May 9: Coping with Big Emotions
Updated: Aug 18
Over the past couple of weeks I have been hearing from lots of families about children and adolescents having increasingly intense emotional reactions. Some of these children struggled to regulate their emotions even before the quarantine, and other families have reported previously calm, mellow children who are suddenly being overwhelmed by feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness. If you find yourself in this situation, know that you and your family are not alone.
When people experience big emotions, more primitive parts of the brain have taken over and often reactions escalate quickly, going from 0 to 100 seemingly in a moment. As I have noted before, when children or adolescents become overwhelmed with strong emotions, often their reactions trigger frustration, anger, or desperation in parents. It can be so helpful to think about a ‘plan of attack’ so that you have some go-to strategies to fall back on next time your child is flooded with strong emotions.
· The first goal in these moments is ensuring the physical safety of everyone in the home. Make sure the child who is upset is in a safe space and that siblings and parents are safe, as well.
· Briefly express empathy: label your child’s strong emotions and let them know that you understand how upset they are. For example:
o “I can see that your body is filled with frustration”
o “Looks like you’re so, so upset right now”
o “You’re crying so intensely, this is really hard”
· Keep in mind, though that a key strategy when children or adolescents are melting down is to keep conversation to a minimum. When children’s brains are flooded with emotion, often they cannot process language effectively. Therefore, when parents talk it only serves to fuel the fire and increase or prolong the outburst. I can’t stress this point enough – if you are a very verbal person or tend to process your experience through language (which is true for many adults), come up with a cue to remind yourself that there will be time for conversation later. For example, say to yourself, “This is a meltdown moment – remember, talk less!” or just “Red flag – I need to use fewer words.”
· Once you have (briefly) expressed empathy, provide physical strategies to help your child discharge the negative emotions in a safe way. For younger children, that may mean doing 20 jumping jacks, throwing nerf balls in a yard or basement, squeezing a stuffed animal or some clay or putty, or yelling into a pillow. For tweens and teens, discharging emotion may involve going for a run, kicking a soccer ball, ranting to a caring friend or adult, or listening to intense music.
· So often intense emotions follow a pattern of rising like a wave, cresting, and then subsiding. After your child has discharged tension, it’s useful to identify calm down strategies for self-soothing and helping return to a calm state of mind. I recommend using a peaceful moment of one-on-one time with your child to brainstorm a list of self-soothing strategies. Post the list somewhere prominent so that your child can refer to the ideas independently, or ask teens to keep a list on their phones. I have attached a sample for use with younger children – you can add or delete ideas depending on your child’s preferences. Tweens or teens might like to write in a journal, take a bath, read, listening to soothing music or a calm audiobook, work on a project such as artwork or knitting, play music, meditate, or do yoga.