My Child is Out of Control: How to Teach Kids to Manage Emotions

My Child is Out of Control: How to Teach Kids to Manage Emotions

Most parents  would love to see their kids manage their intense emotions  without falling  apart or taking their frustrations out on others. It’s hard to  watch your  children react to their upset feelings by flying off the handle,  holding a  grudge, complaining or insulting the people around them when their  emotions are  running high. As parents, there are times when we simply don’t  know what to do.

Let’s face it, it can be hard for all of us to manage our emotions. We all  lose it from time to time or let our feelings get the better of  us. And few children manage their difficult  emotions—emotions like  disappointment, fear, anger, hurt or frustration—very  well. The difference  between adults and kids is that we’ve learned how to cope  with these feelings  appropriately, and kids haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.

Related: How to stay calm even when your child is losing  it.

What This Looks Like

What does  that look like?  They have temper  tantrums, cry, pout, lash  out at other people, panic, break things, take their  anger out on others,  ignore you, refuse to participate, whine, complain, hold a  grudge, and spew out  negativity. Kids don’t just act out—they also “act in” as  James Lehman said, by  giving you the silent treatment and shutting down passive  aggressively. I call  this “spilling black ink” around the house.

Why is it so  hard for kids to learn how to manage their emotions? It’s  easier for all of us to have others feel responsible and pick up the  pieces. If you don’t  have to deal with your emotions, it’s much easier not to  do it—particularly if someone else will do it for us. And sadly,  sometimes kids  come to believe they really can’t handle their emotions on their own,  and need others to help them work through  everything.

It’s natural  for your kids’ strong reactions to trigger your own feelings of  fear, anger, and  uncertainty—causing you to get upset, too. Their eruptions can  dumbfound us and  leave us unsure how to be helpful. And of course, from years  of trying to calm  them down when they were very young, we rush in out of habit.  (And along the  way, you have probably learned that your attempts to help or  soothe, even with  our best intentions, can backfire and upset them even  more.)

Related: How to stop back talk and disrespect, starting  today.
What’s Your Child’s Trigger? Each of us  has our very own particularly sensitive areas—for some it’s  around disrespect,  for others it might be around approval, injustice,  autonomy, or pride. These  sensitive spots are what we often refer to as  our “triggers,” because when one  is pulled, it causes a strong reaction in  us; when someone pushes one of our  buttons—even unintentionally—we usually  get angry or upset with that person.

I know a teen  named Eli* who loses it every time a parent, teacher or friend  tells him what  to do. Eli has a strong and reactive sensitivity about his  independence. This  makes it one of his buttons, and it’s also something that  causes him to get  angry and fight with others. What Eli  doesn’t realize  is that if he didn’t have that button, it couldn’t get pushed  at all. If he  weren’t so overly triggered by the issue of “independence,”  for example,  and sensitivity about being told what to do, he wouldn’t be upset  so often.

Being unaware  of this trigger leaves him vulnerable and gives others the  power to make him  distressed or angry. What he doesn’t understand is that being  told what to do is  a sensitivity of his and that he is  reacting to  something within himself.  He continues blaming others and trying to  get them to stop, rather than taking  responsibility for his own trigger.

Eli is not  alone.  Most of us have many triggers we  are unaware of. We  spend our energy angry with people who intentionally or  unintentionally push  our buttons without recognizing that we have handed them  something to  push.

Here are some  other examples. 13-year-old Sidney would blow a fuse when she  thought her friends  or sisters were “acting like they were better than she  was.” Her sensitivities were  often around her sense of pride. 10-year-old Jake  gets upset if he feels  criticized by anyone—his parents say it’s like walking  on eggshells to be  with him. His sensitivities were around issues of  approval.

Related: How to stop doing too much for your  child.

What to do? Parents can be  helpful to their kids by  first helping them gain self awareness. You might say  to your child, “I notice  you often get triggered when you think something isn’t  fair – are you aware of  that?” Or, “I see you often get angry when someone  argues with you, as if you  feel like you aren’t being respected. That seems  like a real button for  you.”  Of course,  giving kids feedback can be one of their triggers if  they’re particularly  sensitive about how you perceive them, so know that going  in. (If this is the  case, you might ask your spouse or another trusted adult to  have this  conversation with them.)

