Children can so easily and quickly become overwhelmed with intense emotions. Anger and frustration, to be exact. Maybe he’s intensely angry at you. Maybe he’s angry because something didn’t go well at school today. Maybe he’s angry at a friend. However it started, the emotions have become intense now. How do you respond so that your child can hear you? I found one amazing, yet peaceful, solution that works almost every time!
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Is Whispering Your Best Response to Intense Emotions?
I’ve heard the tip about whispering to your child when she is upset so that she will need to lower her voice to hear yours. Two things here. First, I’m pretty sure my children could care less what I’m saying when they are so upset that they are screaming. Or screaming and crying. Unless it’s, “Yes muffin, I will let you eat only candy and cake and buy you a big huge LEGO set every single day for the rest of your life…” I don’t think they’d give a flying squirrel.
Second, I was certain that I would feel a little stupid whispering at my screaming angry child. Let’s review – my child is a big hot screaming mess and I’m going to whisper??? Yea, no. I was desperate and tried it anyway. Feeling stupid be damned. But in the end I was right. It didn’t work. And I felt stupid.
It needs to be enticing. If I’m whispering, they figure whatever I’m whispering about isn’t important in that moment. And if you think about if from their point of view…they’re sort of on to something. But what was it?
Is Yelling Your Best Response to Intense Emotions?
Next I opted to retreat into my old school comfort zone: yell. But this time I was justified, right? I mean, one of my sons is yelling – how can he possibly hear me if I don’t yell too? My yelling wasn’t motivated by anger – I was simply trying to be heard. Sounds legit, right? I wondered…
But here’s the thing I realized about that…yelling (even if it was originally just so that I could be heard) MADE me angry. It threw me right into the chaos! It physically amped me up, tossed me right into the vortex of anger and actually created more anger. Not. Helpful.
Add to this that when children are feeling intense emotions, they can’t hear you. Even if they want to hear you, they can’t because they have entered the “fight, flight, or feeze” mode.
[A]nger comes from our “fight, flight or freeze” response. That means it’s a defense against threat. Occasionally that threat is outside us, for instance, when a big brother knocks down a block tower. But usually it isn’t. We see threats outside us because we’re carrying around old stuffed emotions like hurt, fear or sadness. Whatever’s happening in the moment triggers those old feelings, and we go into fight mode to try to stuff them down again.
Losses and disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a child, and kids will do anything to fend off these intolerable feelings, so they cry and rage and lash out. If they feel safe expressing their anger, and we meet that anger with compassion, their anger will begin to melt. (source)
I finally found a way to handle intense emotions that’s about as close to perfect as I’ve found anywhere. It is intense enough that they want to hear me and it also provides a quick break that allows them to be capable of hearing me in the moment and not something even more intense that overwhelms them even more.
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An Appropriate & Empathetic Response To Intense Emotions
So here’s the thing. When your child is that angry, your response needs to be intense. Your response has to be intense, or it won’t register. And while being angry and yelling are intense emotions that is definitely not what I’m talking about here.
When you can reflect your child’s emotions back to them with the same intensity that they are displaying, and remain empathetic and respectful, it’s the perfect response!
Since matching the intensity of your child’s anger with your intense anger typically just creates an explosion, you’ve got to match it with something equally intense – although not angry. Other than anger, what emotions are intense? Love? Empathy? Humor? How could I use these? I decided to match the intensity of his anger with the intensity of my love and empathy!
So how do you do that??? Here’s a great example. My son was engrossed in building a LEGO set. I needed him to take a break and come get ready for school. So he came, but he was pretty angry about having to break from his play. “I don’t want to get ready for school,” he yelled. So I met his intensity with a similar level of intensity saying “I don’t want to get everyone ready for school either!!!” My response was intense so that he could hear me and it expressed my empathy so he wanted to hear me.
Here’s another great example. My son was unhappy about having to do something before his brother. It seemed really unfair to him and he got angry. (It was before breakfast, so there might have also been a touch of hangry…) “Why do I ALWAYS have to go first? He NEVER goes first…ever! It’s alway me first. I’m not doing it. I’m not going first!”
So I adopted his tone and level of frustration and reflected back to him “I HATE always having to go first, too! It’s the worst, isn’t it?? And it’s doubly unfair when the other person NEVER has to go first. I wouldn’t want to go first AGAIN either!!!!” Just that moment of reflecting back his feelings, with matching intensity, allows him to feel heard long enough to come out of his anger so that we could move forward.
He may still not want to go first, but at this point we can calmly discuss it. He’s available to receive the lesson or the conversation. It hasn’t spiraled out of control. It hasn’t gotten me pulled in to his anger. We’ve both emerged unscathed and now I have an opportunity for real teaching.
Sometimes matching the intensity of their frustration or anger can be tough without getting angry yourself. I’ve put together some great alternatives for you – so that you can match your child’s intensity with positive emotions. Sign up and I’ll send you a free “Intense But Not Angry” printable which is a super simple reference for emotions that you can quickly and easily turn to when your child is frustrated or angry that will prevent the anger from escalating.
In both of these instances, my face reflected silliness and exasperation – sort of over the top emotional intensity (to match their intensity). But mind you – it’s easy to cross a line into mocking their intensity. Make sure that you aren’t mocking your child’s feelings. You will only make the situation worse! So just match their intensity in a genuine and empathetic way.
Every child / parent bond is special and unique. This is a great tip that works with my children and I’ve seen it work with many other children and their parents. Give it a try!!
If your trying to resist your urge to respond in anger, my friend Amanda over at Dirt & Boogers has an amazing course Mama’s Anger Management: Keeping Calm in the Chaos that is a great step toward managing your own anger.
There are some terrific tools to help your children learn about anger. Anger can be both overwhelming and frightening for children. Here are some favorite books with characters that children can relate to to help them learn more about how to handle the perfectly normal emotion of anger.