It’s inevitable. Whether your child is six or sixteen, they are going to get upset over something you just don’t understand. Seven-year-old Sally is bawling over the fact that someone destroyed her Lego creation. Fourteen-year-old Johnny is stomping around and slamming doors because the Wi-Fi is spotty.
While your knee-jerk reaction may be to roll your eyes, demand that they “cut it out,” or even reprimand them for being disrespectful, it’s valuable to take your children’s reactions and behaviors seriously. One of the best things you can do is walk alongside your children as they experience an emotion, and then step in to help them problem-solve.
From what we know about the brain, when we feel intense stress, fear, or anger, our prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the logical part of the brain—temporarily shuts down. This allows the amygdala—the caveman part of our brain–to signal those basic instincts for survival…Fight (Johnny slams the door) or flight (Sally wails and runs for her room). … As a parent, you need to remember that the PFC is still developing into the mid-twenties, right? You may have noticed that a nine-year-old reasons differently than a 35-year-old. In this sense, children are already in need of extra support when it comes to thinking clearly during an emotional state.
Simply telling your child to “stop” does not give them the opportunity to recognize, define, and solve the issue. When in melt-down mode, you must first address the emotion before addressing the problem. If Sally is crying and screaming, walk with her to a safe, quiet place and sit with her. Breathe deeply with her, comfort her with a hug or a hand on the back, and give her a few moments to calm down. You may verbally reflect her feelings by saying things like, “You are very upset right now” or “It seems like you are angry that you didn’t get the toy you want.” These words tell your child that you notice and care about what is going on in their world. Your presence and witness to their current pain speaks volumes.
Only after your child has calmed down can the PFC get to work and begin to think rationally. Simple leading questions to kick start the PFC might include: “What happened right before you got so upset?” “How can we make a plan in case this happens again?” This is a great time to different perspectives and how our actions impact those around us.
Don’t be discouraged if this seems like a lot or it doesn’t play out in textbook-fashion the first time you try it out. Every situation and every child is unique; there are times when a quick response is needed. Just remember, the more times you can help your child acknowledge the emotion and then work through the logic, the better equipped they’ll be to handle unexpected situations in the future. And you’ll be proud to watch them do it!
For more information, check out these materials:
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Seigel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race, Ph.D.
Don’t Pop Your Cork on Monday by Adolf Moser