By Teresa Sayles, Children’s Curriculum Specialist
Woodland Hills Church
I don’t know about you, but I’m a BIG Pixar fan, and I’m super excited for their newest movie coming out June 19. As usual, it looks to have all the trademark Pixar humor, great animation, and, of course, the perfect tug on the heartstrings.
Pixar’s story follows the adventures of various emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) belonging to a young girl named Riley. It looks to be a movie families can both enjoy together and use as a great discussion-starter. After all, as I’m sure you know, kids have strong emotions. One minute, they’re happy and laughing with their friends, and the next, well, you’ve got a five-alarm meltdown in progress. Why does that happen, and how do you help your child work back to emotional stability when he or she can hardly breathe between fits of tears?
Emotions are tricky things. They feel very real. A co-worker once likened our emotions to lights on a dashboard – They alert us to changes in our situation, for better or for worse. And, in the case of worse, our brains are wired to trigger. Triggering means the brain’s the fight-or-flight response kicks into gear to shut down the rational side of the brain and begin telling the body what to do. It all happens in less than a second. Which is great if you’re out hiking when a boulder crashes down a hillside and your flight-or-fight’s quick response saves your life by moving you out of harm’s way. On the other hand, having your brain trigger when you find your child drawing with red marker on the walls is not as helpful. We tend when triggered to say or do things we later regret. It’s the same with kids, but as their brains are not as well developed yet, they have a harder time reigning in that fight-or-flight response.
Even though emotions feel very real, they’re not always in tune with reality. Thus, your child’s desire for that candy bar in the Target check-out line does feel like the end of the world to them. Thankfully, there are ways to help them calm down. One way to help get them on the road to cool down is to validate their emotions when possible. They need to know you are listening and understand what they’re feeling even if you don’t agree. If your child is old enough, ask him or her what he or she is feeling. Try to work out together why those feelings might be coming up. Remind him or her that it’s okay to feel angry or sad or fearful but that acting in hurtful ways toward others or refusing to listen and obey is not okay. Even when your child seems unnecessarily upset (as with the candy bar in the check-out line), you can still let him or her know you understand why he or she would feel that way while still letting making it known the situation isn’t going to change: “I can see that not getting what you want right now makes you feel angry and upset. I feel upset sometimes, too, but we need to make healthy choices, and that candy bar is not a healthy choice right now.” They need someone to recognize they’re not okay and that something in their brain has negatively triggered. They need to feel heard and affirmed that what they feel matters. They may still fuss and be upset, but at least you’ve shown them you’re listening. Hopefully, the validation of their emotions will help them begin to calm down enough that you can guide them beyond the emotion and back to rational thinking.
Because triggering causes a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals in the body that can last for 20 minutes, you may want to provide your child some space to cool down before trying to get rational. A time out or employing a quiet activity to do can give the time and space he or she needs to calm down enough to be able to listen without his or her emotional state getting in the way. You could even try having the child draw out what he or she is feeling and then talk about it.
Here are few excellent resources we’ve read on helping kids walk through their emotions:
- Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay
- No: Why Kids – of All Ages – Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It by Dr. David Walsh, PhD
- Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen by Dr. David Walsh, PhD
- The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson