Dr. Jyothi Nair

Parenting is hard. Novant Health Pediatrics Berewick pediatrician Dr. Jyothi Nair understands this on a personal level, having raised two children (who are now in college).

That’s why she’s bringing parents a grace-filled message about handling emotions — their kids’ and their own — and nine practical strategies to help your house become more peaceful, tonight.

The importance of 10 minutes

One great way to understand your child and their emotions better is to spend at least 10 minutes per day with your child, interacting one-on-one.

Ask them questions about their day, their toys, or things you see outside or inside. You can ask them what they’re learning at school, or ask them a question about their friends or interests, or for younger kids, even ask them questions like, “Do you know your birthday?” “How old are you?”

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When your kids show you something that they’ve learned, give them lots of positive reinforcement — “Wow, you’re learning so many things.” Be happy and excited about what they are telling you. Your praise and appreciation is a better reward for your children than new toys or games.

It can be hard to find that time, especially if you have multiple kids, so if you can’t do it every day, give yourself grace and don’t beat yourself up. Just do it when you can. Every time you make the effort to have that one-on-one time, it helps your child immensely.

Crying is healthy

We may find ourselves saying, “stop crying” or “don’t cry.” But crying is good! Crying is a way for our body to deal with the emotions we are going through.

Instead, say something like, “If you’re angry and you’re sad, why don’t we go to your room? You can have your cry, and I’ll stay with you, then we’ll talk about it when you’re ready.”

Why older kids may open up at bedtime

They’re so busy and active right up until bedtime. Bedtime could be the only time they're getting to be face to face with you.

When I got home from work and my kids were just getting home from their activities, I was tired from work, and I would be more likely to be short with them at that point. After dinner, closer to bedtime, we were all a little more relaxed.

As parents and adults, we may need to be available for them at bedtime because that's when they feel comfortable, and they feel ready to share. If that’s when they want to engage, let’s engage.

The best thing you can do to help your child regulate their emotions

A good night of sleep is probably the best thing we can do for our children’s emotional regulation for the next day.

Bedtime routines can be hard to implement, but they are hugely helpful in giving the child a good day at school or day care the next day.

A great bedtime routine may include a warm bath and maybe a warm drink. Try to encourage them to be off any electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime. If you have the time and the energy to read to younger children, that would be excellent, too. Adapt and do what fits your family but have a few things that you try to incorporate every night, in a set routine.

When kids get angry, and what to do about head banging

For children who are in a developmentally appropriate age for tantrums (age 18 to 36 months) — crying is OK, screaming is OK, they can throw things. As long as the child is not physically hurting themselves or anybody else, it's OK to watch them have a tantrum.

When children bang their heads as part of a tantrum, that can be scary for parents. If that happens, gently redirect a child. Rather than saying “Stop that!” give them something to hold, something to drink, or gently take them away from the area.

When kids get angry, our first instinct is to respond immediately and yell, but it's very important that we take the time to take a deep breath and control our own emotions.

Recognize, “Hey, this is a situation where it might escalate. I need to stay calm, and if I'm not able to do that, I need to say something like, ‘Let’s both go take a minute and calm down and come back when we can talk calmly.’” You want to model appropriate behavior, because children haven't learned those calming skills yet.

And remind yourself: if they’re shouting, at least you know what’s on their mind. I hear from parents whose children are withdrawing and won’t share their emotions, and that is scarier.

A recommendation for ‘pandemic babies’

Our current 3- and 4-year-olds spent two years of their early life in lockdown. A lot of them have not been around other kids unless there were siblings at home. We’re seeing lots of mild speech delays and social interaction delays now because they were isolated.

So, I’m encouraging parents: visit group settings like parks and libraries. Get these children out, where they’re given the opportunity to interact with kids their own age and in their own developmental stage.

In my clinical practice, I’m seeing that kids who were lagging behind are starting to catch up when their parents make time and opportunities for them to be around same-age peers.

The importance of awareness

A good way to understand your child’s emotions better is to know your child's routine, what’s happening for them each day, and how they feel about it.

For example, if you know that today, your son has math tutoring and he doesn’t like going to the math tutor, then you know he might be grumpy when he comes home. It won’t be a surprise, and you can approach him more gently.

Also, being aware of our own emotional state is very important. If you’re going home after an eight-hour workday where you've been dealing with things and you feel stressed, have that self-awareness: I’ve been busy, and it’s not going to be a good evening for me to tackle my child’s science project with them.

Use open communication with your child: “Dad had a long day. I know you want to do this project, and I can help you, but tomorrow evening would be better.” Give yourself that time and set an expectation for kids about when you will be available to help.

Practice this skill ahead of time

Kids aren’t ready to learn when they’re in a high emotional state. You have to teach calming skills when they’re at peace, not when they’re already upset.

So, plan ahead. When you and your kids are relaxing together, you could say something like, “Hey, I understand when you get angry or sad. Mommy sometimes feels the same way. This is what Mommy does: I have to stop, go to a quiet place, and take some deep breaths. Can we try that out together now?”

Calming down takes practice. Practice together.

Let your child be the teacher

Once you’ve taught calming skills, create opportunities for your child to “teach” them back to you. This reinforces what they’ve learned and builds their confidence in using these skills.

For example, if you're playing basketball together, miss a few throws. Then tell your child, “I’m feeling frustrated that I keep missing! What should I do? How do I calm down?” Let your child show you what they do when they feel frustrated, and then try it together.

Or if your child frequently cries at preschool drop-off, play preschool at home with dolls and stuffed animals. “Drop off" a doll and pretend that she is crying. Ask your child, “Do you know what's wrong? How is she feeling? Why is she feeling that way?” Then ask your child what she could do to feel better and take their suggestions.

If your child gives you a “bad” suggestion, act it out — the more theatrical you can be, the better. Your child will likely enjoy the performance. Then, together, you can talk about why this solution did not work and try some other ideas until you find a solution that works.

Pretend play with young children can sometimes get boring for parents, but if you are secretly working with your child on skills, it becomes more engaging for both of you.

Helping kids handle big emotions: Some tips from Dr. Nair

Here’s how Dr. Nair recommends you engage with your kids when they’re feeling specific emotions.

Sadness: Physical contact is very important. Make the child feel safe. If they're young enough, put them on your lap or put your arm around them. Try not to teach; instead, try to listen. Share that it's OK to be sad, and that you're very proud of them for coming to you to express that emotion.

Happiness: Be happy with them, let them know that you're proud of them, and share their joy.

Jealousy: Explain what this emotion is and let them know that it's OK to feel that. Try to walk them through it and help them understand why they are feeling that way and adjust anything you can to help them.

Anxiety/worry: Deep breaths and talking go a long way. If you are able to allay their fears and anxieties, continue to be there as a good listener. But if your child feels physical symptoms like chest pain or chest heaviness, if you are unable to talk them “down” from their anxiety or fear, if their anxiety is not temporary, or if you’re seeing self-harm thoughts or behaviors such as cutting, it’s time to talk to your pediatrician.

When you're having a lot of bad days: You know your child. If your child is having more bad days than good days, if your child is not communicating, if you are worried that what you’re seeing is more than a feeling or emotion, then don't wait. Bring them in. We can assess them and connect them to treatment if needed.