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Dealing with Emotional Outbursts - Live life with your kids - Issue 112
July 31, 2009
Hi there! ....

This week we spent time sorting out our camping gear and tidying up the house after a very busy month. To be honest the kids did most of it since I was laid up with a very sore back. Things are on the mend now. The week was supposed to be spent on preparing for our next study block but not a lot of that happened so I am hoping this weekend I’ll get some focus thinking time. I did manage to get some scrapbooking done – something that hasn’t happened for a very long time. I finished our pages from last years camping trip to the Bungles – just in time to scrap this year’s trip!!

While we were away I asked my older children for the one thing that they felt put stress on our family. It was a good discussion and I am glad for their input. The #1 stress creator to them was being outside of our home (and I think they are right). So we’ve looked at our weekly schedule, we’ve looked at the projects we want to do and have tried to narrow down the times we have to go out and about. We’ve tried to allocate times for catching up with people so that we can be intentional about our discretionary time.

Live life with your kids!

Dealing with Emotional Outbursts

For so long emotional outbursts have been understood by parents as wrong and something that needs to be controlled. Nowadays as a society moves away from authoritarian parenting we tend not to know what to do with the kid’s emotion.

  • Should we stop them from being expressed – but isn’t bottling up emotions unhealthy?
  • Should we ignore them and walk away – but maybe they will only fester and maybe the kid will explode?

What is the balance?
We need to teach them to handle their emotions.

There is to be a distinction between our emotions and our behaviour though we must admit that our behaviour is directly affected by our emotions. As parents we need to be able to distinguish the two and deal with them differently. We need to be able to understand, and help our children understand their emotional feelings, and then we need to teach our children appropriate behaviours when those feelings surface.

One of the things that help me when I am trying to figure out these things is to reflect on my own life, or on the life of other adults around me. Sometimes it seems as if we have one set of rules for adults and one set of rules for kids – this is simply crazy. Children are little people – they have the same set of emotions as we do, and the same human right to be heard and understood. The difference is that our children are young and need help in deciphering the turmoil of emotions that they feel at times. (To be honest we need help in understanding our emotions at times too!)

When we talk about our children’s emotional outbursts we tend to think of the situations where there is an abundance of negative emotions, but I want to warn you that your child can have an abundance of positive emotions and act inappropriately too (e.g. Silliness is an abundance of happiness!) We need to be aware of both, and be prepared to help our children either way.

There seems to be two distinct situations where negative emotions overflow:

  1. My will vs. your will
  2. I have no idea what is happening to me!

We need to be able to understand the differences. The my will vs. your will tantrum is where the child throws a wobbly with the purpose of changing your mind. The danger is to see an expression of sadness as simply sadness when it is really an expression of annoyance at your will being stronger! Pouting, huffing, folding the arms, turning their backs, and crying are physical expressions of frustration because their will has not won. We must be firm, resolute and clear on what we want to happen and not be manipulated into changing our mind or even downplaying what is really going on. We need obedience with a cheerful heart – and these negative expressions are anything but cheerful! Regardless of how subtle, these expressions are playing the my will vs. your will tantrum and we need to assess it as such.

The I have no idea what is happening to me wobbly is completely different. This is the one where we need to show our understanding. This wobbly is because something is happening in the child’s life and they don’t have the self control to deal with it appropriately. Our task is to help them understand what is going on, and teach and train them to the point that they will be able to make appropriate decisions in times to come by themselves.

These emotional meltdowns happen when our children (or ourselves for that matter) are tired, overwhelmed, anxious, scared, surprised, frustrated, excited, disappointed, lonely, guilty, confused, or hurt (there are many, many more emotions we can feel.) The best thing we can do for our child when they are experiencing a meltdown is to be their self control for them.

  • We can remove them from the situation,
  • We can hold them controlling their physical bodies,
  • We can sooth them and reassure them with our voice and touch.
It is only after the outburst is settled that we can get to the bottom of their emotions; the reason behind their emotions.

