How Can I Help My Child Offload Feelings of Hurt?

Q: My son is a very dynamic four-year-old. He is attached to me and has a younger two year-old brother. What I've noticed is that when we are doing Staylistening, he will sometimes rapidly control his emotions and improve his overall emotional state in such a way that he's able to go back to normal activities.

Then, it's not long before he rebounds and we have to go back to Staylistening. I can't tell if he's using this to increase the number of times we staylisten together, or if he just hasn't had a sufficient Staylistening experience to expunge the unpleasant emotions.

-A dad dedicated to Staylistening

A: It is so awesome that you are doing Staylistening with your son.  I have a few ideas that I think can help both of you.

The first thing you can do is ramp up the amount of Special Time you are doing with him.  I know it’s always tough to do special time when you have more than one.  It requires getting creative – looking at little bits of time that you might be able to carve out during the day.  You could put your 2 year-old down for a nap, or to bed earlier. You could hire a local 8th grader to watch your younger son a few times a week, or arrange play dates during which you and the other parent can switch off giving your kids special time.

The reason you want to do this is because our tools are most effective when you are using them in tandem. Doing lots of special time creates the kind of safety and connection that lets your son’s limbic system know it is safe to offload.  It also keeps your relationship in balance because during special time you are taking the less powerful role.

If you are primarily Setting Limits and Staylistening, your relationship is out of balance and your are ‘powering over’ him most of the time.

It’s great if you can do a short bits of special time more often.  So, for example if you are doing 20 minute Special Time sessions 2-3 times per week, try 5-10 minute sessions 2 times each day. Again, it will increase the safety, deepen your connection and he will have the natural limit of Special Time ending, so you may see more tantrums when special time ends. This is a good thing! That will be at least twice each day that he is bumping up against a limit, and this will give him lots of space to offload.

Again, it is only when you increase the safety and connection that his limbic system will relax into you enough to offload.

How Do You Set Limits?

Once you are doing more special time, you can look at tweaking your limit setting. Hand in Hand founder Patty Wipfler says to set limits early and often. At the first sign of off-track behavior, you want to move in and bring the limit to him. So, if you are stopping him from hitting his brother for example, you want to come physically close to him and gently stop him with your body – not just your words.

You don't have to say much when doing this. Too much talking will also cause him to tamp down the feelings. We all tend to talk too much to our kiddos (that’s why we recommend Listening tools). When we talk to someone who is attempting to release, it causes their cortex, the reasoning part of our brain to engage, and causes the limbic system to shut down and stop the release process. Here is a good reminder of what to say, or perhaps how little to say.

I am guessing that once he gets his emotions under control, you leave and go back to what you were doing? I would recommend that you stay with him. Have a kind of  “time-in.” You don’t have to explain it or justify it.  Just say, “Sweetie, we’re going to hang out together. I’ll play with you.”

It could even be a little spontaneous special time.

You are not staying close to ‘force’ emotions, you are staying close to provide connection and safety. It is great, at this moment, to make it playful.  Even if his emotions are ‘under control', you know he’s still off-track.  This is the perfect time to come in with a vigorous snuggle. Remember that laughter, too, offloads emotions.

Let's Get Physical!

You might also try some physical play at this moment. When he’s trying so hard to control his feelings, the physical closeness and release could provide his limbic system with the excuse or pretext to offload. Do be prepared for some extra roughness! Often when you are providing physical play, you might find that he gets too rough, which provides you another opportunity to set a limit. Or he may accidentally get a slight hurt, which is a perfect excuse for him to cry – and just the excuse his limbic system might need.

What you don’t want to do is keep setting one limit after another. This can feel like you are after a moving target, and yes, he will not be able to release the tension that is driving the off-track behavior.

So, you set the first limit and then stay close with a vigorous snuggle or wrestling. Either the laughter and connection will be enough so that he can play well, or his limbic system will find some pretext in the midst of the rough play to cause a tantrum or release.

Talk Around The Issue

The last and most crucial piece of this puzzle is that you need to get some listening time around all this! It’s amazing. When my son is stuck and I get some listening time about the situation, it feels like his limbic system picks up that I am more relaxed and am able to really be there for him. After listening, I am much more ready for whatever he needs to show me – no matter how big, how hard or how volatile.

When we are using the Hand in Hand listening tools we are communicating with our kiddos non-verbally. It’s possible that his limbic system is picking up on some fear and hesitancy on your part. When you get some listening time around the situation you can really explore all your fears around his volatility. Try imagining the very worst things happening.  See if you can have a really good laugh and cry about it. Then you really can be relaxed when you Staylisten and you can anchor him in the reality that it’s okay to feel and release these feelings. He will get it!

I hope all that make sense and helps. Here's a short recap:

  • Get some listening time around the situation
  • Ramp up the Special Time
  • Set the first limit and stay with him
  • Stay connected with rough physical play, especially the vigorous snuggle
  • Anchor him non-verbally or with very few words in the idea that he is good and that he will get through the feelings

You are an awesome parent. Your little guy is very lucky that you are willing to listen to him, and that you see what a tough time he’s having. Hang in there.  I know the two of you will figure it out.

Please let us know how it goes as you play around with these ideas.

From the Hand in Hand Toolbox:

Discover How To Set Limits In Five Words or Less

Read Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges for 100s of real-life examples of Hand in Hand's five connection tools in action.

Got sibling rivalry issues? Learn how listening tools can restore harmony in your household with our free Guide to Easing Sibling Rivalry


Join Kathy Gordon in an upcoming Parenting by Connection Starter Class and start getting the support you need to support your child well.

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