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Safe Enough to Be Emotional

One aspect of daily parenting experience that some parents might see a little more of this fall is the post-school/daycare meltdown.

One day our son (9 at the time), burst in the door, hurled his backpack on the floor, threw himself down on the couch and let loose with an unprecedented bout of crying and swearing. Sure he swore and cried sometimes, but not like this. I can’t recall the specifics of the precipitating incident—some sort of perceived injustice at the hands of his teacher. But I do remember that meltdown, and it was definitely a stress response.

Let’s look at the stressors: prosocial and emotional stress from the injustice, and cognitive stress as he kept replaying this incident that didn’t make sense to him.

But the biggest stressor was biological. He’d been holding all that anger and frustration inside all day. So there was an incredible build up of tension. Prolonged self-control is expensive, right? And it all tumbled out in a beautiful mess when he got home.

Why? Because he felt safe enough to let go.

This brings up an interesting paradox about our concept of safe. We know that self-regulation starts with a holistic feeling of safety. Creating that sense of security helps kids feel regulated in ways that enable them to learn, engage socially, and, um, you know, behave.

But feeling safe with us also makes it easier for kids to express their anger and frustration in ways that… well, let’s just say ways that are not our favourite kind of child behaviour. The thing is kids do need to be able to feel bad, and act like they feel bad (and in need of co-regulation) in a safe environment. That’s part of emotional learning.

So rather than see an after school meltdown as an imposition, we should likely see it as a compliment, a sign that our kids feel safe enough with us to let it all hang out when negative feelings overwhelm them.

This year there will be extra tensions and stresses at school. So kids may come home with an extra load in the backpack more often—a load that might spill out onto parents and caregivers.

Reframing these episodes as signs that kids feel safe with us should make it easier to be empathetic and to connect with them, which is what kids need most when any sort of meltdown occurs.

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1 Comment

Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Sep 11, 2020

John, as I read this post, I thought of an experience of my own, when I was surprised by something that happened. It made me upset and angry. Usually I can hold in these feelings, but on this day, everything came out. I wonder if my feeling of "safety" with the person that shared the news with me helped me let go and express myself. Then he was able to support me (co-regulation) so that I felt better again. Hmmm ... I wonder how often this might also be true for adults.


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