Feelings and emotions: What do they do? Why are they important?
From a neurological perspective, emotions are messages. Feelings are essentially our brains and bodies in communication with each other. If we feel scared, our brains sends chemicals into our bodies that say, “Prepare to fight!” When we feel frustrated or hurt, our bodies wisely get upset, tantrum, shake or sob, so that stress hormones are diffused and we can return to emotional equilibrium. Emotions are meant to be expressed and moved through, over and over.
With practice, children feel their feelings fully and then recover their equilibrium. They intuitively understand when big feelings disrupt the sense of well-being and safety they typically feel. One of the wonderful tools they wisely (though unconsciously) use to help them recover their thinking and regulated state is tantrums!
Tantrums are simply big emotions that have not yet been felt, coming out in one big explosion.
All feelings are acceptable: sadness and grief; frustration and fear; anger and rage. It’s easy to say, but harder to put into action. Small hurts, fears, and worries can easily build up. And while I often find myself scanning the past days or weeks to find the answer to “what this is all about?”—ultimately it’s unnecessary, and just distracts me from the task at hand—being fully present with my child while he is upset. When I check my judgments of, “rude,” “unreasonable,” and “out-of-proportion,” I can do a much better job of guiding him through difficult feelings.
Sometimes, the hurt or fear from a challenging circumstance we think our child has “handled well” will come out in a big, seemingly unrelated tantrum.
A couple of years ago, my then five-year-old woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Seemingly out of the blue, he asked me about a particular fruit snack that I had bought him. Once—months ago. As I stretched and woke up, he continued to ask me about the snack. It took me a minute to catch on that he was cooking up a HUGE upset: I had not bought him this fruit snack, and boy, did he WANT IT.
“I know what kind of fruit snacks you’re talking about. The twisty ones?”
“Yeah, those twisty red ones—I want one right NOW! You have to get them for me,” he demanded in a cranky tone.
“No,” I said, keeping my voice gentle and low, and not mentioning his rudeness at all, “We’re not going to have those.”
“YES I WANT THOSE FRUIT SNACKS!! I WANT THEM RIGHT NOW!!!!”
“No,” I repeated, “We won’t have them.”
He lost it—thrashing his 40-pound body around the bed, trying to kick me and growling with rage. I held a pillow between us and told him I needed to keep my body safe from kicks. He cried and wailed and kept kicking. I kept myself clear of his impact and didn’t argue with him. I observed his body and breathing and kept us both safe.
I did not shame him for losing control of himself. I didn’t get mad that he was making an unreasonable request at 6:30 in the morning, or freaking out about being told “no.” My mantra was: “He has big feelings and they will be done when they are done.” I imagined how powerless he must have felt in the dentist’s chair earlier that week. After the appointment he had told me after that it “had hurt more than a little,” yet had not shed any tears.
After a few more minutes of him crying, trembling, and sweating I said,
“Do you want to come in my lap for a hug?”
“Yeah,” he said, crawling over.
He got in my lap and cried hard for a few more minutes.
Then he tensed up and demanded the fruit snack again. I told him “no.” He went back to struggling. After a few more minutes, I said,
“Hey, I have an idea. You’re having a lot of big, angry feelings. Why don’t we go into the other room and use a blanket to help you get through them?”
He agreed and we walked down the hall together.
“I’ll roll you up in this big blanket and you can fight your way out. It will be like a big swaddle.” He agreed, and I rolled him up in the blanket. He grunted and fought, and finally popped his arms up and wiggled his way out.
“You did it!” I yelled.
He did it three times and then he wanted me to try it. I pretended it was really hard to get out and asked him to help me. When I finally got out, I acted super tired.
“Do you want to do it one more time?” I asked. He did. After that, I suggested we go downstairs to have breakfast and get ready for school—he complied without a shred of resistance.
It might strike you like a lot of work, (and highly indulgent) to allow for kicking, and yelling and big, messy feelings.
But, here’s the obvious payoff—my boy then felt calm, centered, and ready for his day. It took all of twenty minutes, and the fruit snack topic disappeared completely.
He had recovered from a challenging event (getting cavities filled is no fun!) and was able to move on knowing that these feelings, and the expression of them, were accepted by the adults in his life.
Then he felt accepted and safe in the world again.