Strategy #3 Coping strategies for out-of-control emotions

Over the past few weeks, we have been talking about simple strategies for parents to help their children express emotions. While identifying emotions is essential, we all know that there will be times when emotions get out of control, or when they become too intense to calmly discuss together. This week, we’re sharing strategies for out-of-control intense emotions:

What to do and what not to do when feelings get out of control: DO reinforce boundaries to ensure your child’s safety. DO validate your child’s feelings (eg. “I can see that you are very upset right now”). DO try your best to remain calm, and to respond rather than react. DO redirect your child to a safe space where they can take some time to calm down and focus on breathing. DON’T punish the feeling. Make sure that any punishment is targeted at unhelpful strategies for dealing with intense feelings, and not the feeling itself. In other words, help your child to understand that they are getting in trouble for drawing on the walls, but not for feeling angry. After your child has calmed down, DO brainstorm with them about some more helpful ways that they can express their intense emotion next time. DON’T lose hope. Tantrums are very challenging to deal with, but remember that by taking the time to help your child process their intense emotions, you are building strengths and resources that will equip your child for a lifetime of healthy emotional expression.  

Use breath to deal with intense emotions: When intense emotions like anger, sadness, fear, or frustration are in full swing, our bodies go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our stress response becomes aroused, and when we are in this state we can’t think straight or process information at the level we normally do. When we ask our children to “use their words” when they are experiencing intense emotions, we are actually asking them to do something that they physically cannot do. Before children can use their words, they need to physiologically calm their limbic system. How can they do this? By breathing deeply. Instead of entering into a verbal confrontation with your child or attempting to reason with them about the cause of their intense emotion, try sitting with them and helping them to focus on their breathing. Once they are breathing consistently again, then they can talk with you about what’s going on and consider logical alternatives. There are many amazing tools to help children (and adults) learn how to use their breath. One of my favourites is the glitter mind jar. Here’s a link for how it works and how to make your own at home:

Debrief after emotional outbursts or tantrums: After your child has had time and space to calm down, it is crucial to debrief together about what happened. The connection with you and the verbal processing of what happened is essential for your child’s development of healthy emotion regulation. First and foremost, affirm your love for your child. As you talk about the outburst or tantrum, remember that your child needs to learn that it’s not bad to have emotions like anger or frustration. These emotions are part of life! What matters is how we deal with our intense emotions. Try to identify any positive responses or strategies you saw from your child and give them affirmation. If there aren’t any, then remind your child that dealing with emotions is hard and we’re all learning all the time. Remind your child that you are there to help them. Brainstorm together about what might work better next time.

That’s it for this week. Until next time, remember to keep breathing, no matter what kinds of emotions show up at your house!