Climbing into the refrigerator, chewing electrical cords and putting hands in the toilet are all things I’m constantly trying to prevent J from doing as of late. Sometimes he sneaks one past me, and I will catch them in the act. I tell him no and move him to another place, and suddenly my delightfully happy baby starts sobbing to no end. When a child experiences frustration with a boundary, they can experience runaway emotions, also known as out-of-control-negative emotions.
There are a lot of runaway emotions in my house lately, as everything dangerous, dirty, and unsafe is a super magnet to J. With these minor meltdowns come teachable moments, and that is an opportunity I like to seize. Tracy Hogg’s book The Baby Whisperer Solves all Your Problems talks about runaway emotions in great detail and serves as a great resource. Today I’d like to talk about just a few Baby Whisperer ways we, as parents, can guide our children in coping with these crazy strong feelings.
1. Ensure the child is adequately rested.
This seems obvious, but sometimes we all try to do too much and important quality sleep is missed. Protecting naps and bedtime is a great place to start. Kids easily become overtired, especially small children. Evaluate if your child is getting enough sleep for their age. This sleep chart is a real life-saver for me, and I reference it regularly to see if we are on target. Before J was born, I literally had no clue how much a child should be sleeping. If your child needs more rest, troubleshoot ways to lengthen night time sleep, lengthen naps, and decrease or eliminate nighttime waking if still present.
2. Rule out under-stimulation / over-stimulation.
Too much or too little stimulation can cause issues with runaway emotions, which makes it slightly confusing, right? I mean, which is it? There is no easy answer. You know your child best. Troubleshoot to see if either one is the culprit, and it may resolve the issue.
Under-stimulation. When J becomes bored, he will surely start testing limitations and seek attention. A change of scenery is always welcome. We try moving to various rooms in the house throughout the day. Sometimes we even play in the closet; he loves small spaces. Heading to the park or taking a walk in the stroller is another way to change things up a bit. Rotating toys available to the child is also very useful to help keep things new and fresh. Sometimes Jameson thinks he’s mastered all the toys and runs off to play with things he knows are off-limits. A good level of stimulation helps prevent boredom.
Over-stimulation. On the other hand, young children are also easily over-stimulated by the world around them. This is over-stimulation/under-stimulation balance is only meant to make our heads spin as parents. If you suspect over-stimulation as the cause of runaway emotions, you can always try keeping it low key for a few days and see if that helps.
3. Let the child release his frustrations.
When the child experiences runaway emotions, it is okay to give the child a moment to cry while you go to him. According to Hogg, crying is a way for young children to express themselves, burn off some steam, and communicate to us their feelings. When we rush in too quickly to rescue the child, he becomes powerless to stop the escalating cycle of feelings. This doesn’t, however, mean we cannot guide our child to cope with very strong emotions.
4. Provide reassurance without rescue.
I usually try to get down to my son’s eye level by either kneeling or sitting. Hogg suggests we acknowledge the child while briefly explaining that you understand what he is feeling. In doing this, we quickly help the child identify the emotion. Very briefly explain the boundary to the child, by naming and physically intervening. Next, we can show him what he may do instead. The child may not understand your exact words (demonstrate if necessary), but your tone will convey enough at this point, and eventually he will understand what you are saying. Providing reassurance while allowing the child learn to manage his own emotions encourages long-term emotional fitness.
5. Remove the child from the situation.
When we look at something we cannot have, we tend to want it even more. Redirection is great tool use after a teachable moment with your child. Using this technique before teaching the child how to manage emotions is a missed opportunity for learning. De-escalate frustration by redirecting the child to another toy or activity that he can have. Drawing the child’s attention to something else focuses negative energy onto something positive.
Children love to explore the world in front of them, frequently testing boundaries and limitations to better understand their environment. What are your thoughts about rescuing vs. building emotional fitness? What are your experiences with small children and runaway emotions?
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