managing the big behaviours - how to co-regulate with your child in 8 simple steps
When those big behaviours happen such as tantrums, screaming and shouting, throwing objects, hitting out, it can feel totally overwhelming for a parent witnessing it and often we can feel like the big behaviours have just come out of nowhere or over the smallest thing. It's easy for us to get caught up in the moment and our first instinct is to respond emotionally in this situation until our rational brain kicks in and helps us navigate a way forward.
STEP 1; Find your Inner Calm
When our child is in full fight mode whether in tantrum mode, screaming at us, lashing out - our first response will always be emotional, we can feel like it is a personal attack or we prepare ourselves for the 'battle' we are about to enter and we forget to see the child behind the behaviours. As the adult in this situation we need to rise above the behaviour and find empathy for our child who is merely expressing their emotions using the only tools they currently have. So before we respond we need to take three deep breaths in and out to steady ourselves and remember that it is not an attack but our child trying to share their feelings with us. That we are on the same side and want to help our child navigate their feelings. And that actually it is a HUGE compliment to us that they are sharing their feelings with you because it means they feel safe and loved by you.
STEP 2; Creating a Safe Space
When big behaviours are being displayed we need to make sure our child is safe because safety is always paramount. We may need to remove our child into a safe space or move the objects around them to ensure they wont hurt themselves or others. But one of the key elements to creating a safe space is you- because we are trying to ensure your child feels safe and secure and loved. This is crucial because they need to know your love is unconditional and that you are present for them, that you understand what they are going through. And so your job in that moment is to make yourself available physically and emotionally by sitting in a space near to them as a calming and connected presence.
Sometimes our children will seek further physical connection with us through hitting out or throwing objects and we need to calmly respond to this to ensure everyone's safety in the situation. This needs to be addressed calmly but presently in the moment - you may need to hold their hands or remove objects or hold your own hands up to stop the action whilst stating in a calm but firm voice "I can see you want to hit/bite/throw right now but I wont let you, it's not safe and it hurts".
STEP 3; Recognising and Validating Emotions
As an adult when we are upset all we really need is to be seen, for someone to ask us if we are ok, because as human beings we seek connections with others and through this acknowledgement we feel valued and cared for. When our children are upset connection is the most important tool we can give them and it is so important that we recognise and label the emotion for them to model and enable them to have an emotional vocabulary to explore the language that describes how they are feeling. It is also crucial for them to have their emotions validated, to know we understand and are available to support them. By labelling the emotion and showing understanding we are giving them room to express themselves. Simply and calmly state "I can see you are angry/frustrated/sad right now because I asked you to/you didn't want to/ you couldn't ........ I love you and I am here for you. When you feel ready for a cuddle/story/calm activity I am right here for you. "
STEP 4; Repetition
Because a child is in a purely emotional state when the big behaviours are displayed and these are often instinctual responses a child can often not hear our words or process them. repetition of steps two and three may be needed until they begin to calm and soothe themselves in your presence. Recent scientific research suggests that our brain needs to hear or experience things at least three times before we begin to fully process it in any situation, and in an emotional response this may take longer, but persist because it is giving your child the nourishment they need. A good technique can be to use your voice at a whisper- this has been shown to lower heart rates and help to keep calm and in turn helps your child who will also want to seek that connection and hear what you are saying.
STEP 5; Help your Child Find their Calm
Once their big behaviours begin to calm remind them "I love you and I am here for you, do you feel ready for that cuddle/story/calm activity now?" Let them come to you and choose their comfort. If or when they hug you or if they cry or you can feel their heart rate is accelerated or they look upset offer them the reassurance - "it's ok, I've got you, it's ok to cry/be upset/sad sometimes and it's good to let it all out." Hold them for as long as they need and always let them end the hug. Read a story or do a calm activity or something of their choosing to reconnect with them and re-establish the positive relationship you have so they feel safe and secure.
STEP 6; Revisiting Behaviours & Offering Reasons
Once your child is calm and happy it is important to revisit the behaviours. The reason for this is not to make your child feel bad or judged for what happened but to build ideas and strategies for how it could be done differently next time. It's important that we don't put any of our own emotional labels onto the child because we are trying to help them to self-regulate and not to feel guilty towards others.
Using statements of fact about the situation revisit what happened - "I could see you were so angry/frustrated/sad just now because (state what happened to cause the behaviour). Offer your understanding "I understand why you felt angry/sad/frustrated/that it wasn't fair..." and then follow it through with the reason why the boundary is in place- "it isn't safe to..... because....." or if it was self-frustration use positive reinforcement about what they did well - "you should be proud of yourself for concentrating so hard and you managed to...….new skills take time to learn and lots of practise"
Using these strategies when they are calm helps them to understand why and to have a positive relationship with expressing emotions and knowing how to regulate them. As their experiences and the adults consistent delivery of these explanations grow they are left with more tools to self-regulate their behaviours.
STEP 7; Offering Alternative Solutions
Talk about different emotions and how we all have them and offer safe ways to express them - "when we feel angry it is not safe to throw/kick/bite because we might hurt ourselves/others. Next time you feel like this you could have a cuddle with someone, stamp your feet to music, listen to calm music, read your favourite book, go to your snuggle basket, shake your glitter jar etc.
Our aim is that over time our child will be able to choose more positive ways to express their emotions through the tools and support we give them. Using stories and small world play with our children can be a good way to explore different emotions and ways to express them. Often our children will offer the characters ways to behave and we can use these as our lead to support our own child during their big behaviours.
STEP 8; Consistency in Approach
Once the Big behaviour has passed and you have gently revisited it after the event move on with your day and do not revisit it again. Because these behaviours are instinctual and emotion driven children will often forget them soon after the event, and so should we. Treat each new episode as a fresh experience repeating the steps as though they have never been done before. reflect on what you have learnt about your child and yourself each time, celebrate your triumphs and be kind to yourselves when they haven't gone so well - we are all human. But know with every step you take to connect with your child in these big behaviour moments, the more they will seek to connect with you, and over time you will find yourselves and your children in a much happier and connected space.