The Emotional Child: How Parents Can Prevent Outbursts

 

emotional childHow to Calm, Soothe & Eventually Prevent Outbursts

Have you ever felt so angry, you said or did something that later caused regret and sorrow? This is of course a rhetorical question as everyone “loses their cool” from time to time, with no real lasting ill effect on them or the others around them. Most of us are able to move in and out of irritable feeling-states so that they are proportionate to the event that evokes them. Discomforting feelings come and go, some more intense with longer recovery time while others are a momentary nuisance, quickly fading away. Maturity and some learned coping skills help greatly to manage these kinds of feelings.

Typical Shifts in the Family Emotional Climate: For teens, being justifiably grounded for a day is certainly not a happy moment, but with a healthy dose of denial, a splash of rationalization, or even a modicum of acceptance, most can grumble through it with little to no personal or familial disruption. Now, if instead of a day the grounding is to last for a week, the level of feeling thwarted and treated unjustly is likely to cause a raise in temperature. Coping skills begin to break down, and emotions start to overwhelm the once relatively amenable teen. Voices become raised, heated one-sided negotiations may take place, doors may slam, and the situation becomes rather intense and lasts significantly longer. One understands that with a major consequence—even if well earned—a nasty blow-up may occur. Still, some kind of tense peace may result and the teen will comply; eventually feelings can be processed and some real understanding and room for guidance results. The teen learns and modifies their behavior.

When It’s Always Hurricane Season: For some children and teens, though, emotions are not so easily tamed. They are exquisitely sensitive and react strongly to every issue. They think, feel and behave the same way if either grounding occurs, becoming overwhelmed emotionally, resulting in an intense and long-lasting outburst even for a minor consequence.The sense of proportion is lost. Last-second negotiations, reducing consequences, or even caving-in can’t stop it. Once the child is triggered, it may seem like the family has to “ride it out” until the outburst has run its course, or the child collapses in tears, orsimply exhausts themselves. Triggers can range from saying “no” to dessert, insisting that homework be done, to the break up with a boy/girlfriend — the intensity and quality of the outburst is the same.

Patterns Getting Locked-in: Parents often describe living with a child that has intense emotions as ‘walking on eggshells” or they may say, “We feel at a loss–our child controls the house with his anger”. These are signs that the family has unintentionally and unknowingly adapted to the child’s outbursts with typically well-meaning efforts to maintain a harmonious and stable environment. Unfortunately, this adaptation only serves to enable the child’s anger outbursts to have continued tyrannical sway and to thus maintain the current high level of family stress. Parents become exasperated and fluctuate between reactive hard limit-setting, bargaining, permissiveness, arguing back, and/or surrendering, searching for anything that will douse the fire. Teens lose all privileges and possessions, and still they bitterly rage on, refusing to respond to “incentives” to gain back their things. Parents, by now looking on-line at military schools and wilderness programs, may feel guilty and so they relent, hoping to clear the deck and start over. And start over it does. These shifting, inconsistent–at times desperate strategies serve only to recapitulate and reinforce the child’s emotional tirades by alternately rewarding and inflaming them. Mostly, though, the family and the teen are at a loss to restore control and stability, even in situations where hidden substance use, past loss or abuse, or deeper psychiatric problems are not at issue.

Looking Closer at the Cycle: Over time, the family gradually develops its own cycle of stress akin to what the child experiences, looking something like the following:

  • Build Up – stress begins to build with time as the daily and weekly demands begin to effect communication, flexibility, and general coping. Attempts at intervention by the parents are ignored, and seem to only cause irritation and more brooding on the part of the child, whose own coping skills are not yet engaged. The parents hope that they have been heard and that their teen will pull back on the throttle.
  • Anxiety – waiting for the outburst, which now feels inevitable, a matter not of “if” but “when” it will happen. Coping skills applied now may be overwhelmed. Parents become more punitive and shrill, or else cave in and run for cover.
  • Event – the emotional outburst happens, escalates, and peaks, possibly resurging in response to efforts to control and/or soothe. Walls have obtained holes, many hurtful words have been said, and emotional barriers may go up.
  • Make up – as the storm subsides, parents and child regroup.  Each may experience guilt, sorrow and sadness as a result of how they handled the situation. No new coping skills are learned, however, and one senses that it is not even a matter of “skills” per se. Change must come at a deeper level because perhaps we are dealing with a different kind of child altogether, one for whom typical or previously-successful parenting efforts may not reach.

