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Thursday, May 27, 2021

How To Help Children Manage Difficult Emotions


I was having a discussion with a mom who was concerned about her kids' ability to emotionally regulate. Her kids would cry a lot over what she felt were 'stupid' and 'little' things (her words) and she felt that her kids blew things out of proportion. She was concerned that because her kids were always crying over 'trivial' things they'd never learn to manage their emotions. She endeavored to teach them the skill of managing their emotions by imparting what she felt were important skills. She told them that tears are precious and shouldn't be wasted on small things. When she saw that her kids are crying about things she felt were unimportant she decided to teach them a mantra to repeat to themselves whenever they were upset-to tell themselves 'I won't be upset about stupid things, I won't be upset about stupid things' over and over and over again until the message sank in.

Needless to say this wasn't working, and the kids didn't learn to manage their emotions with that "flawless" parenting advice. All they learned to do was to hide their painful emotions from their mother and feel guilty about their feeling sad.

I feel terrible for these kids because kids need to grow up in an emotionally validating environment. When people, especially children, get told that their strong emotions aren't welcome, it doesn't help their emotions become regulated or managed, it actually leads to them having many emotional issues as an adult, especially emotional regulation issues.

I tried explaining to this mother that dismissing a kid's strong emotions will only backfire and that there are healthier ways to teach a kid to emotionally regulate that actually work but this mom held steadfast and refused to hear reason.

So I decided to write a blog post about this instead, to help readers learn how to help their children self-regulate and manage their emotions.

I have children that have strong emotions (what can I say, they get that from their mom who also is an emotionally intense person who didn't learn to emotionally regulate as a kid) and I wanted to share what works with my children, and what I hope will help them become emotionally healthy adults who can deal with difficult emotions when they arise.

The critical part in helping children regulate their emotions is to, as a parent, understand that all emotions are valid and all emotions are welcome, even if not all behaviors are. No emotions are stupid, period. If you tell someone that their emotions are stupid, or tell yourself that, that will just end up hurting them. First, you need to accept that they feel that way and that is ok. It doesn't matter if you think they are making a big deal out of something that you feel is trivial- if they are making a big deal out of that thing, it clearly isn't trivial for them. Everyone has their own values and even if something seems unimportant to you, your kid is allowed to feel how he feels- telling him not to feel that does not stop them from feeling.

Ok, so that was the internal work. And even if you don't believe it, act as if you do.

So let's say I have a kid who is upset, as this mom gave an example of a "stupid" thing to be upset about, because they didn't get the red lollipop and instead got the orange one, while their brother got the red one. 
I find this technique works best for children between the ages of preschool and elementary school. Of course some would also work for middle school and onward, but in my experience, at those ages kids aren't so open to talking about their emotions with their parents.

Before anything, the biggest no-nos in this process is at no point are you to say any of the following, or any variations of the sort:
  • Calm down.
  • Take it easy.
  • Chill out.
  • It's not a big deal.
  • Relax.
  • Just breathe.
Now that we have that out of the way...

First, I'd go over to the kid and validate their feelings. I would start that by naming their emotion, something kids sometimes have a hard time doing (and to be honest, we as adults sometimes have a challenging time with this). Sometimes we get these emotions wrong and the kid will correct us and tell us that we have it wrong. So I'd say "Josh, I see you're really frustrated that you got the orange lollipop instead of the red one." If I see recognition in Josh's eyes I'd continue with something like "You really like those red lollipops, don't you? The red ones sure do taste delicious and they're pretty. I see you don't like the orange ones as much." Depending on the kids' ages, they usually, at this point will nod or add on. But lets say they don't do that, or disagree with you, if they don't tell you how they actually feel, you can try to figure out what they are feeling, or maybe elaborate on what you previously said. "It must be hard when your sister got the color you really wanted; it's hard to not be jealous, right? And sometimes when we're jealous, we can get angry, right?" 

Once the kid sees that we understand how they are feeling, it already takes some of the edge off, because they know they aren't alone in their pain.

At this point, I sometimes ask them how big this feeling is. I give suggestions sometimes, with my hands spaced apart. "This big? No? How about this big?" I ask if their feelings are as big as their body, as big as the room, as big as the house, as big as the world, as big as from here to the moon, as big as from here to the sun, etc... Once my kids got used to these types of questions, they were able to differentiate how "big" their feelings were. Bigger feelings take more time to calm down from, but that is ok. And it also helps a kid understand different strengths of these negative emotions as well.

