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Big Feelings: 3 Helpful Ways to Support Your Child

June 15, 2021

Expressing big feelings is a common side effect of learning how to thrive in this world. For little kids, however, expressing big feelings can feel loud and scary and messy.

Truth be told, those same big feelings can feel equally overwhelming for the children's care givers. It's often surprising just how affected we adults can feel by our kids' emotions.

What are the big feelings kids convey -- and why don't they express them like we do?

I have no memories of myself as an adult flipping out over the color cup I received at a restaurant. Have I seen 1000 kids get upset about things like this, though? Yes, of course. There's something innately different in our mental wiring.

But what is it?

Long story short, the part of our brains that controls emotional regulation, the prefrontal cortex, doesn't fully develop until somewhere in an adult's mid-20s. If it seems like children simply CAN'T regulate their emotions sometimes, it's because they truly and honestly can't. The wiring isn't there.

Why can kids regulate their big feelings so well sometimes, then, and not others? If they've shown us they can do it once, they can do it again, right?

This is one of the most common parenting myths -- a child has shown us they can do something, so we assume they can do it again on command. We perceive any deviation from that as a blatant and intentional misbehavior.

The truth is, however, that they're not intentionally misbehaving. The synapses that are forming neural pathways in their brains are essentially doing "trial and error" connections to see which ones "stick" -- that's how learning happens.

There's a common catch phrase in neuroscience: neurons that fire together wire together.

How many times do they need to fire together to create a pathway, though?

The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal. In terms of repetition, it is estimated that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a skill and develop the associated neural pathway. (source)

Sometimes the child does have the capacity to regulate feelings in an emotionally mature way. The child is well rested, has adequate nutrition, feels emotionally secure, and all is well in their world. Their brain manages to drive behavior that looks "acceptable" to us.

Other times, for no apparent reason, the child simply can't repeat what he or she exhibited another time. Any number of things might be telling the child's brain to try a different approach. More than likely, the child isn't even remotely aware of the difference, and the change is completely out of their control. They just do the best they can in the moment -- they do what their brain "suggests" -- and it doesn't always look "right" to us.

But why can children's behaviors change over time?

This is due to something called neuroplasticity. It essentially means that our brains have the power to un-do the neural connections they've made, and then make new ones. Good news -- even adults' brains have neuroplasticity.

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Take a break when you can't get a break

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Big Feelings: 3 Helpful Ways to Support Your Child

Expressing big feelings is a common side effect of learning how to thrive in this world. For little kids, however, expressing big feelings can feel loud and scary and messy -- not only for them, but also for the care givers who are raising them.

What are the big feelings kids convey -- and why don't they express them like we do?

As an adult, I've never flipped out over the color cup I received at a restaurant. Have I seen 1000 kids get upset about things like this, though? Yes, of course. There's something innately different in our mental wiring.

But what is it?

Long story short, the part of our brain that controls emotional regulation, the prefrontal cortex, doesn't fully develop until somewhere in an adult's mid-20s. If it seems like children simply CAN'T regulate their emotions sometimes, it's because they truly and honestly can't. The wiring isn't there.

And here's a side note to understand: big emotions about things like the color of the cup are rarely about the cup. The cup is often the outlet for some stress that the child has been feeling. Is the child hungry? Over- or under-stimulated? Tired? Processing some big physical or emotional milestone?

It's similar to an adult processing a feeling with "the straw that broke the camel's back" -- there's often a root cause beneath what others are observing that has little, if anything, to do with the object in question.

This is far too complex for a child to articulate. They simply can't. They haven't had enough life experience to develop this level of emotional intelligence, much less to express it clearly to us.

Instead, what they do is express their feelings in the only ways they know how: crying, yelling, acting out, and so on.

Why can kids regulate their big feelings so well sometimes, and not others? If they've shown us they can do it once, they can do it again, right?

This is one of the most common parenting myths -- a child has shown us they can do something, so we assume they can do it again anytime. We perceive any deviation from that as a blatant and intentional misbehavior.

The truth is, however, that they're not intentionally misbehaving. The synapses that are forming neural pathways in their brains are essentially doing "trial and error" connections to see which ones "stick" -- that's how learning happens.

There's a common catch phrase in neuroscience: neurons that fire together wire together.

How many times do they need to fire together to create a pathway, though?

The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal. In terms of repetition, it is estimated that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a skill and develop the associated neural pathway. (source)

Why, then, can children's behaviors change over time? They're not in their 20s yet and you just said their brains haven't developed that way.

This is due to something called neuroplasticity. It essentially means that our brains have the power to un-do the neural connections they've made, and then make new ones. Good news -- even adults' brains have neuroplasticity.

Kids can un-learn tricky behaviors if they're consistently met with compassion from adults who exhibit emotional maturity, and who model mature ways of handling emotions.

Conversely, children can internalize and learn suboptimal behaviors if their adults are inconsistent in the emotional support they offer, or in the emotional management tools they model.

Kids are constantly observing. Learning. Subconsciously training their brains to grow in certain ways and not others.

How we support them matters.

x

x

big feelings

co-regulation

Take a break when you can't get a break

Don't ignore behavior - what to do instead

Give space.

Plan for it.

Sarah R. Moore is an internationally published writer and the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. You can follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram. She’s currently worldschooling her family. Her glass is half full.


Sarah R. Moore is an internationally published writer and the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. You can follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram. She’s currently worldschooling her family. Her glass is half full.

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