Supporting children’s emotions
As parents, our responsibility is to help children process through their experiences. This is not an easy task. It is easy to feel triggered by children’s big emotions, whether it be fear, anger, or sadness; especially when the expression of these feelings comes out as disruptive behaviors. Polyvagal theory empowers parents to navigate your child’s intense emotional states.
Children may become defiant, refuse to go to sleep, start lying, or become aggressive with siblings or parents. As parents it is common to attempt to apply consequences or punish our children. However, this can devolve into a struggle of will, where parents don’t want to be the first to give in. While limit setting is necessary to keep our children and ourselves safe, it is essential that we help our children unwind their emotional dysregulation in the safety of a caring relationship.
“Polyvagal Theory provides a neurobiological framework for understanding the connection between the mind, body, and emotions. Empowered with deeper understanding, we increase our capacity to compassionately and successfully support children’s emotional regulation.” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Being a feelings detective
Children need adults to help them process through their emotional responses to the world; feelings that occur during normal developmental milestones and also from disturbing or traumatic life events. There are times in parenting where you need to take the role of detective to determine the cause of your child’s distress. Is it hunger, not enough sleep, sensory based, a change in routine, sibling dynamics, or an event that happened at school?
As parents, when we interact with children who are dysregulated emotionally, we often feel distressed too. If you see your child feeling anxious it is likely that you will feel worried for your child and may even question your parenting skills. If a child is trying to hit you, it is normal to feel angry, fearful, or defensive. If these behaviors occur on a regular basis you will may develop feelings of resentment towards your child. This doesn’t mean you are a bad parent and it is important to have tools to respond effectively to emotions as they arise within us and our children.
Polyvagal theory and children
Children often have difficulty communicating their feelings verbally; as a result they frequently express emotional distress behaviorally. Some children tend to hold big feelings inside. Some of these children withdraw and avoid interacting with others. Other children are more explosive in nature. These children might have angry outbursts, throwing dramatic tantrums. Sometimes children are aggressive towards other family members and others might hurt themselves by pulling out hair or picking at skin. As parents all of these behaviors can be disturbing to see in children. Yet these behaviors are also strategies that children use to regulate their mind, body, and emotions.
Research by Dr. Stephen Porges reveals that the functions of the autonomic nervous system are regulated by the vagus nerve in the body. The vagus nerve connects the brain to major systems in the body including the stomach and gut, heart, lungs, throat, and facial muscles. Polyvagal theory posits that there are three branches of the vagus nerve; one responsible for sympathetic actions, one response for parasympathetic actions, and the third which mediates and regulates the actions of both called the social nervous system. Let’s look at these in greater detail:
- The social nervous system is associated with connection, calmness, safety, and a focus on the present moment. This portion of the vagus nerve enervates the face and is seen in our kids through sparkle in their eyes, a smile on their faces, and confidence in their ability to approach the world. The social nervous system is strengthened by relationships and helps kids successfully navigate their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- The sympathetic nervous system is associated with high arousal and mobilization towards movement. In children, you can recognize sympathetic activation when kids are excited, silly, keyed up, wiggly or squirmy, surprised, angry, anxious, or have difficulty sleeping. When feeling unsafe or threatened, this manifests as a fight or flight response. However when supported by the social nervous system, this activation can mobilize towards play.
- The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with low arousal, relaxation, withdrawal or depression. When children feel threatened they may withdraw, appear helpless, and say they are tired, bored, or sad. However when supported by the social nervous system children feel safe to relax into a hug, snuggle with a pet, or linger in quiet satisfying activities such as reading or drawing.
As parents, knowledge of the polyvagal theory empowers you to support the development of the social nervous system in children to help them become well adapted.
Saved by the ball
Here is a personal story that illustrates the process of how we can work with our own emotions to regulate our children:
After a long day I asked the kids to pick up the toys in the living room. Neither child was listening. Instead they began bickering with each other, arguing about who made the bigger mess. We were all irritable. I had used up my logic for the day. I was feeling frustration rise within me. I felt the impulse to yell. I took a deep breath, looked around, and then…the soccer ball saved the day. Instead of taking my feelings out on the kids I turned to the ball and playfully said, “Soccer ball, you are not going into the box! I am so angry with you soccer ball. You are not listening to me!” The kids and I started laughing at how silly it was that I was yelling at the soccer ball and they asked me to do it again! Then they started to tell the other toys that they weren’t going on the shelves either. We then worked together to put the toys in their places, playfully arguing with the toys about why they needed to go to bed.
Tools for emotional regulation
The goal of emotional regulation is to help children know that they can have feelings and still be okay, safe, and loved. Here are some tools I recommend for when your child’s behaviors are signaling emotional distress:
- Do a self-check first: In an airplane you receive instructions to put your oxygen mask on first; then place it on your child. Take this important advice. Ask yourself, are you activated? What tone of voice are you using? What is your body language communicating? What do you need right now? Maybe you need to stretch, breathe, or call someone who can help you feel more connected and safe. If your child’s behaviors are putting themselves or anyone else at risk, by all means address the concern immediately. But also recognize that getting away from your child is sometimes the best way to keep both yourself and your child safe. Self-regulation is challenging; however, practicing your strategies in front of your child provides valuable modeling. For example, you might say “Whew, I am feeling mad right now! I’m going to breathe and stomp my feet. Ahh, that feels better…”
- Become an emotion detective: Once you are able to be more present, observe your child’s behaviors and be curious about which nervous system state is dominant. What is their body language saying? What strategy is your child using right now to manage emotions? Can you help your child experience connection? This will help strengthen the social nervous system.
- High arousal tools: If your child is highly activated explore meeting them in the high energy in a supportive, playful fashion. This might involve giving them a chance to push against you while you hold firmly onto a pillow or using plush swords to play fight. I always tell kids that anger is a healthy emotion and we need to find a healthy way to let it out. My son likes to hit a pillow while he shares his angry feelings with me.
- Low arousal tools: If your child is withdrawn or shut down see if they will allow you to come in close. Use your breath and voice tone to communicate to your child that you care. My daughter prefers to hide under a blanket when she is overwhelmed. My job in those moments is to calmly sit next to her; simply reminding her that I am there. Eventually she will curl up on my lap; mission accomplished.
When to seek professional help
When we are stuck in a dynamic with our children that feels unhealthy or consistently negative it is a sign to seek more support. Sometimes this is a signal to get greater understanding about your child’s behaviors. If your child has ongoing challenges with anxiety, aggression, or withdrawal you do not have to go through this alone. There are also times that seeking greater diagnostic clarity is necessary to guide appropriate interventions. Knowledge and skills only take us so far; especially when children trigger us as parents! One of my goals as a psychologist and writer is to de-stigmatize psychotherapy. It can be humbling and painful to ask for help, for fear of being judged or perceived as a bad parent. Sometimes getting professional support for ourselves and our children is one of the best gifts we can give the next generation.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.
Image credit, Marty from Colorado Springs, Creative Commons license