Setting Up Your Family's Strong Emotions Plan
A sensitive or strong willed child with intense emotions is, in my opinion, a huge strength. They will be the leaders, have more empathy, build a more solid connection to themselves and their wants, be the catalysts for change. And above all else, they will help you to become your best self as a parent and as a human. That said, navigating a child's big feelings and just getting through the day with a strong willed child, well...That is a challenge. It takes patience, so much deep thought, self awareness, self questioning, and pulls at a parent's maximum level of sympathy that could possibly be mustered up. One thing that is so helpful for every family with a child who has intensely strong emotions (or actually every child in general) is to have your family's plan of how to move through it and be there for those moments. Just having a plan helps take away the reactivity and level of stress that can build when trying to problem solve your way through a meltdown. If you're following the steps of your plan instead of trying to think of what to do, it is a less triggering and less reactive place to come from and allows you to be able to be the calm your child needs as their foundation to regulate from. Here are some of my go to steps to help your family set up their plan:
Talk with the main caregivers to come up with a plan that feels good for everyone and that hopefully everyone can be on the same page with. This includes anyone who watches your child regularly at home.
I cannot recommend enough that the plan include discussion about how to give space to your child in a safe way. If a child is really upset and has activated states of protection in their brain (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze), any contact (even a hug) or any attempts at talking, will most often result in elevation of feelings as it is perceived as a threat and coming into their personal space when they are really upset. That said, you are the expert on your child and if you feel that when they are really angry a hug can help them, maybe that is true. But more often than not, any type of engagement during a state of protection results in escalation of emotions. It is usually best to give space first then hug/comfort when they are calm.
If it's not safe to walk away from the child and go to another room or you are out of the house, you could limit engagement by averting eye contact, limiting talking, and calmly waiting until they are calm and ready to re-engage.
If it is safe then walking away from your child and coming back to check on them to ask if they are ready to talk can be a helpful way for both of you to get some space and calm. You can make this loving by saying "I love you and am following our calm down plan by walking away, let me know when you are ready to show my you are calm so we can talk or cuddle."
The best way for a child to calm is for them to have a designated calm down corner to go to (see our blog on calm down corners), but often times children would rather not do what their parent wants in the middle of strong emotions and will refuse. If this is the case, you can take space by walking away and then you both can go to the calm down place together to co-regulate once your child has calmed.
Come up with a script to a conversation that you will have with your child when he or she is calm to introduce this new plan. A good time is often snuggling before bedtime when things feel safe and nurturing. This should include:
A statement about love and safety ("we love you and will always be here for you,").
A statement acknowledging that any feelings are okay, but that also sets your family's boundaries and expectations ("it's always okay to be angry, but it's never okay to be hurtful with your words or body when you are upset,").
A statement about the plan ("we've learned that the best thing everyone needs when they are really upset is some space. From now on when you are upset, we will be taking space until you are ready to calm down and figure out a solution together,").
A statement about what space will look like that aligns with your family's values and appropriate for the context. ("I will see if you want to go to your calming corner, and if you don't then I will walk away until you are calm and ready for us to try to fix the problem,").
At the end of this caregiver discussion and plan with your child, your emotional regulation plan should follow this order:
Take space in a safe way that your child is already prepared for since you've discussed your plan
Check in to see if they are ready OR when your child is ready, they can come to you
Problem solve & co-regulate (cuddle, go to calm down space, have a conversation) OR move on. If there wasn't necessarily a problem to begin with (maybe your child just needed to release some emotions), it can be okay to just move on (i.e. direct to new play activity). If discussing it and problem solving causing more angst or escalation again, then move on and if needed, discuss later on.
If you feel that there might be more behind the intensity of emotions beyond a strong personality (i.e. anxiety, sensory processing difficulties, poor impulse control), then this plan is still helpful to move through the emotions, but it is highly encouraged to reach out to a professional for support to address any underlying issues that could be contributing to your child's intensity or frequency of meltdowns.
Every child and every family is different, so applying your expertise as a parent and your family's own philosophies will be what makes this plan the most effective.