So, I was just at the supermarket and, before I even stepped out of my car, I witnessed a common supermarket interaction between a mum and her child. This beautiful young mummy — obviously in a bit of a hurry as we often are — was struggling to convince her little girl to move.
Some days kids love supermarkets, all the bright colours, the music, maybe getting to pick a treat….and then some days I swear they think they’re allergic to it.
My kids are older (8, 12 and 26 now) so luckily I don’t get supermarket battles anymore but Oh! I haven’t forgotten what they were like! So I totally sympathised with this young mum.
“Come on!” she (sort of) calmly insisted.
“I’m scared!!” the little girl screamed.
“Of what!? The supermarket?”
(Now, I am certainly not judging this mummy for what she said next. I have said the same in frustration to my own children a number of times. When you have little ones you are so busy and just SO tired. I get it.)
“Oh for goodness sake! Whatever!” and she picked her little girl up, still saying she was scared, still crying, and charged into the supermarket.
It made me think… how else could that interaction have gone? What would it have looked like if just for a second instead of saying “whatever” she tuned in to her emotions?
Would it have made the rest of the supermarket trip a bit easier for both of them? Mum less stressed because she doesn’t have a crying child on her hip? Her wee girl less scared because she’s not being forced into a place she clearly doesn’t want to go?
Now, I’m sure you can relate to this mum. I think we all can as parents. Even perfect parents (who are they anyway!) can’t be calm and tuned in all the time. We all say “whatever”. We all have things that just have to be done. Life is busy!
But perhaps it doesn’t have to take that long.
Emotion labelling to calm people down QUICK!
I’ve been studying emotional intelligence for quite a while but recently I’ve come across a very interesting idea. Douglas E. Noll, a professional mediator and coach teaches emotion labelling to prisoners and adults. He uses it as a very effective way of calming angry people down and it has been shown to work even in extremely difficult situations such as street fights where knives have been pulled.
The interesting thing about his idea is that it usually takes around 90 seconds. Now, if I had had a tool that calmed my kids’ tantrums down in 90 seconds when they were preschoolers I’d have been a happy mummy! Some of my darling daughter Lula’s full blown tantys could last 45 minutes!
Noll says it’s as simple as tuning in. You pretty much ignore what they are saying and tune in to what they are feeling.
Ignore the words, listen for feelings
In the supermarket kids case she was making it easy on her mum and telling her straight out — “I’m scared!” It didn’t make much sense. What on earth is scary about a supermarket? But Noll says simply repeating back to the person their feelings — “you’re scared” — is enough to start calming them down.
So what might have happened if our lovely supermarket mummy had said that? Perhaps she would have told her why she was scared. “There is a funny noise! It’s scary.”
Noll says to just carry on tuning in to those feelings. “You’re frightened of the funny noise.”
“Yeah,” says our little girl. “It’s all loud and beepy!”
“Your scared of the loud beeps” says our lovely mum.
By now our little girl might have calmed down. Perhaps she would ask to hold mum’s hand.
It seems weird. I know. I was very skeptical when I heard it. It’s too simple. Why on earth would telling someone how they feel calm them down?
But all the research has been showing it works. Noll says that when people are angry or having strong emotions, like fear, they are not operating out of the logical part of their brain. They can’t see how they are feeling.
This is especially true for little children who just don’t have the vocabulary or emotional intelligence to understand what’s going on for them. When you tell them “you’re scared” it changes something in their brains. They not only feel understood, accepted and seen (which after all is what everyone wants!) they start to understand their feelings better.
Noll says to keep labelling your child’s emotions until you get a nod, “yeah”, or some other calmed-down kind of response (or until 90 seconds is up, whichever comes first).
Don’t ask what they feel or try to solve it. Just keep guessing at their feelings until you get it right. He says with kids it usually only takes around 30 seconds of emotion labelling to work.
Using feelings words helps you control your emotions
The more people are able to describe their feelings the more they are able to control and manage them. Research has found that people with larger “feeling” vocabularies stay calmer.
One really interesting study on this topic was done with people and spiders. (Ugh! Glad it was them not me!) The participants had to walk closer and closer to a spider they were afraid of. The people who described their fears really well, using a lot of feelings words, were able to get much closer to the spider and stay much calmer than those who didn’t describe their feelings. They managed their fear better.
Feelings words help us manage ourselves — control our fear, anger, nervousness…
So how does this help us as parents?
One — when we tune in to our child’s feelings they calm down quicker and we can get on with what we need to do. They feel better. We feel less stressed. Win-win.
Two — when we tell our child how they are feeling we are adding to their bank of feelings words. The more feelings words they have the better they will be able to manage their own emotions in the long run. (Less tantrums! Yay!)
I’m heading into the teen stage again with my daughter, Lula (I’ve already parented a teenage girl so I know what I’m in for!) and it is certainly a time full of strong emotions!
Hopefully, I can tune in (although I’m sure “whatever!” is still bound to pop out of my mouth at some point!) and help her learn to manage her strong emotions as she heads into adulthood.
If you want to learn more about communicating better with your kids check out my post on non-violent communication for mums. I’ll be talking about this topic (communication and emotions) for the next few weeks so keep posted for more.
Enjoy tuning in this week!
Sending you lots of love because we’re all on this crazy parenting journey together!
Here’s a link to the abstract of the Spider study if you are interested, and check out Douglas E. Noll’s book about how to de-escalate anger in 90 seconds if you want to learn more.
Please remember to share this post with others if you found it helpful!
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