Even for the most skilled parents, parenting a child who has intense emotions isn’t easy. Emotions are unpredictable, intense, and can turn on a dime. Swinging between days (hours) that are great, and days (hours) are downright horrible. It isn’t hard to doubt yourself and wonder if you are doing right by your child.
The stakes are high, and it isn’t easy when you are in the trenches. These 12 tips can help:
- Notice anxiety where it is at work: Given that intense emotions often share anxiety as an escalator, understanding how anxiety may be at play can help you zero in on what to say or do to help. Is your son afraid of being left out, worried about not measuring up? It can help to see where your child’s anxiety could be escalating his other emotions.
- Understand tantrums share anxiety too: Tantrums are a special kind of anxiety: the “fight” in the classic “fight or flight” threat response, demonstrating her sympathetic nervous system active, and in full working order. Just like frightened dogs bark when they are threatened, so too do our kids. Tuning into their fear, and naming it for them, can help. Perhaps she’s scared that she won’t be able to tolerate not getting her way or scared that she won’t like stopping what she’s doing. Naming her fear can help calm her.
- Aim to be a “nonanxious presence” as much as possible: This classic Edwin Friedman directive is the gold standard of parenting an anxious child. To be able to maintain calm is to help a child use and borrow your emotional coping skills, and learn ultimately how to do this themselves when they are upset. However, given the contagiousness of emotions, this can be really hard (if not impossible), especially for parents who care deeply, and are themselves possibly anxious. And at worst, being calm amidst a storm of emotion can convey detachment and shame to your child for not being able to be calm.
- If you can’t stay calm, enact Plan B: Join your child in their distress by naming their feelings and yours, modeling for them how to walk step by step through your feelings to a solution. This models for her how to name emotions, and walks her through what is happening, (I love you so much and am really worried about the choices you are making, and how upset you still are. I know you are frustrated and you want to feel better too), and what is going to happen (so you are going to stay here until you can calm down, and I’m going to go to the other room so I can calm down, and then we can talk about what happened and what we are going to do to solve it). Not only does this help her understand her emotions, and how to channel them effectively, but it shows her she is not alone.
- If you yell, do so with love: Just like your child likely yells because of emotional overload, you might too. We are social beings, vulnerable to second hand stress, and if your child is in fight of flight, chances are you soon will be too. More realistic than willing yourself to be calm, is to focus on how you yell, and making sure to do so with love. “I care about you so much that I am going to keep this limit. I love you so much that your choices are worrying me.” Chances are good that your own anxiety underlies your frustration; you are worried because you care so much and are afraid for the future. Don’t be afraid to say just this. As you express your feelings and aim to focus them through the lens of love for your child, you will find your voice will naturally start to lower, and you will be modeling healthy self-expression for your child.
- Give choice (and control) wherever you can: You have a choice – we can do this the easy way or the hard way. The more control you give your child the better since a sense of control facilitates emotional regulation. Time (like counting, or telling her she has 5 minutes) and alternatives (you can use this toothpaste or that toothpaste, you can wear either of these three things) offer him control and autonomy, both of which will help him calm himself.
- Empathy AND Limits “I know you are upset and really don’t want to brush your teeth, and you have to keep your teeth clean.” “I understand why you don’t want to, and unfortunately you have to. Come on, I’ll help you.” Both are good on their own, but together they offer your child the support and the structure she needs to move through her emotions and make choices she can live with.
- Focus on the positive as much as possible: Intense emotions tend to tip toward the negative; noticing the positives can provide needed ballast. Whenever you notice your child doing something positive – working hard at something, doing something positive without being asked, or exercising cognitive or emotional control – make sure to notice and praise their efforts. We all need encouragement and reinforcement, most especially our emotionally sensitive children.
- If you say or do something hurtful, apologize. Tell your child how your behavior probably felt to her, and tell her you are sorry for making her feel that way. Then explain why you said what you said (that you were really sad, angry and scared, and you let your feelings twist your thinking. You don’t think she is…, or whatever you said). Then tell her how you will do better. For her sake, you are modeling emotional awareness, empathy, insight, and relational repair. This helps her know it’s ok to make mistakes. She needs this, and so do you.
- Hug your child as much as possible: Physical affection is powerful, and kids need to be hugged, especially those wrestling with anxiety. Hug her when she is ready to be hugged, and hug her until she lets go. This shows her that she loved, and releases oxytocin for both you, well known to lower stress, and foster trust and resilience. Kids need to know that we are there for them, and that they are loved. This helps them know they are not alone.
- Beware of hidden (wishful) expectations for things to be easier. This is a hidden set up for failure and frustration. Expecting things to be challenging is both realistic and puts you in the mindset of being ready for reality. While wishing for a different child, or situation, is completely normal and human, it is not a short-term reality. Tracking and expecting difficult days help you be ready for them.
- Forgive your child, and yourself. This is hard for both of you, and you’re doing your best. Understanding how you have gotten to this place, and offering self compassion even if it’s hard, can help buttress you for the work ahead. Advice in the friendly skies applies here, oxygen mask on first before helping others.
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and especially so for a child with intense emotions. the good news is that you don’t have to be perfect to be an excellent parent, indeed being imperfect can be a strength to your child as they build resilience. Your best is good enough. Expecting anything more sets a stage for frustration – both for ourselves and our kids.