How to Handle Big Emotions Like a Mother

Big Emotions Tantrom

Do we ever have more opinions about how a person is parenting than when we see a child throwing a tantrum in public? (Guilty – yikes). We want everyone to handle big emotions like a mother. When there are spirited, lively expressions of displeasure it’s natural to have a feeling perk up inside of us. Unfortunately, our feelings about a scenario like this example are misplaced, natural yes, but misplaced.

We are wired by our Creator to have a feeling perk up when someone expresses a feeling for us to witness. It’s natural, normal, healthy. We can be moved, but we do not need to be shaken.

A tantrum scene can make me feel vulnerable, not only because of the embarrassment of glances from people (like me) with opinions but in my abilities to manage myself and my emotions at the moment. I feel helpless.

Did you know that by learning a few simple fresh approaches, it can help give us the confidence to handle big emotions from the people in our lives?

Let’s Try Something New

Let’s look at the example below for some ideas of how to handle big emotions like a mother.

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Question From a Mom in the Thick of It

Recently, a mom asked,

“My toddler has been scream-crying any time I leave him. I stay home with him, so we are together the vast majority of the time. He goes to the nursery at church, to my parent’s house (his grandparents) for a few hours once every few weeks so my husband and I can have a date night.

The rest of the time, he is a vivacious, happy little guy and rarely gets upset about very much, so to see this side of him is very unsettling for me. He begins screaming and crying uncontrollably and it makes me feel anxious to think about having to leave him with anyone. 

It started with grandma and grandpa’s house first, but then he started doing it at church and now I can’t even hand him to my husband to go to the other room without a big dramatic display. It’s exhausting and I have stopped taking him to the nursery (I stay in the lobby with him) and I do everything I can to take showers and go to the kitchen for meal prep and other basic housework only when he is asleep so I don’t have to deal with the crying.

I feel kind of stuck in this pattern and to be honest, kind of held hostage by my toddler’s emotions. Writing that out sounds ridiculous now, but it does feel kind of like that at times. Mostly, I want to help him feel confident and brave (and get a tiny dose of freedom for myself). Do you have any ideas of what I can do?”

Observation About the Example

First of all, how many of you can relate to this? I know I can. Do you sweat when your kid flips? No? Just me? I can see how this situation would feel very unsettling. This mother sounds like she loves her little guy very much and they have a great relationship. She truly cares for his comfort and is willing to make changes to bless him.

I would also like to point out that what this child is feeling is real, valid and important, but it might not be exactly as it seems. Here’s why. Children are more sensitive than adults are to nuances in a relationship dynamic. They sense so many things as their tiny little selves are learning how this big bright world works. Now don’t get me wrong, separation anxiety is a real thing and that is partly what is happening here, but there are things that the parents can do to help.

If this mother is doing the best for her child, as I believe she is by cultivating her relationship with her husband for date nights and nurturing her spirit by focusing on worship at church, for example then she does not need to feel anxious about following through on these activities or others that are good for her and in turn good for her family.

My Advice to the Mother

Baby Boy is allowed to not like leaving his loving, nurturing mother with whom he feels comfort and safety. And he is allowed to express that however he wishes (within reasonable limits of safety). Like I said, his feelings about this are valid. He does not like that. Understood.

Mom, you are also allowed to continue with the plan unshaken by Baby Boy’s expression. You can let the guilt go. You can choose confident, calm feelings about this situation because it is a calm, good thing happening.

A Slightly Different Approach

Big Emotions Tantrom

Before a separation, without emotion, walk Baby Boy through the plans to prepare him for separation. “You are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a few hours while Daddy and I go to a restaurant. Then we will come back to get you, then all go home together,” for example.

It’s time to separate. The child expresses displeasure with the arrangement. With calm confidence say:

“You don’t like when I leave you. I hear you, Baby Boy.”
“Scream-crying!”
“I love to be with you, too. I am going to come back in a little while.”
“Bellowing!”
“I see you are uncomfortable with this. Would you like to walk in yourself or would you like Grandma to carry you?”
“Crying!”
“OK, I will hand you to Grandma to take you in.”
“Whimpering.”
“Goodbye. See you at 7:30.”

Then leave. 

Handle Big Emotions

You don’t have to fake a smile or be overly (fake) chipper. This is genuinely hard for him, so show him that you can handle anything he throws your way. You are not worried about this separation because it is good and healthy and reassure him that you will be back, just like every time before, so let this show. You can be empathetic with how he feels about it, but it won’t get you rattled or worried, and you definitely won’t need to change plans (sit in the church lobby or cancel the date).

But How Is This Different?

Do you see how this might be a little different from how we naturally face situations like this?

It can be difficult to stabilize our emotions and our responses in the face of challenges or other people’s emotions, but we can do this. It is a matter of confidence and surety.

Did you notice that in the above example Mom does not apologize for anything? She also does not try to stop the child from expressing his emotions. She acknowledges it, which can assure the child that it is welcome, normal and not going to distress the parents. This can be so helpful for a child to feel emotionally safe.

The confidence and surety are what will help here. It is how you can handle big emotions like a mother. As I mentioned above, kids can pick up on subtle nuances (that we might not notice) and use those subtleties to help create the story they are believing about what is happening. “My parents look really worried, maybe this is something I should feel afraid of.” “It seems like my mom isn’t sure if she can handle my resistance, should I test this?”

Now, people don’t necessarily have the words for all of this complex thought or may not even be conscious about the feelings illustrated in the examples above. But that is partially what is so fascinating about emotions and their complexity. We can have a feeling about something and not know what it means or why we have it, but it is valid nonetheless, right? Kids are people, too.

Helpful In Any Relationship

We can apply these principles to virtually any inter-personal relationship in our lives. When we are setting a boundary with anyone, if we seem like we lack confidence in the boundary, it will likely be pushed on and might push over. It can move you, but it doesn’t have to shake you.

I hope this helps. I have learned so much from the teachings of Janet Lansbury, her books, No Bad Kids and Elevating Childcare and her Podcast, Unruffled and much of the language I use comes from her teaching. Check her out!

Join the Discussion

How do you handle big emotions like a mother?
Do you have any questions or insights to share?
Can you apply this approach to a situation in your life?
Can you tell us about a time when you’ve already used some of these methods?

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