Big Feelings – A Parenting Guide to Understanding the Emotions Behind Behavior

big feelingsTantrums. Meltdowns. Chaos. Tears. Big, big, feelings. Supporting your child through their emotional development is a difficult task. Often, children who have been adopted or who have experienced time in foster care face additional challenges in managing their emotions.

Parents play an extremely important role in supporting children as they learn the skills necessary for self-regulation. Self-regulation is a set of skills that allow individuals to monitor and respond to stimuli in their environment. This requires awareness and understanding of what is happening both cognitively and emotionally, motivation to act in socially desirable ways, and the ability to inhibit behavior or responses.

Attachment & Self-Regulation

Early connections between parent and child form what is often referred to as the attachment system. This relationship is of particular importance according to attachment theorists, because it serves as a model for all future relationships. Through this connection, children begin to develop an understanding of self and how they relate to others. This attachment relationship provides foundational opportunities for learning to manage and express emotion.

Self-regulation skills do not develop in isolation; rather through consistent nurturance and external support from caregivers (their attachment system), children eventually learn to internalize ways to manage their distress and independently modulate their emotional experiences. Development of self-regulation requires that we experience many moments of co-regulation; or moments where a caregiver is present and attuned to us in a way that supports our nervous system’s ability to return to an optimal level of functioning.

Children who have endured early trauma or loss, including children who have been adopted at birth, have often experienced disruptions within their attachment systems. This subsequently delays the process of development of these self-regulation skills. As a result, children may have difficulty self-soothing and instead rely on ineffective coping mechanisms. Additionally, some children may develop fear of emotions and attempt to guard themselves against all feelings as they experience them as overwhelming or threatening.

In order to overcome this persistent state of fear or avoidance, children need to consistently experience an environment where they feel safe. Crafting such a space for a child who often anticipates danger is significantly challenging, and comes at a high energy cost for caregivers.

Managing Caregiver Affect

Being available to support your child in tolerating their emotions requires first and foremost, that you have developed your own repertoire of self-regulation skills and the ability to modulate your own emotional responses. Children seek out cues from nonverbal expressions and interpret a great deal of information about the safety of a situation through their caregiver’s emotional reactions. In particular, children who have experienced trauma may be more vigilant to danger, causing them to be more likely to misinterpret caregiver affect as cues that a situation is not safe.

Identifying “tipping point” situations that are difficult for you as the caregiver to manage can be a good way to begin to explore how your own reactions impact the parent-child dynamic in moments of emotional upheaval. Are there certain behaviors that are particularly challenging for you? Are there specific emotions that your child presents with that are hard for you to tolerate? Are there factors in your life outside of parenting that are adding additional stress? Are there experiences from your early life that make certain situations more challenging to manage? Do you regularly get your own needs met (sleep, food, support)?

Observing Behaviors

As a caregiver, when you are able to be fully present in the moment despite the tantruming or chaos that is presenting, you increase your capacity to understand what is driving the behaviors. Objectively, it might look like your child is throwing a toy or screaming about bedtime, but what could that behavior be communicating to you?

Behaviors always occur in service of meeting a need for a child. These needs might reflect physiological needs such as the need for food or physical security. Behaviorally these needs might look like stealing items or objects, hoarding or restricting food, or control around toileting. Needs might also reflect relational needs such as the need for love, nurturance, or emotional stability. These needs might appear as engaging in negative behaviors to gain attention, lying, perfectionism, or sexualized behaviors.

When we understand behavior as an attempt at regulation and communication, we can start to think about how to respond to the underlying need rather than get stuck in the behaviors. Take time to understand your child’s perspective. What might they need? What brought on the overreaction? Could this situation feel like a transition or loss for your child? Do they feel vulnerable or rejected? Might they be overwhelmed by the stimulation in the environment? Are they looking for closeness or intimacy?

Allow yourself to be curious about these situations. What happens before, during and after? What does your child look like/sound like? What helps or what makes things work? How are you responding in the moment? Does that escalate or deescalate the situation? Try making note of your observations, perhaps even track them in a journal so that you can begin to understand the patterns over time.

Putting It All Together

Expanding your ability to be aware of what is happening for your child in the moment increases your sensitivity to their emotional experience and cultivates attunement that is essential in responding to your child in moments of distress.

  • Be curious. Notice your child’s feelings, moods, energy and arousal levels. This information can help you anticipate and recognize escalations as they begin.
  • Take care of yourself. Give some attention to your own feelings. Take action to regulate your emotions. It is okay to slow down and check in with yourself in these moments. You are modeling for your child that it’s okay to pause and reflect, and you are better preparing yourself to be present for your child. 
  • Reflect what you see. Name what you are observing, without judgement. Focus on validating the feeling or level of arousal, rather than the behavior.
    • It looks like you got really worried when I said that.”
    • “It seems like your energy is really low.”
  • Offer a tool for regulation. If your child has learned specific skills, remind them of what is possible. If your child is just beginning to build a repertoire, join them in practicing these skills.
    • Let’s see if we can take 3 deep breaths to slow our body down.”
    • “Let’s try sitting together in our calm space.”
  • Praise your child for using these skills. Even if it’s not successful in the first attempt, let your child know you see them trying to regulate their emotions.
    • “I am proud of you for picking a tool to try.”
    • “I noticed you took a deep breath, I am proud of you for trying to calm your body.”
  • Be open to sharing. When your child has returned to a regulated state, invite them to share about their experience. Focus on listening and validation; remember that all feelings are okay.
    • “I’m here to listen if you’d like to share what that was like for you.”
    • “All feelings are okay, I am here to listen anytime you want to talk about your big feelings.”

Above all, be gentle with yourself—these big feelings and behaviors did not develop overnight, and neither do the skills to support regulation. Parenting is challenging, and having supportive relationships to rely on while you’re doing this work is important. If you’re ready to expand your community, BPAR offers a number of resources for parents, including ongoing parent support groups.

Written by Darci Nelsen
Boston Post Adoption Resources

About Darci Nelsen, LMHC, BC-DMT

Darci Nelsen, LMHC, BC-DMT, is a clinician at Boston Post Adoption Resources. To read her bio, please visit BPAR's Team page.