Sadness and anger are normal responses to loss—here's how to help.
"I always feel like I am yelling. And it just dawned on me how much I'm really expecting of them. I feel like they're out of their routine. I'm asking them to do things around my work schedule. They think it's the weekend. I can't play every time they ask. I'm constantly shushing them because I'm on the phone. Or telling them to wait. Or getting off a call and snapping when they ask for the fifth snack of the morning." —Ashley
Sound familiar? Kids are having a ton of uncharacteristic anger these past few weeks. They're burned out and frustrated with quarantine fatigue, just like the rest of us—and they are *over* their parents working from home. They have gone so many weeks without their usual outlets—no seeing friends or taking trips to the park or to see grandparents—and have less predictable attention from you.
Their lives have imploded, and they have nothing to do with it or the ability to wrap their minds around why it's happening.
All they know is that they were sad about not being able to do the things that were the framework of their lives. And now they are mad. Aggression follows as they lash out, yelling and maybe even hitting. But don't worry, mama, this uncharacteristic behavior is a normal response to their emotions—and it's not permanent.
Sadness is an emotional pain that occurs when we have lost something significant.
Our daily activities support our identity and missing those can feel physically uncomfortable. Anger is a healthy and natural response to sadness over something that you cannot control. It's natural to find temporary relief by lashing out.
Anger is often expressed through aggressive behaviors like hitting, kicking or throwing toys. We are wired for aggression—the biological function of anger is to help us prepare to fight off threats. Additionally, their capacity to process and regulate emotion is not fully developed yet.
"Children have all kinds of big emotions," says psychologist Dr. Laura Markham. "Because they don't have much prefrontal cortex yet, their brains are still developing the circuitry needed for self-control."
Getting kids to think differently about situations can lead to a reduction in their anger.
Dr. Leonard Berkowitz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that paying attention to negative feelings can help regulate how we express them.
Here's what you can do when your kids are experiencing sadness, anger and aggression:
- Help them accept the sadness they are feeling by finding words to name it. Ask them what was lost, then let them feel sad, even if it is hard for you.
- Understand they might not have the exact words, so be patient and honest with them to retain their trust. Be gentle with them, and yourself.
- Don't avoid their sadness, but let them fully feel their sadness without judgment or comments. Sadness fully expressed authenticates their feelings and validates their perspectives and the importance of what is lost.
- When they get angry, help them feel it in their body. Then use relaxation skills, like deep breathing and yoga to control the level of their emotions.
- Help them retrain their attention, thoughts and feelings to the things they can control—like the timing of daily activities, chores and creative outlets—to regain their sense of power.
Just as importantly, prioritize your own self-care and try to model healthy coping for stress and anxiety. "Children are keen observers and often notice and react to stress or anxiety in their parents, caregivers, peers and community," explains Dr. Arthur C. Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association.
Bottom line: You might think they're pushing your buttons, but that's not what's going on. They're upset and under a lot of stress. As parents, we need to understand that underneath much of their anger is a sense of powerlessness. We need to reassure them, and ourselves, that we will return to what was lost, reclaim our power and, ultimately, a sense of peace. What you do now makes a big impression on how your kids will deal with problems and pressure in their futures.
[Editor's note: According to the American Psychological Association, if anger isn't allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward on yourself, causing internalizing behaviors, like sulking or increased symptoms of depression. If you or your child are experiencing any of these behaviors, please consult your doctor.]
And if you're looking for tools to help children name their feelings or cope, these can help.
Developed by a therapist and educator, the Slumberkins Hammerhead Snuggler comes with a plush animal, board book and affirmation card that can help children articulate and name their feelings. Hammerhead is perfect for guiding children through conflict resolution while learning the valuable life skills of communication and emotional regulation.
Help your little one discover new ways to breathe, move and express feelings with these beautifully illustrated mindfulness exercise cards. The everyday exercises and empowering mantras aim to increase emotional intelligence, improve focus, build resilience, reduce anxiety and help children feel more connected to the world around them and better understand their big feelings.
Created by a group of mothers, clinicians and friends, Om the Otter takes children on a journey of friendship, compassion and how to be present for someone experiencing difficult feelings. Through the story, little ones learn breathing exercises that can help them deal with tricky emotions.
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