How to manage the ‘big feelings’

Natalie Costa
Leading Education Expert and Former School Teacher

How to manage the 'big feelings'

Parents may have noticed that over the last few weeks their child or children have been more emotional than usual. Perhaps they have been having more meltdowns, showing more intense feelings of sadness, anger, or regression?


Or maybe you’ve also been feeling the impact of the lockdown period on your stress levels and overall mental health? 


It’s no wonder that we’ve probably all, at one time or another, felt the strain. We’ve been trying to adapt to a new working style, juggle working from home with childcare, and suddenly trying to take on the role of ‘teacher’ and parent. 


In this article, we’ll investigate these ‘big feelings’ and give both parents and children the tools to take back some of the control, finding new ways to manage them in the future. 


Why are we experiencing ‘big feelings’ now more than ever?


The first thing to remember is that we’ve all been facing a lot of uncertainly during the coronavirus crisis. There have been huge unprecedented changes to our daily lives, so it’s no wonder that our feelings of stress, anxiety and worry are heightened. 


This can affect our family relationships and, as a result, many parents will have been coping with more tears, tantrums or and meltdowns than usual.


It’s important that we all expect to have these big feelings. Understand that it’s not a normal situation and if children are displaying behaviour that’s out of character, please don’t worry. 


The crisis – and these heightened emotional senses - will have triggered a ‘fight or flight’ response in our bodies. This makes it more difficult to rationalise situations and also means we’re more sensitive to the emotions of the people around us. As parents, if we’re feeling worried or anxious, there’s a good chance this will be passed on to our children. 


Tips on How to Manage the Big Feelings


  • Talk about feelings with your children

  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Let them know it’s perfectly normal to feel scared or angry. Show that you understand and empathise with them. Simply be doing this, you’re telling them that it’s OK to be open and honest when you feel sad, angry or down. It’ll then be easier for you, and them, to identify and manage these emotions further down the line. 


  • Build your child’s emotional vocabulary

  • Have a chart on the wall that helps children to vocalise their feelings. Generally, children know ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’, but if you expand their knowledge it will help them identify further feelings, such as ‘frustration’, ‘fear’ or ‘disappointment’. With this, you can help them understand which each one means and how to manage it. 


  • Identify where in the body each emotion comes from 

  • Draw a body map and get them to identify where in the body each emotion comes from. This helps children to be aware of their body signals and understand when big feelings are developing. They can then nip them in the bud before they get out of control. 


  • Create ‘feelings characters’

  • Give each feeling a name and a personality to help children recognise that they are not defined by their feelings. Their emotions are not them or a part of their identity, but rather come and go throughout the day. 


  • Have a toolkit to handle each emotion

  • Once you have identified each emotion and where it comes from, put a plan in place with your child to tackle each one. 


    This might be different for each child, so discuss with them individually how they feel and agree the best way to stay in control when the big feelings start to take over. 


    Use nourishing and comforting activities within the plan that will help your child to feel safe, grounded and reassured. Baking, going for a walk or watching more Pepper Pig than usual are all great activities to try.


    You can even create a poster together to visualise all the things they can do when these big feelings get in the way. For example:

    • If I am frustrated, I need to take a time out and go for a walk
    • If I am angry, I need to count to ten and take some deep breaths
    • If I am embarrassed, I need to talk to my mum or dad about why I feel like this and get their reassurance
    • If I am disappointed, I need to put on my positive glasses and see things from an optimistic perspective instead
  • Use deep belly breaths and power breathing 

  • Power breathing is a fantastic way to calm children down. It helps to lower the levels of cortisol in the body and decrease our ‘fight or flight’ panic response. It also allows them step away from the chaos and come back to the present moment. 


    How to power breathe:

    • Breathe in through the nose for 3 seconds, filling the belly with air
    • Breathe out through the mouth for 5 seconds
    • Repeat this 5 times

    For young children, blowing bubbles can help practice power breathing, or even take a small soft toy and place it on their tummy. Ask them to make the toy go up and down as they breath. This will make sure they’re breathing from their diaphragm, rather from their chest. 


    Power breathing isn’t just for children. Parents can also use this if they’re feeling overwhelmed. 


    Practice a few times throughout the day; simply take a couple of minutes, perhaps when you’re doing the washing up or having a cup of tea. This will continually send a message to the primitive part of your brain that you’re calm and in control. 


  • Shift the big feelings with movement

  • Big feelings have a lot of energy in our body, so the best way to get rid of this is to move. Use exercise or movement to dissolve the big feelings and help regain control. When things are getting out of hand, try asking your child to run on the spot, dance around the kitchen or shake it out. 


  • Give space to feel those feelings

  • It’s natural that children are going to be acting slightly different than usual and that’s OK. Give yourselves as a family more space to explore the big feelings; be more affectionate, have more cuddles, enjoy more downtime. What’s important now is that we all feel safe, nourished and happy. 


  • Give yourself a break too

  • Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you also feel more stressed, angry of frustrated. It’s completely normal given the circumstances.  You should be proud for doing your best in these strange and scary circumstances. 


    We are the biggest role models for our children and so we need to show them that we use the same tools to manage our own emotions. Talk to your children about what you do to help when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps you write in a journal, go for a walk, or take 5 minutes for yourself?


    You could even ask for their advice when you are feeling the big feelings. By getting them involved in your emotions, they can help you. 


    Remember, it’s normal for everyone in the family to feel stronger emotions at the moment, which makes it a perfect time to teach your children about how to identify and manage their feelings. This valuable lesson will show them how to take on the ‘big feelings’ both now and in the future. 


    Have you tried teaching the big feelings while at home? We’d love to hear from you!  

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