If we don’t work on understanding emotions, and training towards self control then these emotional outbursts will take us by surprise and we will find ourselves in many social situations where we feel lost as a parent and possibly even embarrassed.

We can be proactive in the area of emotions:

Our own emotional expressions
How do you handle stressful situations, relational conflict, times when you are out of control or disappointed? Once again it is a reminder that our children watch us and copy our example.

Discuss feelings
We need to help our children identify and label the emotion they feel. We do this by expanding their vocab.

  • We bring their attention to feelings by intentionally teaching what particular emotions look like and what the correct behaviour is that follows. For young children in particular play acting or role playing is a great tool to help describe and understand various emotions.
  • We can label and discuss emotions that we see in dvd’s, tv and books. This removes being personally involved and becomes a great teaching tool.
  • After an emotional outburst settles down we can discuss what was going on.

One aspect of learning to name emotions is learning the degrees of emotions.

  • Am I grouch, grumpy, frustrated, mad, angry, furious?
  • Am I a little blue, upset, sad, depressed?
  • Am I uneasy, scared, terrified?
There are many degrees of emotions. If our language is limited we will simply say “I hate you” where we really mean “I don’t like you much right now.”

Feeling Faces is a chart of various emotions and it is helpful to help us pinpoint what we are really feeling. Do a Google search on “feeling faces” and you’ll find something that you can download and use in your home. This chart, showing a variety of emotions can be used to increase your own vocab or it can help a child identify what they are feeling.

Once our children can recognise and label their emotions (I’m sad today) we need to help them deal with that. It is not healthy to stay sad, we need to recognise the emotion and help them to move on.

Be aware of the warning signs
It has always fascinated me to see my children crumble – if we are alert we can see warning signs to our children’s emotional downs. Sure, there will be times that they hit you out of the blue but most times if we are onto it we’ll see the clues. Huffing, clingy, fidgeting, high pitch voice, whining – each child may have different signals but you need to start reading them. Take some time to observe and get to know your child’s moods and reactions. Once we’ve noticed the warning signs we need to do something about it.

Appropriate actions and controlled emotions
We need to teach our children what is appropriate when they are in emotional situations. Things like counting to ten, taking a deep breath or walking away are strategies that adults have learnt to help them pause before they react to a situation. This is exactly what our children need to learn.

  • I have taught our children using the traffic light – when they feel these emotions starting to surface they need to take caution, or stop, and only go on ahead if they have their self control.
  • Folding their hands is a good way to focus in order to get self control. Once they have gained self control they will be able to deal with the situation that has provoked their emotion.
  • As my children have grown older they have been able to walk away and as they do so they can say “I’ll be back in a minute.”
  • Another motto that helps our children is that “I’m not responsible for their actions; I’m responsible for my reaction”.

I have read online that our emotions are the foundation of our social behaviour and I thought about that and have to disagree. Our social behaviour needs to be established on moral truths – on something that is absolute and objective. Our feelings are subjective and consequently never a solid foundation for anything. Our emotions need to be controlled by the conviction of other centeredness – a moral truth. We control the emotion (so we don’t hurt the other person either physically or emotionally) and then we act appropriately because we are personally committed to doing the right thing. As we teach our children self control this needs to be our driving motivation (as opposed to personal peace and happiness!) And yet, as we, or our children, control their emotions, and live their life considering other people, they will have a successful social life.

Acting appropriately though doesn’t mean the issue never gets dealt with as we cover everything up with love – no, we need to sort out the things that are driving our emotions – we need to teach our children to deal with relational differences, to conquer their fears, to be strong when they feel weak, to choose joy. We must show them how to do these things. Regardless of what difficulties our children face, regardless of how fragile they are feeling they must be confident that we will help them sort out the issue that is driving their emotions – we just can’t do it while they are ranting and raving.

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Belinda Letchford
Living life with her kids in Australia!

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