Ask yourself this. When your partner is really upset, do you hold them or rub their back? Talk softly as you soothe them and listen to their feelings? Tell them it makes sense to be mad or sad? This is co-regulation and even as adults we sometimes need this.

I am not going to lie: welcoming feelings with your child can feel terrifying. But, learning to do this will have you yelling less and feeling much more able to set confident boundaries, and it will help you meet your child’s emotional needs.

The thing that motivates me most when I struggle with my boys’ big feelings is this: “Who do you want to be the first call your child makes at 16 when they are in trouble or need help?” If you want it to be you, then you need to get really good at letting them know that their big feelings are not too much for you.

How your child’s brain develops

Your child’s brain will not be fully developed until they are around 25 years old. (I know!! It’s a long way off.) Research shows that babies and young children need help from an adult to regulate emotions until they are age six at a minimum . . . and I promise you that your tweens and teens will continue to need help too; it just changes in nature.

Behavioural control needs the significant involvement of cognitive and executive functions in the prefrontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to mature. The prefrontal cortex also controls impulse control and decision-making. As we now know, the neurons in this part of the brain aren’t fully developed and connected until the mid-20s.

So, as the prefrontal cortex assists with reasoning and impulse control, it makes sense that we need to help little children to manage their big feelings. In fact, it’s through the expression of these big emotions, and the process of a caregiver co-regulating with a young child, that the brain starts to build pathways that lead to more emotional regulation.

Tantrums and meltdowns are normal. In fact, they are healthy. They are not a choice our children make, but a state of dysregulation that is beyond their control. A child who is melting down is letting us know that they are no longer able to manage the emotional demands of a situation.

What emotional dysregulation looks like

Essentially, when these big feelings build up, children lack the key skills to manage them in a way that looks resilient. These skills include:

  • Impulse control
  • Problem-solving
  • Delaying gratification
  • Negotiating
  • Communicating wishes and needs to adults
  • Knowing what’s appropriate or expected in the situation
  • Self-soothing

Our kids lack these skills because the parts of their brain associated with them are still developing. Your child can’t just walk up to you at age two and say, “Hey Mum, I’m having a hard time, I feel like my new sibling is taking all of your attention. This makes me worried that maybe you don’t have enough love for both me and the baby—so I need connection to help me regulate and know everything is okay between you and me.”

Instead, they will demonstrate that need for connection or support to regulate through behaviour. They will push the baby or cry about the fact you cut their crusts off even though they asked you to cut them off just yesterday.

Watch our interview with Gen Muir on why kids have tantrums.

This can all look extremely unreasonable. The answer, though, lies in connection and your child somehow knowing that you see them, you hear them and that nothing they ever do will make you stop loving them. One of the best ways to express this is by stopping, dropping (getting lower), opening your body and saying, “You are not okay, I am here.”

Let’s recap for a moment because this is important.

  1. Your child needs to have tantrums, struggle to share, feel too shy and get really angry in order to practise regulating these feelings. Struggling to regulate is actually building their brain and their resilience one tantrum at a time, and
  2. They need your help, your proximity, your belief in them and your relationship and connection to do this until they can do it for themselves.

What to do when your child has an emotional outburst

What if the real answer to your child’s big feelings was to actually “do less and try less”:

  • Less trying to fix
  • Less trying to solve
  • Less trying to teach
  • Less trying to make it end sooner

The answer lies in how to BE, rather than in what to DO. This is much easier said than done when our kids are losing it, but often all they need is for us to just not join in. So instead of trying to DO anything next time your child is struggling, try to BE what they need instead:

BE CALM: Model keeping your own breathing low and deep—sit on the ground if you can and focus on opening your body. Don’t rush these feels as they are better out than in.

BE CONFIDENT: Be able to take charge and lead where needed; be a great leader and show them you can step in when needed to stop them hitting, hurting or making a mistake.

BE PRESENT: Don’t let yourself panic that your child will never be resilient or there is something wrong with them.

BE KIND: To yourself above all else. Self-compassion is key and leads to more compassion for your child.

These moments are so tough but sometimes when we let go of DOING and just surrender, we are able to BE what our little humans need.

Read next:

This is an extract from Little People, Big Feelings by Gen Muir (Macmillan Australia, RRP $36.99)

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