By Dr Kathryn Murray
Have you ever felt exhausted, frustrated, annoyed or just plain angry because of someone else’s behaviour or demands? Being human means that we experience a range of emotions hundreds of times a day. But what happens when you can’t or don’t know how to manage emotions? What happens when you feel like you’re going to explode? As parents, we feel that way at times. However, we can usually find ways to manage it, such as going outside or for a walk. But what happens if you are a child and don’t know how to calm down?
In my experience, children become overwhelmed by emotions usually because they are trying to fulfil an emotional need. The trouble is that sometimes the way they choose to respond is not appropriate or effective. Sometimes those emotions children are trying to manage can end up being out of control.
Research tells us that as emotions rise, the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in fuelled by a flood of the cortisol hormone in the brain. This hormone keeps us on high alert so as humans, we can survive by hitting out or being verbally abusive (fight), running away (flight) or not talking at all and avoiding the whole situation (freeze). This means that conversation or reasoning cannot physically occur while we are in this heightened state of being alert.
Have you ever seen a child have a tantrum – yelling, crying, screaming, throwing things, stamping their foot and more? Usually, this is due to the overwhelm of emotions and the high level of cortisol swimming through the brain. When this happens, it is not the time to try and have a rational conversation or explain the consequences of actions. This is the time for a cuddle, space and some ‘chill out time.
Giving your child (and you) the space and time to ‘chill out’ and calm the brain, allows emotions to settle and the opportunity for thinking to happen. The level of cortisol created by the body when under stress (from an argument, tantrum, being anxious and other reasons) increases and impacts clear thinking in the brain. Sometimes we call that foggy brain. Taking some time in a ‘chill out’ space gives the brain time to settle, the cortisol level can drop, the sense of safety and security increases and we become calm. That’s the time to go and quietly have a discussion about appropriate behaviours or what might be worrying your child.
Ways to help the calming of emotions includes creating a ‘chill out’ space in an area of your home. It’s a space that is removed from everyone (the corner of the living room) but not isolated (a bedroom). This is a safe space for refuge and respite where children can settle and compose themselves so that a conversation can occur. It works well if there are different textures in the space so that it is a sensory experience that helps to calm emotions.
As a parent, remember you need to do this too. You can model the need to take a break from a situation. Use the Think Aloud strategy and say “I’m feeling a bit annoyed. I’m going to ‘chill out’ for a few minutes”. ‘Chill out’ is not ‘time out’ and it is NOT a punishment – it’s a strategy to strengthen family relationships by recognising the need for calm brains to help compassionate communication.