Why doesn’t he seem upset? Why didn’t he come to me if he was upset?
Does this not matter to him? Why is he laughing when we talk about this? Why has he been so difficult lately?
This is normal. We may be surprised by the reactions from our kiddos because any other kid may cry, share their experience or display some sort of emotion. But not ours.
Over the course of their short life, our kiddos have developed a defense or survival tactic as they’ve come across Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When they’re having a difficult experience or a “big feeling” they simply disconnect from it. This defense mechanism is known as dissociation. The child is physically present but “spaced out” – their mind is elsewhere. They have done this so many times that it is now an automatic response. This could look different in each child.
Experiencing and sharing emotion is a very vulnerable spot to be in. Depending on your child’s history, there may have been many times he had to protect himself by not crying or showing big feelings. This could be to protect himself from accepting the reality of a situation or to protect himself physically from others. His big feelings may come out in other ways – aggression, inability to sit still, and self-injurious behavior. Your child has not yet built the emotional capacity to handle such feelings in a healthy manner.
What to Do When Your Child is Having a Big Feeling
Empathy: Utilize the information above to adjust your expectations. You are desiring to comfort and be a wonderful parent for your child. The truth is he probably does not know what having a parent means. Just because his reaction is not one you’re used to doesn’t mean you’re not a great parent or that he’s trying to get a rise out of you. Remember to put yourself in his shoes. His emotional age is most likely much younger than his actual age. Remember traditional parenting will not work.
He doesn’t know how to handle big feelings and we’re going to have to teach him over time. Over time he will learn what having a parent means. When you adjust your expectations, you’ll be less disappointed in the present and you’ll be more focused to meet your child’s unique needs.
Dialogue: Start reflecting on how hard having big feelings may be for your child. Utilizing the third person will take pressure off of him. Say, I know it must be so difficult to have other kids be mean to you. When I was younger I was bullied and I was so angry about it all the time. I felt like I was going to explode! Or I know this is hard for you and it may be easier to laugh now because there are so many feelings jumbled up inside. Also, You seem pretty upset and that’s okay. I think it has to do with our conversation earlier. A parent’s job is to love and protect their kid by helping them make good choices.
Regulation: Often our kids have trouble managing emotions and regulating their feelings due to their lack of emotional capacity. It’s important to incorporate activities for your child that help them to regulate since they are unable to do so themselves. This may be a physical activity, a snack, or something soothing. They may not be able to connect their current behavior or mind-state with their feelings or experience yet, but helping their body to relax is a good first step.
Using the term “big feeling” may be an easy way to conceptualize the many things going on internally. It can help your child be aware of what’s going on inside rather than block it out. It is important for your child to be reminded that you are able to handle the rage and sadness they feel inside without judgment. They need to learn over time that it is safe to expose their true feelings. Moderating your reactions and expectations with this in mind will set your family up for success.
Barbara DiGangi is a Licensed Master Social Worker and studied Social Work with a concentration in Advanced Social Policy at New York University. Barbara has over seven years of experience working intensively with children and families addressing a variety of issues from family dynamics and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), to Autism and depression. While working with adoptive families, she found herself helping families understand attachment and began seeing results in her clients through this approach. Barbara’s “why” for Project Bond is to ensure all people develop the capacity to have fulfilling and healthy relationships, and also to advance the tremendous, positive impact attachment can potentially have on societal issues.
This article was originally posted at Project Bond.