with difficult feelings for a while. Sit together, cry together, hug together. See if this is the right time to try and talk or listen about the problem. And if you feel it would be best to move things on, try to find positive activities that acknowledge the feelings but help to transform them. Try, 'Let's dance a sad dance', 'Shall we paint a really angry picture', or 'When I feel upset I like to go for a walk in the wind, shall we do that together?'. Whatever activity you choose, let your child set the pace and move on from their difficult feelings in their own time.
10. See Difficult Moments As Goldmines
Times of high emotion, tantrums, distress - these can often seem the hardest parts of parenting, leaving us feeling exhausted and frustrated. But these are the moments when our children need us very deeply, and we can really make a difference. As parents we make many many mistakes, this is inevitable, and perhaps it's best to think of our role in terms of damage limitation rather than perfection. But if there is one thing that it is worth really really trying to get right, it is helping our children to deal with distress. Whilst sunny picnics or idyllic days at the beach might seem like your finest parenting moments, it is, in fact, the times when you are finding your child the most difficult and challenging that you are probably making the biggest impact. Amidst the chaos, the shouting, and the tears, there is priceless treasure to be found: your child is learning to cope.
This is not an exhaustive or definitive list. As always, please do add your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments below...