Now at this point in time, if my kid was hurting someone in anger, or doing some other destructive behavior, I'd tell them "I understand you're feeling angry and you're allowed to feel angry. But you can't hurt someone else/destroy someone else's things just because you're angry." Sometimes kids don't want to listen to this (hello, they're kids) but I do find that at least acknowledging their anger and their right to be angry helps lower the temperature of their anger.

If my kid is crying, I will tell them lovingly that they're allowed to cry, crying is a good way to let out our big emotions, and that Mommy also cries sometimes. Sometimes, if I am having a hard time myself and I can't handle the sound of their crying (I'm human, mind you) I might tell them "You have every right to cry, but my ears are hurting me right now; I need quiet. You can cry, but not right next to me. You can cry in your room, or in the backyard, or on the swing, etc. Just not right here."

Then I ask them if they would like me to help them calm down, or if they aren't ready for it yet. This is very important! You can't just tell a kid to calm down. Sometimes they aren't ready and telling them to calm down when they're upset is just as invalidating, even if you started off right. However, sometimes they are upset and want to calm down, but they need help to deescalate their emotions. If they say they aren't ready to calm down, give them that space. But tell them that when they want help calming down, they should let you know.

When my kid tells me they aren't ready to calm down, I offer them some options. "Would you like to cuddle with me? Do you want to swing on the yoga swing/the hammock? Do you want to draw your feelings? Do you want to listen to music?" Obviously, one at a time, and only offer the rest if the first one isn't appealing to them. Only offer ones that you are ok with. While cuddles often work quite well with my kids, sometimes mama's gotta have a break and I can't cuddle. 

If my kid chooses music, I ask them if they want music to reflect their mood or music to help them cheer them up- I have playlists on Spotify for both. I have sad music, angry music, and cheer up music, in addition to general relaxing music. 

Often, just by doing the suggestions above they are able to calm down on their own. But sometimes they are not able to fully calm down. But if they calmed down a little, I sometimes ask them again how big their emotions are, and see if they are any "smaller" than they previously were. And as mentioned above, I ask them if they want help calming down, and if they say yes I help them then.

I usually use some combination of CBT or DBT skills to help my kids calm down. I generally ask them which one they want to do, and guide them through that.
1) I suggest they wash their face with cool water. This actually has some scientific backing as to why it helps calm intense moods.
2) I have them do paired muscle relaxation techniques. I have them go through each body part, clenching the muscle and then relax it. For example, tighten and then relax the muscles in your foot, your hand, arm, leg, buttox, back, stomach, neck, face, etc... I usually don't need to go through all these before it starts working.
3) I have them do paced breathing. That means deep breathing with specific counts. For an adult you'd breathe in 5 counts, hold it for 5 counts, and breathe out for 10 counts, before repeating. With younger kids they might not be able to do that as long- then I have them do 5 counts for each, maybe holding their breath for 3 or 4 counts. This also often works after 30 seconds or less.
4) I give them some mindfulness technique questions. My favorite one is to tell them to name me 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can feel, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. This brings them out of their intense emotions and instead focus on the moment, which is a good method. It actually is one that I do myself when I need it.

Sometimes, if I see my kid is still having a hard time but is still calm enough to have a conversation with, I go through with them from a list of common cognitive distortions, and help them realize which false thoughts they are having. I have a kids' book that teaches about these cognitive distortions which I review with them when they aren't having intense moods, so that when they are in the moment they are already familiar with the terms so we can discuss them.

The cognitive distortions are as follows:
1) Overgeneralizations: Because of one thing that happens to us or to others, we draw the wrong conclusion about ourselves or others.
2) Black and white thinking: We want everything to be perfect. If one small thing isn't the way we want it to be we tell ourselves that nothing is good, that everything is as black as can be.
3) Mindreading: We assume we know what other people are thinking about us without asking them.
4) Predicting the future: We assume that we know what terrible things will happen to us or others.
5) Shoulds and musts: We think in terms of "shoulds" and "musts" about ourselves and others, even if it doesn't always make sense.
6) Comparing ourselves to others: We look at others and want to to be like someone else, forgetting that each person has their own life and own circumstances.
7) Filtering: We only look at the negative, what we don't have, instead of the positive, or the good we do have.
8) Catastrophizing: We're afraid something terrible is going to happen, even if its not logical to think that it will. We lose our ability to react normally and begin to feel worried even when there's really nothing to fear.
9) Labeling: We make decisions and label ourselves and others because of one or two events.
10) It's my fault: We blame ourselves or take responsibility for things that aren't connected to us.
11) Discounting the positive: We dismiss every positive thing that happens to us or compliments people give us by saying it was just luck/a fluke, or that they're lying.
12) Emotional thinking: When we feel an unpleasant or not good emotion, we take it as proof that the situation is actually fact, and not just our emotion.

