Take a Closer Look
Keeping our cool when our children lose theirs can be quite the challenge. It’s never helpful to pour our own emotional fuel onto the fire engulfing our kids. By keeping our own cool, we’re better equipped to identify when our child’s distress has escalated beyond the point when reason or problem-solving would be helpful (see Mindful Parenting). In this scene, a father wisely and without judgment gives his son room to vent his feelings before guiding him in how to handle emotional overload. Here are the key moments along the way:
Name Their Emotions
Encountering his son’s frustration, dad acknowledges the “strong feeling” his son is expressing, saying “I feel like there’s anger in you.” This may allow the boy to feel accurately seen and heard, although his level of frustration may block out his ability to take in his father’s empathic listening. Many parents at this point would have a hard time making room for their child’s emotion, probably telling the child to “calm down” or get a grip: “It can’t be that bad.” Words like these fail to acknowledge and accept what the child is experiencing, and because of that are rarely helpful.
As his son escalates into rage and sweeps books and papers off the table, dad feels stunned. He moves slowly and resists reacting to what he’s witnessing (see Don’t React — Respond). He again uses empathic listening (see Trusting Emotions) to name his son’s feelings: frustrated, upset, discouraged. At the same time, he knows his son’s logical brain has been hijacked by the emotional brain, and therefore temporarily out of reach (see Two Brains). That’s why he postpones challenging his son’s comment, “Why am I so stupid?” He wants to reassure his son that he’s not stupid, but seeing the boy completely in the sway of the emotional brain, dad holds off. He doesn’t want well-intentioned words of reassurance to be received as, “Dad doesn’t understand.”
Many parents witnessing an over-the-top emotional outburst might become angry and scold with “Pick those papers off the floor!” or “What are you getting so worked up about!” We tend to react quickly to our children’s emotional outbursts because their feelings trigger ours. When that happens, our logical brain has also left the room and we’re unlikely to respond at our best.
Acknowledge Feelings & Perspective
Dad keenly recognizes, after his son’s outburst of strong emotion, that a shift is needed. He pivots away from trying to encourage his son to tackle his math homework, and instead refocuses on helping his son cope with and regulate his strong emotions. This starts with acknowledging, without judgment or commentary, the son’s expressed feelings and perceptions. Importantly, this acknowledgement does not involve dad’s agreement with his son’s self-critical statements.
Take A Breather
Dad suggests they take a break and engage in something the boy finds soothing, to allow emotions to settle. He creates two teachable moments when he and his son return after tossing the football: first, that’s it’s good to know when we’ve reached an emotional boiling point and should step away to cool down. Second, how heightened emotion distorts our view of ourselves and the world around us.
Validate Their Emotions
In their post-football chat, dad also validates his son’s earlier frustration and upset when he says, “homework can be so frustrating sometimes.” This normalizes the boy’s feelings so he doesn’t feel ashamed for his big outburst. Dad turns what minutes before seemed a kind of disaster into an opportunity to expand his son’s emotional intelligence.
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Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.