What is your response when your child is frustrated? Does your child’s frustration lead to your own frustration? Let’s say you’re in a hurry to get out the door to go somewhere and your child is having trouble getting ready, or they’re just not ready to go. How are you feeling? Are you becoming emotionally upset? How might you react to your child continuing to say, “I just can’t get this?” after you have spent 20 minutes trying to help her with a set of math problems? A new research study sheds some light on how the emotional state of a parent affects the emotional welfare of a child.
A research team in the department of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, conducted an experimental study involving school-age children and their parent facing a frustrating task together and found that when parents remain calm, they can help a frustrated child self-regulate. The study soon to be published, “Physiological Contagion in Parent-Child Dyads During an Emotional Challenge,” used electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring of both parent and child to measure their emotional state. Emotional contagion occurs when children unconsciously sense their parents’ emotions.
For the study, each parent/child pair entered a room where the child was given a challenging Lego puzzle to complete, and the parent was instructed to watch but not help their child. During the second part of the session, the pair were told they had five extra minutes to complete the puzzle, and the parent could help. The ECG data indicated the parent’s emotional state influenced the child’s emotional regulation but that the child’s emotional state did not affect the parent.
While this is a novel approach to looking at this aspect of the parent-child relationship and further studies will need to be conducted to verify and further understand this phenomenon, it’s useful to see how the functioning of the parent’s nervous system can connect with a child’s nervous system. This is sometimes referred to as attunement or co-regulation. The parent’s connecting with the child in the second phase helped their child to emotionally regulate, or to “calm down.”
From day one, how you as a parent respond to your child when they’re upset will shape their ability to self-regulate. If a parent tells a child who is crying to “stop crying,” “get over it,” or “it’s no big deal,” the child is likely to remain upset. Yelling at a child or telling him to go to his room until he calms down does nothing to help him learn to self-regulate or “control” his emotions and usually leads to repetition and even an escalation of over-reacting to frustrating circumstances.
Picking up a baby when their crying will lead to the baby to stop crying when she sees or hears her parent. Hugging and sharing empathy with a toddler and providing reassurance when they’re upset helps them to calm down. With older children, you can then encourage them to use words to express their feelings. When parents repeatedly ignore or respond negatively or punitively to a child when they’re emotionally upset, as the child develops, he or she will likely over-react to frustrating situations more frequently and more intensely.
When you’re confronted by a crying baby or an upset child, the first thing is for you to regroup and remain calm. Taking a few deep breaths helps most people. When you can respond calmly or neutrally, you will help your child because they’re unconsciously picking up on your calmness, which in turn will cause their nervous system to calm down. Your baby will feel secure. You will then use the moment to help an older child learn skills such as deep breathing, reframing (looking at the situation in a more positive light) as well as using words to convey their thoughts and feelings.
A parent may assume their child is choosing to cry, yell or stomp their feet rather than use words. What is more likely the case is the child hasn’t developed an adequate emotional vocabulary. A meltdown may be the perfect time to teach your child appropriate ways to state how they’re feeling. Once a child can tell you how they feel and why they’re feeling that way, you can help them learn to problem solve and/or become able to accept some situations even though they’d like them to be different. The more time parents spend helping their child develop coping skills, the less time they’ll spend responding to emotional outbursts.
This will then enable you to help them express their needs to others. It also opens up the opportunity to begin to help your child to attune to the needs of others. Listening to your child does not mean that you’ll give in or grant their every wish, but it does help them to feel accepted and more open to listening to you so you can teach them coping skills including emotional regulation, problem-solving as well as empathy and understanding of others.
Here are a few basic tips:
1. Take a few deep breaths and/or count silently to 10 if you’re feeling upset.
2. Look at your child and pay attention to any emotional cues including body language, tone of voice, and words if they’re using them.
3. Calmly validate their feelings by saying, “I see you’re (angry, mad, upset, disappointed, sad, etc.)”
4. Next, try to understand why they’re upset. If you’re not sure you might say, “Tell me what is making you …?” If they can’t tell you, state your observation by saying, “It looks to me like you are ___ because of ___? I understand how that could ___.
5. With younger children, this may be the time to say, “I’m sorry you are ___” and then redirect by saying, “Oh look at ____. I bet you can ____ with it.”
6. For older children, you may have to be assertive and say, I know that is making you feel ___ but ___ (explain or state the reason their desire is not realistic).
7. In some cases, problem-solving may be an appropriate approach.
8. Taking time to teach basic coping skills for toddlers and older children is definitely in order.
Connectedness, open communication, mindfulness for parents and kids are all covered in my upcoming book, The Well-Balanced Family.
Other books I recommend to help you develop these skills are:
- What Is Mindful Parenting?
- 11 Tips for Becoming a Peaceful and Calm Parent
- How What You Say and How You Say It May Affect Your Child’s Temperament
- Set Your Child Up for Success by Teaching Healthy Boundaries
- 5 Don’ts When Your ADHD Child Is Upset or Angry
- Empathy: Teaching Kids to Value Others
Critical Incidents in Parenting