Pause, Hold, Engage: Helping kids cope with big feelings

Toyota Believe logoWhen New Zealand was in lockdown earlier in 2020, uniting against COVID-19, I was impressed with the vast array of crafts, bread baking, DIY projects and 5000-piece puzzles families got busy with. Walking through the unprecedented events of a global pandemic understandably caused a lot of anxiety, and finding something to distract us (and our kids!) was a reasonable response. But I did often wonder: Were all the activities and busyness really what our kids needed most at that moment? Or was it a case of us trying to keep them so busy that they didn’t have time to feel and experience the big emotions that come with uncertainty and unpredictability? After all, as parents we all want to protect our children from unpleasant things, including those difficult emotions that we know all too well ourselves.

Kids are smart

No matter how busy we keep our kids, we can’t trick them into a false sense of certainty and predictability. They’re just too clever. Lockdown was a great example of this – even our youngest kids knew that things had changed. Any change brings uncertainty, apprehension, and – inevitably – big emotions. As much as we want to take those feelings of fear, disappointment, sadness and anger away, we can’t. And we shouldn’t.

It is important for our children to experience those big emotions because it is through experiencing those emotions that our children first learn to understand them, and then to manage them. Of course our children and our teens will not be able to do this by themselves. Just as we are willing to sit next to them as they colour, or draw, or watch Twilight, so we need to be willing to join them in their emotional worlds. When we walk next to our children and teens while they experience big emotions, we support their brain to form new pathways. Those new pathways will help them to not only manage their big emotions, but also deal with situations that are stressful and uncertain. But to support our children with their big emotions we have to understand and be able to manage our own emotions first. Otherwise we could easily be pulled into our children’s emotional turmoil. This is why it is so important to look after ourselves first.

Big feelings are welcome

How exactly do we support our children to understand and manage their emotions? We need to be mindful that, no matter how peaceful or harmonious things may appear, at some point, our children’s emotions will boil over. (You can usually tell by the piercing scream from the younger sibling, or the heart-wrenching howl in the corner of the kitchen, or what at first glance is breakdancing but then reveals itself to be a full blown tantrum). That’s when our children are telling us that life is overwhelming and they’re struggling to make sense of their emotions. This is not the time to try and distract them with yet another activity or to punish them. This is the time to show our kids that their big, scary emotions are not scary to us. It’s the moment to show our children that they are safe with us and can trust us. We also want our kids to know that we believe that they have the ability and the courage to deal with those big emotions and that we’re here to support them. We can do this by using a simple phrase: Pause, Hold, Engage. (You can also use this phrase to manage your own emotions. Find out more about that here.)

How does it work?

Pause
Pause is all about breathing. When we use Pause, we support our child to stop and take a slow, deep breath (or 3 or 10). Because oxygen is a gift to the brain and nervous system, it is a very quick and effective way to bring calm to our child’s very emotional brain. Maybe sit down next to your child and get them to copy your nice, long, deep breaths – that way your brain is getting the benefits of oxygen as well!

Hold
In getting our children to ‘Hold’, we are supporting them to be curious and ‘visit’ their inner world. The first step is to guide your child to name the emotions they are feeling. If your child struggles to find the ‘emotion words’, be curious and put in a guess or two – they will let you know whether you guessed right or not!

With the second step, we want to show our kids that we understand and accept their emotions. Here it is more about what NOT to do. Avoid second-guessing the emotions they share. No matter how left field, remember that it is their emotion, and therefore very important to them. Simply empathise and let them know that you understand. You could say something like: “I’m sorry you feel so sad. It must be so hard to have such a big feeling”.

Thirdly, explore with your child about why they may be feeling that way. Although you may have a very strong idea about why your child is angry, frustrated or disappointed, your child may not. This is a great opportunity to show them how to be curious about their inner world. Use phrases such as:

  • “I’m wondering whether you’re feeling so angry because….”
  • “I guess I would feel sad too if…”

This will get your child thinking about how what is happening around them can influence their thoughts and feelings. Remember, it is a brave thing for our children when they face up to their big emotions so try to stay understanding, empathetic and compassionate throughout.

Engage
Engage is the problem-solving part of the process. Once you’ve helped your child to name the emotions and understand why they occurred in the first place, you can support your child to come up with a solution or strategy to manage the emotions more effectively in the future. Of course, the solutions will vary depending on the situation and age and stage of your child. But here are some helpful principles to remember:

Encourage your child to focus on the things they can control. Our preschooler may not be able to control the cancelled fluffy date with Grandma, but they can participate in organising a Skype call with her. The teenager can’t control the fact that the netball season is cancelled, but she can still organise a Facetime sleepover with her teammates.

Prioritise relationships. If your child’s behaviour and underlying emotions caused someone else in the household to be disrespected or hurt, ensure that part of the problem-solving involves apologising and making amends. It is a wonderful life skill to be able to connect and reconnect with those closest to us. It deepens relationships and helps us to trust that we’ll be there for each other, no matter what.

Encourage your child to keep paying attention to their emotions. Even though we might take the time to pause, hold and engage, emotions can continue to simmer under the surface for a while longer. Frequently checking in with your child can keep those emotions from boiling over. Over time it will also help your child to develop an understanding of things that ‘press their buttons’ and they will be able to come up with ways to deal with those things before they become overwhelmed.

So that’s Pause, Hold, Engage. Like any skill, it takes a bit of practice and we shouldn’t expect to be experts at it from the get-go. A good way is to start with only the first few steps and then add the others as you become more confident. As someone quite wise once told me: Don’t wait until it’s perfect to practise. Practise until it’s perfect!

This article first appeared on our Lockdown Hub during Level 4 of New Zealand’s fight against Covid-19.

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About Author

Linde-Marie Amersfoort

Linde-Marie is our Child and Family Psychologist at Parenting Place. On top of her clinical practice work, she also works in our research team developing and evaluating our parenting programmes. She is Christchurch-based and in her free-time loves to explore the Port Hills and surrounding areas. Linde-Marie has a blog where she shares her thoughts and experiences on parenting her two teenage children. You can email Linde-Marie at lindemarie.amersfoort@parentingplace.nz or read her blog here.

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