My four year old’s emotional roller coaster

Dear Family Coach

We have three children aged 8, 5, and nearly 4. The older two are very easy-going – they certainly have their moments, but respond well when we explain a limit or have to discipline them. The youngest, Luca, is completely different. The whole family is walking on eggshells trying to avoid upsetting him because he has huge explosive tantrums when he can’t have something, and if we tell him off, he smacks himself or scratches at his skin, which is really upsetting. He’s just as difficult when things are going really well. When he’s happy, he tends to get over-excited, racing round yelling and bowling the other two over. How can we get Luca to tone down the emotional over-reactions?

Family Coach tips

Some children are born with a good ability to regulate their emotions through times of stress, while others have more of a struggle in learning to do this. It seems as though Luca is probably highly sensitive, and you might find that he has bigger reactions than his siblings to other things as well. Common sources of over-stimulation are loud noises, scary programmes, bright light, uncomfortable clothing, and food with strong flavours.

Sensitive children are noticing more and feeling it more intensely, which explains why emotions like shame or guilt (when being told off), or even joy can be overwhelming and take a long time to recover from. It’s tempting to focus on the symptoms (tantrums or knocking over his siblings), but there is something more important underneath. The way he acts out when he is over-stimulated reflects his difficulty managing strong emotions, so that’s where he needs the coaching.

The most helpful thing you can do for Luca is model the calm you’d like him to learn. When a sensitive kid in a heightened state is up against a parent who is also upset and overwhelmed, they find it even harder to relax and learn to cope. Don’t ignore how he’s feeling, because he will benefit from having you reflect back and give him helpful labels for what he’s going through. For example, “You’re feeling very angry about this, aren’t you?” or, “I can see from your face you’re frustrated”. Do work quite hard though to keep your own feelings separate from what he’s experiencing. You need to hold a position of maturity, composure, and most importantly an ability to ride out stress.

In the eye of a storm, talk and move gently, offer physical reassurance like hugs if they help, or offer some alternatives like jumping on a trampoline, scribbling out frustration with crayons and paper, having a cold drink or listening to music. This is not the time for discipline, the goal is helping Luca find some calm and restore himself to a state where things can be safely discussed. Telling him to calm down won’t be as helpful as showing him how to calm down. Afterwards, have a chat about any consequences earned. Smacking and scratching at himself may indicate that he is punishing himself before you can, because the thought of being in the wrong or ‘naughty’ is intolerable for him. Help him to downgrade the strength of this feeling by keeping consequences calm and friendly. You can be firm, but your body language and tone should send the message that you love him no less for having made a bad choice. Perfectionism or a fear of making mistakes can also be gently challenged by building family mottos that look at the up side of mistakes – try, “Mistakes are a gift – they help us learn” or, “Everyone gets it wrong before they get it right”.

Likewise when Luca is over-excited, he could be calmly and gently restrained or offered some feedback such as, “Seems you’re pretty happy right now! If you need to run and hit out, let’s find somewhere safe to do that”. Coach him to be considerate of others by pointing out how they feel when he runs amok, label feelings and work towards a plan for keeping everyone safe.

Luca is still very young but over the years, your role as his coaches will be really vital in helping him learn to manage what he has going on inside. A long-term view is a handy thing to have, and can help ease the frustration that builds when we get impatient with a child’s progress or expect him to ‘do better’ than he currently has the resources to do.

The outcome

After learning a bit more about the sensitive temperament, we did find it easier to see Luca as ‘someone who was learning’ vs. ‘someone who is being naughty’. We agree that he is more sensitive to things in general than either of his siblings – they’re quite self-contained, whereas he notices if anyone is feeling down or hurt, he’s incredibly affectionate and caring, which we do love about him.

We have put lots of energy into keeping calm when he is out of control, as we see how we had probably fuelled the flames by getting angry and frustrated with him. No huge improvements to report yet – Luca is still Luca! We are all a lot more positive about having a plan to help him learn as he matures though, which is a really good feeling.