It is important to understand how you and your child are participating in this process together, therefore the solution now must now become systemic. Often, parents can lose their ability to empathize with their child’s plight as the child becomes the flash-point of the family’s acute stress cycles. Parenting skills and the child’s internal means of self-soothing need to be altered so that change occurs with everyone.

Your Child’s Self-Regulation Starts With You

To begin, it is important to note that you are working hard at finding ways to remedy the stress and discord in your home, as evidenced by you reading this article. You have clearly spent the time to find this website and are actively searching for answers. You may be feeling a sense of futility, frustration and despair. You are not alone in this as your child probably shares these feelings and would also like nothing more than to stop the cycle of stress, anger, and sorrow. Parents can do much to help their Emotional Child begin to learn how to regulate their emotions.

Communicate With Clarity, Not Judgment: It is important to keep the content of communication consistent with the delivery of the information. I think we all can struggle with mixed messages, either when giving them or how responding when we receive them. For children and teens that are more sensitive emotionally, this can become a frequent trigger and may be contributing to the escalation process between parent and child. Remember, you are asking your child or teen to improve their communication and expression of frustration, anger, disappointment, etc. If you are engaging or have adopted a reactive communication style because of the ongoing and chronic frustration between you and your child, then you are sending a mixed message. In short, it’s akin to screaming at your child  “CALM DOWN!!!!”  The message is “calm down” but the affect (facial expressions, body posture, volume and tone of voice) contradict the message and will likely result in a defensive reaction.

The parent’s ability to manage their own frustration and model appropriate emotional expression is essential in providing an example of how to communicate and resolve conflict. For many parents, the challenge becomes shifting from a reactionary, judgmental style to a more responsive, calm and validating approach, especially when the child continues to have emotional struggles.  Avoid using descriptors such as “never” and “always” as these words tend to be invalidating, as they are overly-absolute and dismissive of times when your child has behaved constructively. Telling your child, “You are SUCH a good boy” when they clean up their room may not be as helpful as saying, “Thanks for doing what I asked you to do,” because you are emphasizing their positive choices and actions rather than their “goodness” today—and “badness” tomorrow. Going from saying, “You’re behavior is SO inappropriate!” to “That behavior is not helping us find a solution here, let’s work together” is a big step in a better direction, too, as it avoids labeling them as defective, encourages them to stay on-track, and that you are trying to help, too. Think about some repetitive phrases you use when dealing with your teen and see if you can’t come up with some less judgmental ways of putting things. Dump destructive words like “lazy” “stupid” “lousy” “good-for-nothing” “difficult” and “terrible”. Even words that appear benign, such as “good” “great” “perfect” or “terrific” can be verbal junk if not tied to something specific that aids your child in understanding why you make such an appraisal. For example, instead of generically saying, “Good job son!” you can instead say or add-on something like, “When you make the time to study you see the results you get,” or, “I liked it a lot that you felt comfortable coming to me for advice about that”.

 

Even at difficult moments, try to help your teen communicate more clearly as well. When they hurl at you the eternal insult, “You are __________ ” you can say, “I see that you are very angry with me, but what you are saying is hurtful” and/or “I’m interested in working this out with you but we need to do it in a calm and thoughtful way.” Diffusing the anger in the interaction is first priority so that the issue can be discussed and potentially remedied. This may mean giving your teen space and time so that they can regroup and engage in a discussion later. When the anger has subsided, you can come back to the problem and let them know you are willing to humbly listen and problem solve providing the interaction remains a respectful and collaborative.

