If your tween is experiencing powerful tears or shattering disappointments after tricky friendship days, know that you are not alone. Relatively small issues like not being invited to a party or overhearing a mean comment can arouse big, intense feelings in our kids. After an hour of heartfelt sobbing, Emma offered me a beautiful analogy to share with you, “I feel like I’m in a board game and I don’t know any of the moves.” That sounds like a very difficult place to be in.
It is easy for both parents and teachers to fall into the trap of trying to “dial down the drama” when our kids feel overwhelmed. However, minimising or dismissing strong feelings will only tend to ramp them up, because our tween’s brains seek to be heard and understood in the process of regulating. I’d also like to suggest that it denies our children the opportunity to master these big feelings. Our kids need to feel to practise the emotional regulation strategies they need to navigate life well.
In this blog, I want to share four practical strategies that parents can do to support their tweens during these moments. Friendship challenges are an incredibly rich platform to help kids learn emotional regulation strategies, as well as social skills, and we want to capitalise on both as we coach them forward.
Strategy 1: Let’s Not Fight the Intensity
The more I learn about emotions the more I am in awe of our body’s way of coming up with solutions to discomfort, anguish and pain we experience. It doesn’t make any sense to judge that process but rather appreciate it. That’s why we want tweens to know there are no bad or good emotions. There are only healthy emotions, and each one of them is an acceptable and necessary part of being human. Ideally, we want tweens to feel safe to feel, without shame or guilt. This means accepting emotions within our home, in the same way we accept anything else about ourselves (or our experiences) that we cannot change – our age, our height, freckles or ears.
Strategy 2: Ask Questions that Empower
Although it’s tempting (and much quicker) to offer children prescription answers to friendship problems, it won’t help them in the long term. The problem with childhood conflict always being followed by adult intervention is that kids can get into the habit of projecting their wishful thinking onto someone else who they perceive as being more powerful than they are. If our children focus their energy on recruiting support (usually in the form of dobbing, begging, nagging, sulking or crying) rather than problem-solving, they miss vital learning opportunities. We are best to ask questions that express a sense of curiosity and empower them to take ownership.
- What do you need from me? Do you need me to listen or help with strategy?
- Let’s take care of you. What do you need to do right now? Once we have talked, is there something that might take off worrying?
- How do you think your friend is feeling? What do they need right now?
Strategy 3: Find a Positive Expression
Whereas there are times that we suppress our painful emotions for our own survival, they are far better off moving through our kids rather than festering inside them. One of my dearly loved local psychotherapists wisely tells me that children who have imaginations become their own play therapists. Imaginative play pulls kids out of their heads and into their bodies. It is a powerful tool to help children to process emotion, and I see it re-energise tweens in a way that nothing else does. Any type of play including immersing themselves in craft, participating in drama, dance, or sport, or building forts, slides and adventure courses are all helpful.
Strategy 4: Wrap Them in Routine
The everyday rituals and routines in our homes can be very grounding because they pull children away from re-living negative experiences and help them refocus on what is happening in the present moment. That’s one of the reasons why I encourage parents to try to maintain (and even increase) the structure around a child’s life when they are feeling bigger emotions. Things like the flow of water during shower time, the sensation of eating dessert, the pace of their steps while they walk the dog, the feeling of different shaped objects while they pick up their toys are all grounding.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with this thought. Home really is the hero in kids’ lives. It is the emotional shield from all that hurts us, bothers us, and tires us. It’s a place where love is tangible, and we are cared for in ways that make it easier for us to move back into the world with a soft heart. It’s the Utopia that we all yearn for and strive towards. When they feel disappointed, lost, afraid or disorientated it will be the predictability of home that continues to welcome them with open arms and wise words. As you implement these strategies, know you are offering your tween the home they deserve.