Managing Strong Emotional Reactions in Children and Teens
Have you ever been so overwhelmed with an emotion that it felt all-consuming? Like you were stuck in a deep, dark emotion pit without a ladder? When emotions take the reins, they can make it really hard to focus on the situation at hand, to process logical reasoning, and to problem-solve. The crippling impact of overwhelming emotion is even stronger for children and adolescents, because they are still developing neurologically and don’t have the same capacities as adults to self-regulate. So what is a parent to do when their child is swallowed up by fear, worry, anger, or sadness? Following are some tips to help you help your child manage strong emotions:
Address the Emotion
When children or teens are having meltdowns, many parents try to speak to them rationally. While parents do this with the best of intentions, the problem is that when somebody is in an emotional tailspin, the logical part of their brain is completely shut down. Even the most revelatory comment will go straight over their heads until the emotional arousal comes down.
So when emotion carries your child away, instead of trying to problem-solve, start by addressing the emotion. If they are too far gone to access language, label the emotion for them (e.g., “I can see that you are very upset”) and validate why they feel so upset, even if you feel they are behaving inappropriately (e.g., “I understand that you are really mad that you have to finish your homework before you watch TV”). Oftentimes having somebody acknowledge how you feel helps bring the level of the emotion down to a tolerable level, which then makes it easier to reflect, redirect, and problem-solve.
Help Your Child Ground
Another way to bring down emotional arousal is to force the brain to think about something else. “Grounding” skills are techniques that are designed to direct your focus to something occurring in the present moment, rather than having your brain carried off by emotion.
One helpful grounding skill is the 5 Senses Activity. Guide your child to identify:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can hear
- 3 things they can touch
- 2 things they can smell, and
- 1 thing they can taste.
In a pinch, you can do even simpler grounding activities, such as counting activities (e.g., How many light switches do you see in the room? How many tiles are on the floor? How many surfaces can you sit on?). Try it yourself right now – the more you have to focus on something in your immediate environment, the harder it is for your brain to get distracted by anything else, which gives your emotions time to cool off.
Preempt the Emotion
These first couple skills are for use in the moment, when the emotion has already taken over. In the long run, it can help to identify patterns and warning signs. Spend some time observing your child and getting a feel for common triggers. This can help you preempt significant escalations in emotion (for example, if your child tends to get “hangry”, save difficult conversations for after they’ve had a snack).
That said, it’s also good for children to learn to “build the muscle” of tolerating difficult emotion (the world won’t always be able to accommodate them as well as a parent can!), but this needs to happen in a graduated way. In calm, quiet moments, work with your child to help them identify when they tend to get upset and how they know their emotions are rising. What do they feel in their body? What thoughts go through their head? Once they become familiar enough with their own signs of emotional arousal, they can practice self-regulation skills before it’s too late, such as deep breathing, positive mental imagery, or separating themselves from a difficult situation. At first, you may need to help guide them to use these skills when you notice an uptick in emotional arousal, but in time, these skills will become more automatic, and they will be better able to initiate self-regulation strategies independently.
Model Self-Regulation Skills
Children learn about emotions from those around them. The more you are able to regulate your own emotions, the more they learn to do so themselves. This doesn’t mean being an emotion robot – many parents worry about their kids seeing them upset. What’s most helpful to kids is to see that it’s okay to feel these feelings (at safe levels), and that there’s something they can do about it. So when you’re upset about things, it’s healthy to let it show in front of your kids in small doses, to talk about your feelings in developmentally-appropriate language, and most importantly, to talk about what you’re going to do to help yourself feel more calm. Young children will enjoy joining you in self-regulation activities, such as the ones listed above, and it will be good practice for them to get into the habit!
Build Your Own Tolerance For Their Distress
While children are growing, their bodies are too small to handle the big emotions they sometimes feel. It is typical for children to have big reactions to strong feelings while they get the hang of self-regulation. The goal is to help them feel confident in their abilities to self-soothe, but this doesn’t happen overnight, and too much pressure to regulate faster than their bodies are capable of can hinder the process.
When your child is having a meltdown, remind yourself that they are doing their best in that moment, and you can continue to help them build their regulatory muscles when they are calm again. Take a few deep breaths, and trust that if you are able to stay regulated yourself in those most difficult of moments, it will help your child see that they are safe and protected by you even when they don’t feel safe and protected in their own bodies. And remind yourself that you are doing your best, too! Learning to self-regulate is hard work for everybody. It’s okay if it feels impossible sometimes. It will become easier in time!
Still too much?
As always, reach out to us if you need more information or help.