Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Kids are on an emotional rocket ship of big feelings. They’re blasting off when they’re excited, freefalling when they’re upset, and cruising like a coaster with the in-between feelings.
Because kids are still learning to regulate big feelings into balanced feelings, their behavior can often seem too big for the situation. Their developing brains can easily react to life situations with a fight or flight response. Kids need tools for calming their brain so they can restore self-control. That’s why we’re on Mission: Control! together!
Joseph’s gauntlet is a fun tool that parents can use to encourage kids to practice developing calming and coping skills when something feels “too much.”
What are Big Feelings?
We often recognize big feelings in a few different ways. We can see it demonstrated in behavior, for example, when a child throws themselves to the ground in a screaming tirade because they heard the word, “No.” We can also feel big feelings in our own bodies, through a rush of strong emotion, an increase in our heart rate, “foggy” brain, a clenched jaw, shallow breathing, or heat filling our faces.
All of these responses are part of your natural wiring as a human. When we understand that wiring, we can bring our awareness to the expression of our big feelings (internal or external!) and work with our bodies to restore calm.
Your brain is beautiful. It’s an intricate, complicated, powerful organ whose purpose isn’t only to keep you alive, but to do so in a meaningful and life-giving way. Let’s consider three simplified elements of our brain and how it works to serve this purpose.
Your thinking brain, also known as the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for your cognitive functions. This includes reasoning, making meaning of language, prioritizing, and delaying gratification. This is where you can make great decisions!
Your emotional brain, also known as your amygdala, is responsible for interpreting the life happening around you as life-threatening or not. Upon its interpretation, it will alert the rest of the brain on how to respond. This is where your feelings talk to you about their experience.
Your automatic brain, also known as your brainstem, is responsible for the functions you don’t have to think about doing, like breathing, sleeping, eating, and your beating heart. This is how you stay alive!
When your amygdala perceives a threat, it hijacks the brain and activates the brainstem in order to promote survival (through fight, flight, or freeze) and minimizes energy spent on non-survival tasks, like using your prefrontal cortex to communicate clearly, use reason or logic, and consider cause and effect.
If you are crossing the road and see a car headed straight for you, you don’t need to talk about it, reason through it, or prioritize your tasks for the day. You need to run. This keeps you alive in dangerous situations.
However, some situations aren’t actually dangerous, even though our brain perceives them as such. When you tell a child, “No,” or “It’s time for bed,” or even, “please share that toy,” their developing brain can interpret that objection to their core desire as a threat, not necessarily to their physical safety, but to their emotional safety.
Cue Big Feelings.
This is where I come in. I want to help you create opportunities for the child in your life to slow down this automatic response through fun tools, games, and activities. Shoot, you might find it helps you too!
Introducing The Gauntlet
In Mission:CONTROL! A Big Feelings Adventure!, Joseph is able to choose a button on his gauntlet to help him calm down enough to think through how to gain control of his Big Feelings. From multiple possibilities, Joseph chooses Breathe, which makes his head stop feeling funny and gives him clearer thinking.
I invite my clients to create their own gauntlets to use when they know they’ll have to do something that feels like too much. They personalize their own buttons by deciding what skills will help them calm so they can solve the problem. They also draw a picture of their future selves doing what’s expected and imagine how they will feel. Parents and children alike have shared how much this simple tool has changed their relational dynamics.
You and your kiddo can create a gauntlet just like the one Joseph wears in the story. He used his gauntlet to calm his big feelings about having to turn his favorite TV show off, but you can use yours for any Big Feeling you might face!
You might make one for every day of the week to help you do something hard.
You might make one to help you work collaboratively with each person in your family.
You might make one to help you with a certain activity or task.
Everyone in the family can make one!
You might make one for each family member that reflects a family value.
Design your own buttons; draw what you want to monitor. Color your gauntlet, cut it out, and wear it!
How Joseph Uses The Gauntlet
In processing this fight, flight, or freeze experience with his mom, Joseph learns from the inside out that he can be in charge of his Big Feelings. With the thrill of a newly discovered ability, Joseph contentedly winds down his day, imagining the possibilities that tomorrow brings. The gauntlet not only gives kids tools for managing their emotions, but provides safe and natural opportunities for conversations between caregiver and child.
How My Students Use The Gauntlet
When working with my clients, we talk through Joseph’s story, and I ask them if they can relate to having big feelings like Joseph. They might share with me times they’ve seen big feelings in others, and how that made them feel, and times when they’ve felt big feelings that became big actions. We talk together about how Joseph used his gauntlet to bring calm to his body so he could make good decisions. I invite them to make one, too.
The child decides how they would like to feel and in which situations they would like to feel that way. It might be focusing at school, listening when Mom speaks, responding kindly when asked to do something, following the rules, or remaining in control instead of giving way to big feelings.
Here are some creative examples of “buttons” kids have used so far:
Just do it
Say, “I got this.”
Ask for help
Think of others
Ask a teacher
Ask for a break
Pet a cat
Cuddle a stuffed animal
Listen to a story
Get a snack
Play a game for a distraction
Keep hands in pockets
Listen to music
Say, “I can do hard things.”
Say, “I’m safe.”
Say, “Go Robojo Go.”
Complete the task one step at a time
Do my best
Turn a fight into fun
Say, “Stay on track.”
Kids can also draw images on their buttons, such as a magnifying glass for focus or two faces talking it out. Whatever will best serve the child in their moment of challenge is the way to go!
Big feelings aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of our human experience. They communicate with us about what’s going on inside of ourselves and show us where we need more tools to support our goals. They tell us whether we feel safe or in danger. We need our big feelings! And we will spend a lifetime growing in how to manage them.
Kids are on an emotional rocket ship of big feelings. Since they haven’t had the time, development, or life experience to learn how to regulate themselves, they can end up responding disproportionately to the circumstances around them. What better time to give them tools than now? We can positively influence how their brains perceive and respond to triggers today.
Joseph’s gauntlet is a fun tool that has already helped many kids and their families practice calming and coping when life feels “too much.” Try it out today with your child, client, or student and let us know how it goes!