Big Feelings in a Small Space? Emotional Engagement For the Whole Family

Posted April 23, 2020

When overwhelmed is the word of the week

You know the proverb, a problem shared is a problem halved? With five voices in our family, a problem shared is a lot of noise. Our children are loud. They tell us how they feel at great length and sometimes high volume. Our daughter has opera singer lungs and her siblings accept the challenge to go big, do more and be louder.

The truth is, I like the loud. I’m glad they can express how they are feeling. It’s considerably easier than when they don’t know how they’re feeling or can’t express what’s on their mind.

Sometimes though, we need a little encouragement to go from “noise” to problem sharing and solutions.

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They’re feeling a lot that they don’t seem to have words for

They know that just because they are frustrated about not being able to go to the park, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to go. They’re missing extended family and friends. They’re handling a lot of emotional responses to a lot of changes and trying to get on with it anyway.

We all share a space and there are no natural breaks from each other in lockdown. What we have is a lot of different personalities and coping mechanisms to contend with. When our children’s world is so enclosed, we need a way to identify and share all the feelings, without them taking over every day.

Check-in regularly

We’ve noticed that an overwhelming emotional response is more likely when our children have been jumping between different emotions over a short period of time, without giving a name to what they are feeling.

So when our home is becoming a little overwhelmed with all of the feelings, we actively check-in with our moods. My husband and I do this too. Our children respond more openly to all of these methods of emotional engagement when they are joining us, and not just answering questions for us.

These are a few of the different ways we have checked in with our emotions through life changes over the last few years. We’ll be making them a part of our routine for a few days, to share all of the big feelings our children are experiencing in a safe space, together.

The basics

Before we delve into any emotions, let’s cover the essentials; food, water and rest. Every summer as the weather gets hotter and we spend more time in the garden, we get caught out!

When emotions are running high, we will literally check food, water and rest off a list out-loud. This started as a quick check between my husband and I, because diffused responsibility is real when both parents are at home and young children aren’t very good at knowing the difference between hungry and angry. If we’ve missed a snack, or there’s an empty water bottle, we catch it early.

It’s a family habit now. Our eldest daughter adorably checks these off too, “Guys, I’m cross. I’ve just had a snack, I’ve drank so much water and I did a big sleep last night. I’m just cross.”

Emotions by the hour

We track our emotions by the hour on a large piece of paper. The hourly check-in is particularly effective for us after a big change and I’ll use it when there’s no identifiable rhythm to their loud emotions. We first tried this shortly after moving house and having a new baby. It’s a great visual representation of changing moods throughout the day, which is valuable to a two-year-old, who feels like they’ll be cross forever.

Crucially for us, we can focus on when moods changed from positive to neutral and when negative feelings stepped in. The feelings are often there before the loud overwhelming responses are. Ever get that feeling that an outburst came out of the blue? There’s a catalyst hiding in the day somewhere. This gives you an hour window to work with.

I use post-it-notes because they’re bright and engaging, and easier for my eldest daughter than writing on to paper on the wall. It also means we can move them around or reuse them on different days. Post-it notes would enable a parent working from home to take part (without an hourly interruption!) by writing them down on the hour and adding them during work breaks.

If you have family members working outside of the home at the moment, it might be worth doing this for two days; on a working day and an everyone at home day.

We don’t insist everyone puts an emotion on this list. It’s okay to say you’re tired, hungry, in need of a shower, bored or not feeling much of anything at all. That’s how life works sometimes so it makes sense that it’s reflected in the day’s mood.

Lunchtime review

I spoke about our lunchtime review briefly in 31 Ways We Make Homeschool Work For Us. If the morning has been long and the afternoon looks longer, I start lunch with a thank you and an apology. It sounds simple enough but there are days when it will take me a few moments to settle on something I’m happy to share. There’s always something to be grateful for though, and something that I could have handled with more patience or thought.

This is more valuable in lockdown than ever before. It’s a lovely way to clear the air between individuals as we head into the rest of the day together. Focusing on some of the positive little moments for my children in the morning encourages more in the afternoon too.

Focus on the positive

Children amplify all of the feelings floating around a home. The wonderful and the extreme, the good moments and the less positive ones. Talking about our favourite part of the day each night is a conscious effort to focus on the positive.

Our happy lists have been a great coping mechanism for everyone too and a gentle warning system for our home. There are many benefits to our happy lists and more details on how we use favourite parts discussed in full in the original blog post: How to Live, Work and Learn at Home All Day.

The best place to start

If the same issues or negative moods are coming up and resolution isn’t happening, we take it as an indication that we need to work on some emotional resilience together and this is how we do it. There’s also lots more cuddles, plenty of uplifting music and quiet moments with stories. Find a rhythm that works for your day and your family.

For very young children, here are some of our favourite books to help them identify their emotions. Almost all storybooks cover this to some degree. These books are direct and have really resonated with all of our children. Our younger daughter would sit and read the first book until it literally fell apart. It’s still going, although we should probably invest in a new copy. Our eldest got a lot of her emotional terminology from the second book and describes her “big” emotions as her weather.

  • Little Miss Austen: Emma - Emotions Primer The colours are vibrant. The text is simple. All of our daughters love this one so much it’s made it on to our “gifts for other children” list.
  • Exploring Emotions: A Mindfulness Guide to Dealing With Emotions This book uses the concept of emotional “weather” and a children’s sports day to cover lots of different emotions.
  • Children’s Spirit Animal Cards I’ve recommended these before on Our Daily Bookshelf. The art is lovely and the girls really enjoy picking out whichever animal they “feel” like for the day.
  • Making Faces by Abrams Appleseed A great one for very young children, it simply shows real photographs of baby faces.

As tempting as it is to throw snacks and post-it notes, apologies and thank-you’s at an emotionally charged situation, a quieter moment might make for a more lasting impression. Favourite parts is a really lovely way to end the day and a great place to start; it’s okay to say “I think we all had a hard time thinking of our very favourite part tonight, I’m looking forward to starting again tomorrow.” Then roll out the post-it notes, encourage lunchtime thank you’s and tackle those loud emotions before they overwhelm your family’s day.