Revise the Headlines: Just as you can predict some triggers will make you angry, you can predict that tensions will rise with your emotional teen. Sometimes we go into these situations full of blame, anger, and judgment. We see the child as a nuisance, as troublesome, as bad.  This is not really accurate and only serves to perpetuate a general tension and reactive parent/child relationship. It is more helpful to take an empathic stance, to see them as hurt, as lacking some important skills, as having a sensitive and volatile neurobiological system, and as ultimately wanting to love and be loved. To help make these shifts in appraisal, ask yourself the following questions—some sample answers are provided, ones which offer a more positive, reflective, emphatic manner of reframing the negative portrait we may have of our kids:

What would motivate my child to willingly, intensely and frequently become rageful, despondent and inconsolable?” (Probably nothing, they may just be conditioned to respond this way by now; I see them get along so well with friends, teachers, other relatives—so this behavior is not all of who they are; this is no fun for them either)

Is there a gain for their outbursts (i.e., they are manipulating), or do they receive nothing other than negative feedback from their most primary attachment figures (i.e., family members)?” (It almost always results in negativity, though we as parents may reward and thus maintain it to some degree; they work well for rewards in other situations without having a tantrum; maybe they have troubles about which I am unaware that lead them to act this way).

Are the emotional outbursts resulting in a positive or constructive outcome in which a problem has been solved within reasonable context?”  (No, it is only a brief honeymoon until the next explosion; they are pleased and proud when they earn a good grade or get a trophy for their skill or hard work; maybe I add to the negativity with some things I do or say, although I don’t mean to do that; maybe my teen doesn’t mean to do that either).

If by having ongoing emotional outbursts the response is constantly negative, why is the behavior continuing?” (We are not going about it in a productive way, we need to change that; We can work together on a solution; even if we can do 15% better at this it will be a hopeful improvement; I am going to change how I participate in this and have some faith that this will eventually help the entire process to change).

Maybe now that you have done some reappraisal you can make your way to seeing that your child is not engaging in a dark, Machiavellian plot to make your life miserable. Instead what you have is a child that doesn’t have the skills to manage their feelings, and who suffers like you as a result of that; you can understand that you have all fallen into a behavioral swamp against your will and best intentions, but one which you are now ready to start climbing up out of.

The Emotional Mind: Quite puzzling are our emotions. William James asked, “Do we run because we are afraid, or are we afraid because we run?” Pain, fear, sadness, joy, and anger are not experienced exactly the same for all of us. People run “hot” or “warm” or “cold” and even that may vary depending on the day or the issue. For example, one child may fall down, skin their knee, brush themselves off and jump back into the fray, the scrape a bruise of honor; while another child may whimper and seek comfort before glumly resuming play; while yet another may break out into a robust cry that continues long after comfort is provided and then they may or may not be able to start back up. The variations are seemingly endless.

As living human organisms, our senses and basic neurobiology are quite similar, yet we still respond, react, and recover diversely, as individuals, to varied emotional input. Our perception and experience affects how we interpret events, which can modify our initial response by either filtering it down or amping it up. This more cognitive dimension of emotions is yet highly subjective, but in many situations holds the key to determining if a situation is going to subside or escalate, and how much in either direction. Our minds can and do decide about emotions by implementing controls, by evaluation of circumstances, and by willfully restoring rationality or reason into the mix. As we do this, we can feel our biology settle down, or, if we get practiced enough, we can manage the biology so that it does not get very stirred up at all, but still provides us with enough of a signal that we know our thinking side needs to get involved. We might accomplish this self-regulation of emotions naturally via guidance, maturity, or spiritual practice; for some it comes as a result of excesses and limit-setting that more or less forces one’s hand. In either case, emotions need not be experienced in all-or-nothing absolutes, rather they can be thought of as occurring on a continuum, ranging say from 1 through 10, or on a spectrum of colors.  The question then becomes, “How do I help my emotional child learn to self-regulate and manage their feelings appropriately?”

