In the process of raising my children, I am constantly being confronted with rather strong emotions. My family is made up of passionate, emotional, sensitive, strong-willed, and impulsive people (myself included). As you can imagine, emotions can run high, and what may seem like small problems or encounters can quickly escalate into full blown meltdowns.
While I was growing up, I learned that it was okay to express the pleasant emotions, but no one needed to know about the unpleasant ones. We never really got to the bottom of why we felt sad, depressed, frustrated, or ashamed. Somehow, we had to figure it out on our own. So, mostly we would sweep everything under the rug, where resentment would build.
Thus, when I became a mother, I had not developed the tools by which to handle an emotional family. The default mode was yelling—which I hated—and I soon learned that yelling or punishment seldom worked and at most was a temporary fix. It never got to the source of the upset and would leave everyone feeling terrible.
Timeout was a joke, unless I was prepared to tie my child to the timeout spot, they weren't about to stay in timeout, and I really did not understand the purpose of it as a discipline tool.
So I turned to other mothers, friends who seemed to have it together, books, and workshops. I even started a monthly spiritual parenting group at my home where parents could come together and discuss ways to raise children in a way that was compassionate, yet firm.
One of the books I was fortunate to come across at the time was Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.
I came to understand that our emotions are like our internal GPS—a built-in navigation system that helps us make our way through life’s ups and downs.
The way I understand it, emotional intelligence is the ability to become aware of one’s emotions, to control and express them appropriately, and to recognize emotions of others, in order to build healthy interpersonal relationships.
Helping people better manage their upsetting feelings—anger, anxiety, depression, pessimism, and loneliness—is a form of disease prevention. ― Daniel Goleman
Teaching emotional intelligence sometimes seems in contrast to the messages we get from society. We are taught to deny negative emotions and avoid or control them. “Being emotional” is seen as a negative thing. Girls are emotional and that is seen as a weakness, while boys are taught to be tough from an early age. An emotional boy is teased and ostracized.
Research shows us that our emotions are hardwired into all of our interactions. When we learn to become aware of all of our emotions and ways in which to manage them, we are less likely to be hijacked by them and behave in inappropriate and harmful ways. So instead of teaching children to “get over it,” we should help them identify what they are feeling and give them tools to better handle their emotions.
Start really early on by teaching children that emotions give us information about what is going on in our lives, and if we can learn to sit with our emotions and figure them out, instead of denying them, we become more self-aware and able to find healthy ways to express ourselves.
Below are a few tools I have picked up over the years when dealing with my children’s emotions and feelings.
Bring Awareness to the Feeling—Name it.
“When awareness is brought to an emotion, power is brought to your life.” – Tara Meyer Robson
For most of us, it is challenging to identify or name what we are feeling. This is something I learned to do after having children. Imagine how much harder that can be for a child.
Include the language of feelings by making statements like, “you look nervous,” “that must be overwhelming,” “that math problem seems frustrating.”
By bringing awareness to different kinds of feelings, we can help children develop a vocabulary for their feelings, which inevitably leads to self-awareness and the ability to communicate how they are feeling.
As we bring awareness to feeling we can also introduce children to the subtleties of their feelings: the difference between mad, frustrated, hurt, and let down, or happy, proud, excited, and cheerful. We can help them identify complex feelings beyond happy, mad, and sad: brave, cheerful, confused, proud, excited, uncomfortable, content, worried, fantastic, shy, peaceful, anxious, etc.
When we are having a challenging time and can identify exactly how we are feeling, it makes it easier to come up with a solution.
Acknowledge and Validate Feelings
Validating feelings can help create connection and solve the problem. I found that whenever I remembered to begin discussing a problem by validating my children’s feelings, it was easier to engage their cooperation afterward in solving the problem or unpacking the problematic behavior.
Validating feelings helps decrease anxiety around what could be overwhelming emotions for children. It teaches them that it is okay to have strong feelings. “You must be really sad that your best friend is moving away,” or “Looks like you are really angry with your sister right now. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Children do not always know what they are feeling, so make a guess. Let them know that when they are ready to talk about it, you are there for them. Ask them what would help solve the problem, or just listen and validate. For younger children, they may just need you to hold them (or give them space). It is important that children are allowed to feel what they feel. Our job is to help them process those feelings.
“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone.’ ” – Brene Brown
Empathy is a powerful life skill we can pass on to our children. By modeling it, we teach them how to emphasize with others. As we reflect on how they are feeling, we can make statements like, “I didn’t realize you felt that way;” “If that happened to me I would be pretty hurt;” “I remember when I was your age, and my best friend moved away--I cried for days;” “I too feel really embarrassed when I am called on in an office meeting and I am not prepared to speak.”
Give them a language by which to communicate how they feel.