Also, know  that you will be more helpful to your children if you work on  gaining your own  self awareness. Pay close attention to your buttons and work  to de-activate  them. This will help you to manage your own emotions and help  you to be less  reactive to your kid’s sensitivities – which can be one in the  same. (The  benefit? When you do this, everyone will become calmer as a  result.)

Deactivating the Buttons How do  sensitivities get  rooted? In other words, how do those buttons get created in  the first place?  Where do they come from and how can we learn to respond to  them better and help  our children do the same?

Triggers are  based on how we are wired, and are also often programmed in  early childhood by  the ways our parents and families behaved and responded to  us.  Although the circumstances may have changed  and are no longer  meaningful, we might still respond as if they are relevant to  us now, so  seemingly inconsequential things can “set us off.” The same is true  for your  child.

1. Ask yourself  these questions:

What are the typical circumstances that set your child off? What sets  you off?

What are his or her buttons? What are yours? (Are they one and the  same?)

Which categories would you put most of your buttons under? How about  your child’s? 

Here are some typical ones:

  • Approval
  • Pride
  • Injustice
  • Autonomy
  • Respect
  • Envy
  • Shame

Once  you’ve identified your child’s triggers, tell him what you see.  You can then  ask him, “How can you react differently next time? The next  time you think  something isn’t fair, how can you respond appropriately  instead of punching the  wall, yelling and cursing, or breaking  something?”  Have your child come up with some ways to respond.   Consider actually asking him to write down a list of things he can do next  time  he’s triggered.

Related: How to manage your child’s triggers  and coach, teach and set limits to teach them how to behave  appropriately.

2. Believe that your child can take  care of herself. It’s   important for you to hold the belief that your child can take care of her   emotions on her own. A lot of parents  will jump in and try to “fix”  things. Let’s face it, seeing your child upset  can be very difficult, and can  make us feel helpless and distressed. But if you  step in and try to solve your  child’s problems for her, know that inadvertently  you’re keeping the situation  going. If you over-empathize because you want to  make your child feel better,  it can put too much “weight” on the problem and  magnify it. Your child then  gets the message that it’s even worse than she  thought—and only mom or dad can  fix it for her.

Bottom line: Don’t  get involved in your child’s emotions out of guilt or  your own need to make her  feel better. Instead, think, “She’s having an  uncomfortable emotion that she  needs to work through. I can stand next to her  box but I don’t have to get into  it.”

You don’t  have to help your child through difficult emotions by processing  everything  with her. You can be empathetic without saying “Oh my poor baby!” If  you react  and give attention to every mood and feeling your child has, that’s  what she  will read and buy into. It’s better to say, “I know it’s hard and  you’re  disappointed and upset. Take some time to yourself. When you’re done you  can  come out and join us.”

3. Don’t minimize or make your child  feel like his emotions are  “wrong”. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents have a hard  time dealing with  their child’s emotions. In response, they might try to make  their child feel  like their emotions are wrong, saying things like, “Why are  you crying about  this? That’s silly!” or “You’re angry about that?”   Give them the respect and space to deal with emotions on their own, even if it   seems silly or like they are overreacting. (This doesn’t mean they get to   behave badly or treat the rest of the family rudely. It just means they should   be given time to process emotions on their own in their room, for example.)

4. Calm yourself first. Have you ever heard of the quote,   “Put your own oxygen mask on first”? This applies to staying calm, as well. If  you can learn how to calm  yourself down while your child is in distress and  model an appropriate  response, they will learn to work through it. You can be a  sounding board, but  if you get too distressed yourself, you’re not helping them  learn to calm  themselves down. Always pause before reacting. Be matter of fact  and  businesslike, let your child work through his upset and then guide him to  what  he needs to do. Listen, but don’t prolong the situation by indulging him.

5. Realize that triggers are handed  down through generations.  You  can deactivate your buttons by recognizing that this strong  sensitivity that  you carry was really passed down to you through the  generations and is not as  personal as you thought it was. Often,  something was your mother’s hot button because it was her mother’s  hot button, and so on. As you detach from your triggers, they will become  less  of an issue for you and as a result, less of one for your  children. You will all  be able to put the issue of “sensitivity” to certain hot  buttons into perspective, and your whole family will benefit.


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