Looking Within: One way is to start with yourself and ordinary things that get you angry, things that don’t involve your family. First, when you are getting mad, notice what triggers it and how it manifests in your body. There are probably particular triggers that set you off, such as if someone is rude or if you make a repetitive mistake. You can predict that you are going to get angry, in other words – you are in front of it and you have time to intervene, perhaps even several seconds. Next, pay attention to how the anger starts—is there a thought involved or is it all in the body? You might think, “Oh, this #*&% again—I’ve had it with this!” and thus permission is given to the body to have at it. Or, it may start as muscle tension in the neck, arms, or gut that quickly spreads and becomes agitated pacing about, then screaming or fists pounding on a wall. As this is going on, the mind might be saying, “No! No! No! I hate this #@*%. You are not going to get away with it! I have every right to blow on you for this! “Ask yourself if you really like that feeling of being angry, or, if truth be told, it is an awful, almost sickening state for your body and soul to be in, one from which little good is likely to result.

Once you have logged all of this information, start by picking your place to intervene. If it is something predictable, say someone cuts you off on the road, get out ahead of it, calmly tell yourself, “Another rude guy – I’m not getting angry about it anymore” or, “His rudeness doesn’t mean I am entitled/bound to be all pissed off now,” though you may still need to also use some other techniques we are about to discuss. If you start with thoughts, say the one up above, talk back to it, say with something like, “I’ve had it will all this—including my rage about it!” If you start with a physical component then you can take several approaches, all of which involve some aspect of relaxation, of not-rising up to the rest of the body. You can tell your ever-more-turgid neck muscles, “Relax! Let it go!” and either imagine the muscles going slack, or take a deep breath and let it out, feeling the muscles release the tension; continue with a few more breaths until the tension really subsides. Let your mind jump in with thoughts that are positive and praising, such as about how good it feels not to put your body and soul through a full anger cycle, and about how well-done it was, and how hopeful you feel about controlling anger at other times and in other situations. Afterwards, think about what you gained from not getting angry as usual, e.g., saved time, energy, didn’t get embarrassed, didn’t break things, didn’t say things you’d regret later, etc.

Now practice with some family situations, first by imagining a typical or recent scenario that gets you mildly-to-moderately angry; this might feel a little artificial at first, but if you let your mind talk you into it, you’ll conjure up enough anger responses so you can similarly work with your mind and/or body to keep the anger from welling up and taking over. Practice on a more powerful scenario and see how that goes; if you feel yourself getting too worked up, don’t worry because now you can practice calming down. Imagine that as you are getting worked up you say to your teen, “OK, I’m done talking about this now. We’ll talk more later” and see yourself walking away to your room, outside to the yard, or onto a beach in the Bahamas. Breathe, feel the tension flow out, breathe, tell yourself you are ramping down your anger and slipping into the calm, cool, crystalline blue ocean far from your job, your family, and all that irks you….

You’ve just done an outstanding job of unplugging from a situation that can only go poorly, and by doing so you have done a lot of good for yourself and your teen. Remember, if you are trying to stay calm and it is not working, you have the option to step back and pursue the topic later.

These practice sessions will come in very handy as we move on to deal with reality. Try practicing in mild-moderate conflict situations and see if it helps you and the situation to keep from getting as heated as it might have gotten in the past. Don’t say anything to anyone yet, just see how it goes. Once you get the hang of it, and if you think it has helped, find a relatively calm time to introduce the subject to your teen, and let them know how you have been working on controlling your anger. They might have noticed already, and perhaps they might even say so. Or, they may not have noticed any difference, but you can still say that it made you feel better to not get so mad. Propose that the rest of the family learn and practice some of these simple methods, and promise to help remind each other to put them into play when the time comes. Remember that if the anger level still gets too high, that the “discussion” will stop and will be taken up later when everyone has calmed down, with no decisions being made about the problem “under discussion”.

Think and Reflect rather than Snap or Withdraw: I often hear from parents that upon picking their teen up from school, they are met with abrupt monosyllabic armored responses at all attempts to engage and talk about their day. Nonetheless, their teen is quick to respond to incoming texts from their friends, and similarly reject any efforts to find out who or what all the fuss is about. Hurt, frustration, and feeling dis-respected are common and understandable responses to being repeatedly snubbed, but a parent with an Emotional Child will not profit by injecting their own feelings into the mix. One instead might ponder, “What is my child’s behavior telling me? Clearly, my teen is not very talkative but why?” The more you try to find out why, the more unlikely it is you will get to the reason, and the more likely it is you will quickly become ensnared in a nasty power struggle that will set the tone for a tumultuous evening ahead.

