We want to teach our children how to behave, but it is often our own behaviour that stands in the way.
Imagine that you are feeling upset about something and are explaining this to your partner or a close friend. They respond by saying “you are not upset, you are fine.” Or imagine you are crying out to make an injustice known to your partner or friend and they respond with “stop it now!” Or, imagine you are in a restaurant with 2 close friends, you are crying and they pretend you are not even there. You become more and more desperate to connect with them and you cry louder and louder. They eat their lunch and chat, completely ignoring you. When you finally give up, exhausted, numbed and disillusioned they turn to you and offer you some food and try to make you laugh… How would you feel?
Your answer is probably something along the lines of angry, sad, humiliated, scared or lonely. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? Is this not what we tend to do to our children all the time?
The child brain
We want to teach our children how to behave, but in the process we forget that their feelings need to be processed in order for their brain to be able to listen and learn. A child’s brain (and an adult brain as well) firstly categorises any given situation in one of two categories: safe or unsafe. When we ignore, punish, shutdown or reject the child this signals to their brain that the situation is unsafe and it reacts by activating the fight or flight response. In this state their brain is only able to make unhealthy, fear based connections and listening and learning becomes impossible.
A child’s feelings need to be processed in order for their brain to be able to listen and learn.
A child’s brain is less able to self regulate emotions and it needs another person to help do this. When this is not available, there are two possible outcomes and which one they choose depends heavily on the temperament of the child. The first option is that your child will learn to suppress negative feelings in order not to lose your acceptance and care. In other words, the child learns that in order to be “okay” he or she needs to suppress the negative emotion and suppression becomes their way of coping. However, the emotion does not disappear when it is suppressed. It is stored in the subconscious mind and filters through in unbalanced ways. For example, suppressed negative emotions can lead to anxiety, low self esteem, low mood, concentration issues, problems with eating, sleeping or learning and even illness.
The second option is that the child becomes stuck in the negative emotion. This leads to emotional outbursts and in the case of anger it could lead to taking the anger out on other children or things. Which leads to more disapproval and punishment often leaving the child feeling bad and guilty.
But children need boundaries don’t they? Yes absolutely, after the emotion is properly processed the child’s brain is ready to learn and this is the perfect time to teach boundaries and explain what is expected of the child. After the emotion is processed the child will actually be able to listen and integrate the information in a positive way.
How can you help your child process emotions?
Luckily there is a simple and quick way to help your child process his or her emotions. This technique is called Mirror – Link – Pause and it is based on knowledge of how our brains a wired. This technique works on both adults and children of all ages. You adjust the language you use to that of the person in front of you. The closer you match the expressions of the person in front of you the stronger the effect of the technique.
We automatically use this technique when we respond to positive emotions and we can follow the same steps when processing negative emotions.
Make eye contact and mirror the emotion.
You match the energy level of the child and his or her facial expressions and you acknowledge the emotion. By doing this you are connecting with the child and acknowledging and validating the emotion. This sends the message to the brain that it is safe and support is available.
Link the emotion to the event that caused it.
You link the emotion to the trigger by pointing out the connection. This leads to the child feeling even more acknowledged, understood and validated and that takes away the need to make you understand. This confirms to the brain that it is safe and support is available.
Hold back for a moment and see how the child’s brain calms down. There will be a shift in posture, facial expression and tone of voice. This indicates that the emotion is processed and the child’s brain is ready to listen.
Let’s say a child is angry about having to eat dinner.
- Make eye contact, mirror the child’s facial expression and say “I can see you are very angry.”
- “You are angry because you have to eat dinner and you don’t want to.”
Sometimes the steps need to be repeated a few times, ideally you do this until you see the shift in posture and facial expression which indicates the emotion is processed. The child will feel heard, understood and acknowledged. This communicates to the child’s brain that the situation is safe and it can calm down. When you see this change you know he or she is ready to hear your message, what this message is depends completely on you and it can be many things for example explaining, setting boundaries or putting consequences in place.
In order to raise confident kids who can process emotions in a healthy way, they need to be able to feel safe in the midst of their emotions. They will feel safe if they can stay connected with you when they are upset. When you mirror and link the emotion without shutting the emotion down or punishing the child for the emotion, their brain learns to process emotions in a healthy way and this builds both skills and confidence that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.