A mother’s tips for managing meltdowns & nurturing emotional awareness
Something I never thought about ahead of having children was the need to learn much more about feelings. Not only my own feelings towards them but also my emotional relationship with them. Something that (like all) relationships, are different and forever changing.
Hello, I’m Emotion. I’ve been controlling you for years. Fancy a chat?
Emotional Intelligence (or EQ) has become a recent fascination for me – labelling and learning about what I’m feeling and why. It made sense that my own emotions controlled my ability to discipline my two young sons (aged four and two) calmly, or spiral into chaos.
But whilst I started on this journey of self-awareness and increasing my own emotional intelligence, I wondered, could my children become more self-aware too?
Nurturing EQ in children
Psychologists have been championing the need to teach kids EQ over the last few years, with the introduction of learning about each other’s emotions within childcare settings and schools. Of course, we need to be careful not to overwhelm little ones with complex feelings that could confuse or worry them, but for me, nurturing an understanding of emotions, was definitely a route worth exploring.
Anna Partridge points out, ‘some kids are more instinctively in tune with their EQ’ which is certainly true of my eldest, bursting with a need to navigate and understand his own emotions: JUST. LIKE. ME. (My youngest, so far, is usually in a state of joyful recklessness or, utter calm – a true younger sibling and thumb-sucker. Damn it, also like me.)
What’s that ringing? Ah, my emotional alarm bell
For me, a typical day involves an 8 hour day at work and a battle home on public transport in rush-hour. Once I’m home I am keen to shake it all off to squeeze in an hour of quality time with my boys before we feed, bathe and tuck them into bed. But more often that not, at least until I developed a new strategy, getting what felt like quality time was a struggle.
As any working parent will know, the return home is often to some very excited small people, desperate for attention, screeching requests loudly, excitedly and repeatedly. Or in the case of my two-year old, who’s so overcome with tiredness and relief that I have in fact returned home but cannot yet explain that; it means collapsing around my feet whining for something, not even he is sure of.
Their emotional alarm bells are ringing so loudly that it can feel like hitting a tsunami. One that is all too easy to get swept away with…setting off my emotional alarm bell. And that’s before you factor in the fact I’ve not had a chance to say hello to my husband. The man who has been a domestic god since he finished work, picked up the kids; and has somehow survived the emotional and literal disaster site which our children have created from a roller coaster of brotherly love, jealously, joy and frustration.
On average, I’m left with around three mins to turn myself, my husband and my children into a loving family of four, before all hell breaks loose. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t always possible. Most evenings, we get by with a mixture of tears, giggles, some hugs, then everyone collapses...eventually.
When emotions surge…listen, label and work together
My exploration of my own EQ and nurturing it in my children helped me realise there was a simple way to diffuse these kind of situations before they erupt.
The first step is to start talking to each other openly about your feelings as a family. Discuss why you or they feel the way they do. In my house, we talk about being scared, happy or sad, frustrated or annoyed, excited or silly. There’s even good silly, and bad silly. We talk about when we’re not feeling so great, even if we don’t know why.
It sounds simple, but when you understand how someone is feeling you are then able to read, adapt and react to situations in a whole other way. You are armed and tuned in, and they have connected to you. They can express what they might need – and this for me is the clincher – it goes both ways.
Once you’ve built this foundation, identify the moments in your family’s life when the emotional alarm bells seem to regularly ring. It may be coming home from work, like me; leaving them with the babysitter or going out into busy places like the supermarket or shopping centre.
When you’ve identified those moments, then try following these three simple rules to calm the bells before they go haywire:
1. Listen – Pause, breathe, ask them what they are feeling and why they think they might be feeling that way….and then listen attentively to their response.
2. Label – Help them to simplify their feelings, label them and rationalise why they might be feeling that way. And take the time to explain your feelings back to them e.g. “Mummy feels upset when you do that because she’s worried you will hurt yourself”
3. Work together – Once you all have a clear picture of what’s being felt and why by everyone involved, then you can work together to find a solution. Sometimes that will mean accommodating, sometimes compromising or sometimes just enforcing clear boundaries.
I’ve found that the more we’ve followed this in my family, the more everyone’s emotional awareness has increased and the less our emotional alarm bells ring out of control. It’s definitely helped me avoid a likely meltdown (or two!). As psychologist Dr. Lisa Firestone explains by teaching children about EQ,‘we create an environment in which our children can continually make sense of their emotions and experiences’.
I mean I haven’t figured it all out – who has? – but when I slip, this approach helps me recover. I open up, to friends, colleagues, doctors, therapists. And now, whilst, my children do not yet fully understand the complexities of mental well-being, they listen, they help each other label, and they definitely learn a little more emotional awareness each time. And I feel a lot more relaxed.