All parents understand that young children sometimes have big emotions.(#reasonsmykidiscrying, Ahem.) Whether it’s crying, yelling, foot stomping or something else, we’ve all been there, and we’ve all felt helpless at one time or another.
Children’s upsets can easily unravel a parent,” says Joan Morgenstern, a parent coach and educator at Senders Pediatrics in South Euclid. She says it’s common for parents to feel overwhelmed by the way their children express anger, sadness or other feelings. Emotional outbursts typically occur when kids’ desires are thwarted or when they act impulsively and are reprimanded for their actions.
To help parents handle emotional outbursts, Morgenstern offers the following advice.
1 Don’t classify emotions as good or bad. Instead, think of emotions as pleasant or unpleasant, Morgenstern says. Take anger, for example. It’s not bad, per se, but parents often treat it like it is. “The reason anger gets such a bad rap is because children are immature in the way they express it,” she says. “When we think of anger as necessary and important versus a bad emotion that needs to go away, then we begin to shift the way we respond to it. The idea of ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ is a game changer in how we show up to an angry outburst.”
2 Think about supporting your child vs. stopping the behavior. Emotions have their own lifespan, and interrupting the expression of them does not always work and may even fan the flames, Morgenstern says. Assuming everyone is safe, parents should consider where the upset is coming from, she says. “Ask, ‘How do we coach or support our child?’ versus the instinctive reaction to make it go away.”
3. Stay calm. An adult who is upset cannot convince a child who is upset to regulate his or her emotions. “We always want to say, ‘How can I model the state I ultimately want my child to return?’” Morgenstern says, recommending parents stop to take three deep breaths. “It sounds so cliché, but it’s best to calm our own central nervous system first,” she says.
4. Don’t take it personally. It’s powerful for parents to frame the experience as happening in front of them, not to them, Morgenstern says. “Upsets can feel like an assault on us personally,” she says, acknowledging it’s tricky not to feel offended when children are engaging in disrespectful behavior like sassiness or backtalk. Her recommendation? “It can be helpful to thank a child for sharing their feelings,” she says. “When we say ‘Thank you for letting me know how you feel,’ it reduces the trigger for the adult, and for the child, it lets them know that you validate their opinions, even the messy stuff.”
5. Coach kids to pause. After a trigger and an emotional outburst, there is often a moment of reflection where should-have, could-have, would-have thoughts arise, even in children. Morgenstern recommends teaching children how to recognize a trigger and pause before they respond, rather than afterward. “Children don’t have a lot of life experience, so their ability to pause in the middle (of a trigger and an outburst) is nonexistent without adult support,” she says. “So we give them grace for doing it afterwards, and we say, ‘Let’s do a redo. Someone took your toy, you didn’t like that, so instead of walloping them, what can you do?’” This tactic, called post-role-playing, gives the child new information when his or her brain can make sense of it, Morgenstern says.
6. If safety is a concern, act without creating alarm. If a child is hitting or throwing something, parents need to act quickly without hysteria. It’s a parent’s job to keep everyone safe but not make matters worse. “We’re going to say, ‘That’s not safe,’ without being threatening, alarming or pandering,” Morgenstern says. She also recommends that parents call out the actions they see, rather than shouting the child’s name. For example, say, “I see hitting,” rather than shouting “Billy!” The latter often makes the child defensive, which adds more fuel to the fire.
7. Have an anger plan. Although it takes advanced work, Morgenstern recommends parents proactively teach their kids safe ways to get their anger out. “If a child is a pincher, maybe you have sensory toys they can pull and pinch or a toy they can poke,” she says. “Or maybe they jump in place or give themselves a bear hug versus lashing out at someone else. With enough practice, it gives children a learned way to release that energy, so they’re ready to calm down and pause and reflect.”
8. Don’t hesitate to seek help. There is no wrong time to seek help if you believe you lack the skills to support your child, Morgenstern says. “Whether it’s talking to the pediatrician, looking for a parent coach or going the behavioral health route, think about how you might be able to show up in a way that optimizes your child’s well-being.”
Finally, Morgenstern notes that many adults will say, “I wasn’t parented this way, and I turned out fine.” She says the point isn’t whether or not the child will turn out fine. The point is to avoid denying, dismissing or diminishing children’s emotions so they can reach their full potential.
“We want to provide clarity and help them make sense of their emotions, so they become more self-aware and mature as they grow up,” Morgenstern says.