“Emotional self-awareness is the building block of the next fundamental emotional intelligence: being able to shake off a bad mood” ― Daniel Goleman
Children don’t always know what to do with their feelings and may act out in inappropriate ways. We can teach them from an early age how to express how they are feeling and make a request, rather than act out. Here is a tool I picked up for young children: Bugs and Wishes. ”It bugs me when you take my toy without asking. I wish you would ask first.” For older children, teach them “I statements,” like the following: “I feel ____ when you ____. Can you please ____?”
There may be times when children’s requests cannot be met. For instance, a child states that they feel frustrated or angry when they have to stop what they are doing in order to move onto the next thing (like getting in the car to go pick up their sister). In this case, you can validate their feelings and challenge them to adapt.
Teach them that feelings come and go
“…feelings need to be recognized for what they are: temporary, changing conditions. They are states, not traits. They are like the weather. Rain is real and we’d be foolish to stand in the downpour and act like it wasn’t really happening, but we’d be just as foolish to expect that the sun will never reappear.” ―Daniel Siegel
The expectation that one should always be in a state of happiness is not realistic. Our quest for happiness while denying other important human emotions can be unhealthy. Instead of denying our feelings, we can remind ourselves that emotions are temporary, and then it may be easier to deal with them and move on. So as we validate and acknowledge feelings, we can also teach children that the negative emotion they are feeling is temporary.
Like joy, sadness and anger have their place and need to be felt and processed. The important thing is to teach children how to express their feelings in appropriate ways that do not involve hurting themselves or others.
Focus on Sensory Cues
Focus on what they are seeing, hearing, and sensing. “I have a knot in my stomach.” “I am so scared to go on stage.” Parents can then ask questions like “What does the knot feel like?” Or make statements like, “Going on stage can be scary. I remember the first time I went on stage…” This way you validate their feelings and show them your empathy by sharing your story.
Children can learn to recognize “butterflies in their tummies” as a sign of nervousness and anxiety, or clenched fists, tight jaws or increased heart rate as signs that they are getting frustrated or starting to get mad or scared. Help them identify the cues that their bodies are giving them and introduce them to tools and strategies to use.
Take Time to Cool Down
Do NOT try to solve the problem if either you or your child are emotionally charged.
This is a good time to take a break. Jane Nelson in her book Positive Discipline advocates for a positive time out. It is okay for all parties involved in an altercation to take a break and cool down.
Often, parents feel they must solved the problem immediately and watch as things escalate. I’ve been guilty of that too many times.
Research shows that when feelings are intense, our emotional brain takes over and the rational brain has a hard time communicating with the emotional brain. This is when our fight or flight reflexes kick in, the ability to reason goes out the window, and yelling, kicking and screaming ensues. I repeat, take a break. Discuss it when everyone has cooled down. You will get better results.
Teach Tools to Deal with Intense emotions
When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join with their chaos. — L R Knost
Children as well as adults can express their emotions in ways that may be inappropriate and problematic. It is important to teach kids that feelings are okay, but sometimes how we express them is not. We can teach them to solve problems with words instead of throwing things or hurting people. They can ask for help to solve a problem, take deep breaths, count to 10 when they start to get angry or frustrated, find a quiet space, write it down or listen to music. We can teach mindfulness and meditation practices from an early age to assist them in dealing with strong emotions.
Brainstorm with your children about different ways to solve the problem or help them think about the above mentioned tools and how they can use them for different situations. You may be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they come up with. By exploring strategies in advance, they will have them handy when different situations arise.
“Emotional competence is the single most important personal quality that each of us must develop and access to experience a breakthrough. Only through managing our emotions can we access our intellect and our technical competence. An emotionally competent person performs better under pressure.” –Dave Lennick
In his junior year of high school, my son experienced many challenges, which often showed up as emotional outbursts at home. We were at odds a lot. On some days I was able to guide him better than on other days, but occasionally I simply lost it and provoked him further.
One morning, during one of our interactions, he blew up at me and yelled, “What do you want from me?” I wasn’t able to respond because I didn’t know the answer. I spent all day thinking about it, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on with him. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on the emotion and neither was he.
When he returned that evening, after we had both had plenty of time to cool down, I called him and said something like, “I don’t know what is going on with you, but what I am sensing is apathy. Do you know what that means?.” He nodded and sat down and we talked.
At some point that day it occurred to me that perhaps the mounting pressures at school may be causing him to give up on himself and his dreams. Bringing awareness to it opened the door for an important conversation. By identifying it, we were then able come up with strategies to get him back on track and help him move past it.
This has been challenging work for me personally because I didn’t grow up with these tools, but I feel strongly that learning with my children how to handle our emotions has strengthened our relationship. I hope these tools will help them as they move through life.
What are some of the ways you deal with intense emotions?
Please share, I’d like to hear from you.