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How Do I Respond to Emotional Age?

It’s so easy to just react out loud as our buttons get pushed, which can make the situation a lot worse for everyone. It’s hard to remember to shut our mouths and breathe. And then, we can have more awareness about our responses...but do we respond to their 3-year-old selves? What do we say, while they’re still pushing buttons, without being patronizing? Nan - mom of a teen girl

First I want to say:

  • I hear how hard it is to remember to shut your mouth and breathe in order to keep the situation from getting worse

  • I see you working to practice awareness of your own reactions when your child is pushing your buttons

  • I see what a good mom you are

Now what?! How do you respond to your child’s emotionally younger self? What do you say, while your child is still pushing your buttons, without being patronizing? This is a great question? Here are some thoughts and a parent-centric tip.

  1. It’s important to understand that what you’re responding to is your child’s needs, rather than their behavior. When a child is acting out in a younger way, like a teen acting like a 3 year old, it means they’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to self-regulate. Maybe there’s a lot going on and their bandwidth got too small. Maybe they’re dealing with big feelings that feel scary or they feel out of control with anxiety. They need what a 3 year old needs - someone who can stay anchored in the storm. They need a more* regulated adult to co-regulate with. They need a more* regulated adult who can hold space for their big feelings without getting overwhelmed themselves.

  2. It’s also important to remember who is in charge of your buttons. This is such a hard one! I believe it helps to reframe this with one of the core No-Yell™ parenting principles. Behavior is an SOS, not an attack. The purpose of your child’s behavior is not to personally attack you or “get” you. It’s an unskilled attempt to feel better and get their needs met.

  3. You could say something validating like, “I see you’re having a hard time,” but what’s most important to remember for now is that the magic isn’t in the words, it’s in the co-regulation. My teacher, Bryan Post, used to say, “It’s not what you say or do, it’s who you’re being when you say or do it.”

Here’s a Parent-Centric tip.

Next time your child starts acting out or melting down ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How old is my child acting? _____yrs/months old (Look for their emotional age as best you can in their behavior and posture and ignore their chronological age)

  2. What would I do for a child that age?

  3. How could I do that for my child in this moment? (This is where you need to be a bit creative…) Here’s an example of how I “picked up” my big kid like a baby. The Magic of Emotional Age

You’ll be amazed at how your child responds to you when you give them what they need according to their emotional age. And if you’re off...they’ll let you know! There's nothing to lose and everything to gain. Your relationship with your child is your most important parenting tool!

*I say “more” because the goal is connection, not perfection. Any amount you can get more regulated through awareness or breathing makes you more available for connection and co-regulation.

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