Often we're having lots of cognitive distortions at the same time, and combined they make us more upset.

Let's take the above situation about getting an orange lollipop instead of the red one that their sister got. Cognitive distortions that can come up may be: 
1) Overgeneralizations- I never get the color lollipop I want. My brother always gets what he wants and I never do.
2) Black and white thinking- If I didn't get the color lollipop that I wanted, there was no point getting a lollipop at all.
3) Mindreading- My mom must love my brother more than she loves me.
4) Shoulds and musts: I should be getting that red lollipop instead of my brother. 
5) Comparing ourselves to others: Why don't I have the red one like my brother?
6) Filtering: Thinking only about the lollipop color and not the fact that I got a lollipop.
7) I'll never get the red lollipops.
8) Discounting the positive: Forgetting that I actually got a lollipop.

When you see all these cognitive distortions that can be going on, no wonder the "wrong" lollipop color makes the kid so upset. If the kid is calmed down, try having a conversation with them about these cognitive distortions and see which they feel are applicable, and remind them that these thoughts aren't the truth.

A very important point about this- do not tell your kids that their emotions are wrong because of these cognitive distortions. Do not tell them "you shouldn't be upset because you are catastrophizing- you will get a red lollipop in the future". No, that will basically mess up everything you did, because you are not validating their emotions. At most, just go through the list with them of types of cognitive distortions and let them acknowledge which of these are happening. And don't go through this list at a time of the intense emotions, only when they are nearly calmed down, or after the fact. (I made this bold because I want to make sure no one misses this if they skim.)

Will these tips prevent kids from strong emotions? Definitely not. Some people have just more intense emotions, period. But every time we do these techniques with our kids, they learn them, and then they can do them on their own and learn to calm their own emotions when they get intense. And when they learn these techniques it also can help their emotions be less extreme in the moment as well, because they have the tools to self regulate. Also knowing that their feelings are valid and don't feel shame for their emotions helps; when someone feels shame or guilt for their emotions, there's an extra layer of intense feelings that they need to go through to calm down. And also they feel that in order to get the attention they need, or to be able to feel heard, even by themselves, they have to feel really extreme emotions. But if their emotions are validated and accepted when they are "smaller" they don't generally intensify to the point of almost no return.

All the aforementioned tips and techniques also help us as adults to deal with our intense emotions- try them!

So to sum up.
First empathize with the kid, letting them know you understand how they feel. 
Second, help them identify their feelings and their intensity/size.
Third, let them know you accept their emotions and allow them to feel, while, if needed, putting down firm rules about behavior.
Fourth, give your kids tools to help calm down, or give them space/tools to express their emotions.
Fifth, sometimes, when a bit calmer, help them realize what cognitive distortions caused them to feel so strongly.

Yes, this is definitely more time consuming than telling your kid to shut up, stop crying, don't make a big deal out of nothing... But it is much more healthy and will teach your kids healthy emotional regulation techniques, and will actually give them the ability to manage difficult emotions. And it is worth all the time and energy.

And finally, a caveat. I'm not perfect. Sometimes I don't have the patience or energy to do this with kids. Sometimes I lose it. But at least I know what I should be doing and attempt to do it as often as possible.

What do you do to help your children manage difficult emotions? Do you follow any of these techniques, either for yourself or your kids?

6 comments:

  1. This is enormously useful. My own personal kid is grown up, but my husband tends to rage. (I'm not in danger but also really, really don't like being around him when he's that angry. My family handled anger very differently.) My usual technique has been to leave the room till he calms down, but I think this kind of approach (modified for an adult) might work better. And it would make his pain or hurt feel seen.

    I wouldn't try this if I was in danger, but I'm not.

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  2. Thank you for the great post. I don't have kids but even in my fourties I sometimes (actually, often) have cognitive distortions you mentioned. I will print it out and it will help me self regulate!
    Sana

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  3. Really great post! Can you share the name of the book about cognitive distortions for kids?

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  4. One of the best things I read today thank you for posting

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  5. I will be using this on my 10 year old and 10 month old alike I think. I’ve never been able to emotionally regulate as I was in a home where children were seen and not heard and now my 10 year old struggles with similar issues to me as my parents have helped me raise him until recently. I have changed many of my upbringing techniques with him and these will help immensely. Thank you!

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  6. This is so excellent. Seconding the request for the name of the book that you mention.

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