In this situation, it is important not to make assumptions as to why your teen is curt, and not to take it personally. Take a deep breath and let any anger or hurt flow out of you as you gently and gradually exhale. Comment objectively and briefly on the interaction, hoping but not clutching for positive results. “We don’t need to talk now, but I would like to hear about it if you want to talk later”. Here, you are responding to the behavior in the moment but being mindful not to judge it as “bad” or to take it personally. You are not snapping back, acting hurt, or being sarcastic. You are not tossing gasoline on a smoldering campfire. You let them know you are responding to their request to drop it, but remain interested in their day and invite them to talk about it if and when they choose to do so, perhaps selecting what is important and relevant for them to bring to you later on. Or not. You have stepped back without stepping away.

Your teen may not say anything in response to your comment, or they may smugly say something like, “I’ll never want to talk about it,”or “you wouldn’t understand anyway.” Breathe again and just move on. If they curl up and turn aside, or if they put in their ear-buds and crank up the iPod, take that as a sign that what they need from you right now is not any kind of stimulation or effort to connect, but just peace, quiet, and a few moments to transition out of a day that might have been full of age-appropriate social drama, academic stress, or weekly fatigue. Even though you’ve been through it all and could probably give them some really great advice and support — just leave it alone. Know that by even saying or doing nothing right now, your empathetic forbearance alone is providing them with a chance to soothe themselves and settle down. Your presence is a necessary ingredient, though your teen might decry that fact. You have given validation, offered support, provided choices, as well as modeled healthy, caring, empathetic communication all on the trip home from school.

Let’s take a more difficult scenario, for example a serious curfew violation the very same night that a progress report arrived with 2 D’s and a Fail. Your teen arrives home 1 hour past curfew and says, “I know I’m in trouble. I don’t want to hear about it right now.” As the parent, one could justify lots of anger and punitive recriminations, which would only escalate your child. So, breathe deeply and try to keep the anger from interfering in the important parenting work you now need to do.  I would suggest not having a very long discussion about it at this point in the evening, emphasizing that the brief talk will not be about punishment or being in trouble, but rather about understanding what is going on and trying to find a helpful solution. If you have already introduced the anger control strategies to your teen this might be a good time to suggest using them to calm down so there can be a productive, emotionally safe brief discussion about the curfew violation, the progress report, and positive interventions to address and resolve current/future challenges as they arise, rather than deny or avoid them.

You might have been wondering already about what is going on and why your teen is seemingly going haywire. Or, is all this somehow tied together. What could the progress report and curfew violation have to do with one another? A straight-forward and empathetic interpretation might be that the teen is really scared how you will take the poor grades and so they avoided coming home in order to also avoid the confrontation. So, by staying calm you have been able to explore and discuss the issue in a caring way; model balanced and thoughtful problem solving skills; and establishing a positive and collaborative communication style for future difficult or challenging situations. The child will still get a consequence for the curfew violation, but more serious thought needs to be given to the school situation, and assisting the teen to improve their learning and achievement. It will take some investigation to decide if the issue is about some other distraction in the teen’s life, a problem with teachers or peers, or if there is a possible depression that has set in due to a loss or other event that is eroding the teen’s concentration, energy, or motivation. Keeping the emotional tone at an even level will allow this important process to take place.

Most families do not drastically shift from harmony and balance to strife and acute stress. This change occurs due to ongoing frustration and conflict. The same is true for progress as the parents start to shift the family back to a higher state of functioning through calm, contained, responsive, and consistent parenting. The tools described here (communication, empathy, and measured, reflective responding) can be of great help in restoring emotional balance to a family’s process. The rules, limits, boundaries and expectations may not need to change, more than likely it’s the way they are delivered that will reduce disputes, encourage compliance, and exemplify healthy emotional expression.

It is my hope that some of these suggestions might help your family to function better. If you find that additional help is needed, please reach out to me or to another practitioner to assist your family in moving towards those goals.

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