Why You Should Name Your Child’s Emotions

Why You Should Name Your Child’s Emotions

Picture this, you’re already running late for school on a Monday morning and your child is still in their pyjamas, eating their breakfast, their hair a mess, all whilst seemingly with no cares in the world shouting, “I’m not going to school today!”. You’re running around sorting everything else out and you can slowly see the clock ticking closer and closer to 9am. You’re beginning to feel stressed as well. You throw in a bribe because it’s worked well before, “if you can get your school uniform on in 5 minutes, we can go to the toy shop tonight after school!”. Your child looks you in the eye and shouts “I’m not going to school!” and storms off. 

Now stress, worry, and helplessness has well and truly crept in. You begin to plead with your child, “Please, just put your shoes on, this is getting ridiculous, we will be late!”. Your child moves as slow as a snail putting their shoes on, now crying and screaming “I’m not going, I don’t want to go!” and they run away into their room. You’re now very much behind schedule, late for school, and feeling very irritated. It’s time to lay down the law. “Right, that it’s!” you shout, “Get in the car, you’re going to school, and no toy shop tonight”. The battle continues. Yelling, screaming, crying, harsh words, and hurt feelings. You get to school right on the bell, your child hops out of the car and gives you an awful look in the eye as they run away from you, and you’re left sitting in the car by yourself feeling pretty lousy.

So how can we manage these awfully uncomfortable and irritating situations?
We start working on naming our child’s emotions when we see them. By simply naming their emotions, we help them to get their emotions under control. In order to understand the power of naming your child’s emotions, it is important to talk a little about the brain. 

So, inside your child’s body lies an Upstairs Brain, and a Downstairs Brain. Sounds strange, right? The Upstairs Brain is responsible for thinking, and the Downstairs Brain is responsible for feeling. The Upstairs Brain helps your child to rationalise, reason, make judgements, and think things through. The Downstairs Brain allows your child to experience and feel emotions! The Downstairs Brain is also responsible for keeping an eye out for danger. When the Downstairs Brain detects danger, it takes control over the brain. This is so that the brain can respond on feeling, rather than logic and reason. 

A simple way to understand how this works is to think about what your brain does when you accidentally touch a hot saucepan on the stove. You don’t allow yourself time and think, “hmm, should I take my hand away?”, your brain automatically acts on instinct and pulls your hand away from the saucepan to avoid any further danger. 

So, when your child is overcome by big feelings such as, fear, frustration, or a deep sadness, their Downstairs Brain detects danger and sends signals to their Upstairs Brain to switch off, because they’re taking over now! What this means is that big feelings disconnect your child from their ability to reason, rationalise, judge, and think things through. No amount of bargaining, or begging with your child will calm these feelings down until they feel understood, heard, and safe. Once their Downstairs Brain feels soothed and settled, it is then, and only then that it will send signals to the Upstairs Brain to ‘turn back on’ and return. 

A way to help your child feel understood, heard, and safe is to name and pinpoint their emotions that you see occurring right in front of you. This does a few things! This helps your child to make sense of what is going on internally, and it lets them know that you are there to help them feel safe again. Reflecting on your child’s emotions can sound something like, “you’re feeling so frustrated that your brother isn’t playing with you”, or, “you’re feeling a bit nervous and worried about going to school tomorrow”, or “you’re feeling so happy and excited helping me make breakfast!”. 

Think back to a time when you were feeling overwhelmed by a big emotion…

Maybe you felt disappointed or let down by your partner, or under-appreciated at home with all of the things that you do for everyone in the household. When you have somebody in your life to help you name what’s going on internally – “you must feel… disappointed, let down, tired, under-appreciated, over-worked etc”. – you feel supported, understood and safe. You are supported to soothe your Downstairs Brain and are now able to bring your Upstairs Brain back into the picture to help you rationalise and use judgment to work through how you’re feeling internally. 

By naming our child’s emotions, we help them to develop a greater self-awareness and we create opportunities for connection. Name it to Tame It – it’s a powerful way of responding to your child’s emotions.

Jessie Williams – Play Therapist

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