Friday, 25 March 2016

The emotional toddler - how far we've come

"I'm worried I'm going to get overwhelmed," said Miss Nearly 4. 

"Don't worry, at least you're self-aware," I respond.

It certainly wasn't a conversation I ever thought I'd be having with a three year old but I had to smile. It wasn't too long ago she would have just started crying and I wouldn't have known why. We were on our way to her best friend's house but she knew there were going to be lots of other people there as well. 

She was right. There were a lot of people. It was completely reasonable to feel overwhelmed but she managed. At one point she took herself off to read books quietly but she was fine. She was absolutely fine. She didn't cry, she didn't cling, she didn't misbehave. In fact, she had fun.

We have come so far. So very far. I'm not a psychologist, I'm not an expert. I'm just someone with a highly emotional child who has tried really hard to help her learn to manage. Here are some things we have done.

1. We prepare her. A big trigger for my daughter melting down is when there are a lot of people somewhere. We now know that it's really useful to warn her know before we get somewhere that there are likely to be lots of people. The downside of warning her is she starts to get anxious but I find this to be better than surprising her. Where possible I also try really hard to arrive early and let the people slowly join us rather than walking straight in to a crowded area.

Another one is when there's people around that she doesn't know. At Christmas time, we were going to my brother's house for dinner. She normally loves it there but I knew that my brother's in-laws from Sweden were going to be there too and that she would quite likely be a bit scared of them. For a while before hand I kept reminding her that other people were going to be there, talked about who they were and showed her photos. It worked.  She didn't freak out. She didn't withdraw. She had a good time.

2. We talk about emotions a lot. A lot. We label feelings. Sad, cross, frustrated, worried, happy, very happy, excited. Now that she knows what all these feelings are, she can tell me how she's feeling rather than just melting down. For us the meltdown usually manifests with tears and sometimes misbehaviour. For a very long time, the poor girl would wake up from her nap an emotional wreck and I never knew why. She still has days when she just wakes up sad and I still struggle to know what to do but we're getting better. 

3. We acknowledge that emotions are ok but we've still got to get things done. I say things like, "it's ok to feel sad, it's ok that you don't know why you're feeling sad, thank you for telling me you're feeling sad, even though you're sad I still need you to eat your breakfast and do your jobs so we can go out." This last part is often not received so well and I wish I could do something else for her but that is reality. She's part of a family and we can't all stop what we're doing because she's having a sad day. I wish we could but we can't. 

4. We talk about what makes us happy. We've got a few strategies. If we're not in a hurry, I might ask if she just wants to go back to bed and cuddle her bear. She knows that some of the things that make her happy are cuddling her bear, listening to music and reading books. These are our known, talked about strategies. 

These days she'll sometimes tell me when she thinks she just wants to have a break and do one of her 'happy' things for a while. It's taken a long time to get to this point though. We've done a lot of 'feelings' activities. Here are my three favourites. 

Looking at characters in books. There are plenty of books around with wonderful characters experiencing different emotions. I mentioned on facebook a few days ago that one of my favourites is Axel Scheffler's Pip and Posy series. The pages are filled with different animals experiencing different emotions. We look at the pictures and we talk through what's happened. In one picture a cat has been hit in the head with a frisbee and obviously feels sad and then there are other people looking at her and they look worried. Then we talk about other things that might make us feel sad or worried and it just gets the conversation going.

Paper plate faces. This was a fun one we did a long time ago but they still come out and get played with every now and then. Basically, we just drew faces on paper plates and stuck pop sticks to them so they're like little puppets. We played games with them, talked about what emotion they had and why they may have felt like that.

Emotion photos. This was very fun to do. Ed, Miss 2 at the time and I each made different faces and took photos of them. Happy, sad, angry, worried, silly, silly, silly again. We did it ages ago but sometimes we still go back and look at the photos. Again, it just gets the conversation going about feelings and that it's ok to feel different ways.

Like I said, I'm not an expert but I was pretty pleased with how she managed herself the other day at her friend's house. It may just be developmental or it may be the things we've done to work through the difficult times. Either way, I feel like my emotional toddler has come so far and I'm very proud of her.

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