Getting All Emotional: Part 2

By Teresa Sayles, Children’s Curriculum Specialist

Woodland Hills Church

This past weekend, Disney and Pixar’s newest film, Inside-Out hit movie screens across the country. I went to see it for purely research purposes. Okay, that’s not true. My seeing it had almost nothing to do with research – I just really wanted to see it. And I wasn’t disappointed. Though perhaps a bit complicated for preschoolers to follow, Inside-Out is a fantastic movie for elementary kids as well as teens and adults. In fact, I’d venture to say the folks at Pixar made this film very much with adults in mind (pun intended). Exhibit A: Check out the scene featured in this trailer:

We see the various emotions of Mom, Dad, and Riley all in action. Unfortunately, they’re not all on the same page. Something has caused Riley’s emotions to get worked up, and at dinner, she becomes easily agitated and angry. Mom’s emotions are frustrated with Dad, whose emotions have been focused elsewhere and don’t see the situation as she does. And Dad, well, rather than getting to the heart of what’s really bothering Riley, let’s his emotions escalate alongside Riley’s. By the end of the scene, both Riley and Dad are triggered (see part one of this article from two weeks ago), and Mom is frustrated…again.

Sound familiar? It’s the kind of scene that plays out all too often in our daily lives. Someone says or does something, emotions escalate, and the results are less than pretty. It happens to us all – Parents and kids, married people and singles, men and women, old and young, etc. As a parent, one of the most helpful things you can do when emotions like anger, sadness, and fear pop up with your kids is to try to help them figure out the root cause of their emotion. As I stated in my article two weeks ago, emotions are like lights on our mind’s dashboard – They let us know something has happened and needs to be addressed. There’s something going on behind your child’s emotional outburst, and that’s what really needs to be worked out.

Emotions like anger, fear, and sadness kick into gear when we perceive danger, injustice, or loss. So when your five year old melts down because his brother “got a bigger slice of cake,” it’s not really about the cake. He hasn’t received what he hoped for and expected, which was an equal cut of the cake, and that feels like a loss and an injustice. Because kids’ brains haven’t developed to be able to really weed out yet what is really worth fighting over and what isn’t, they have a hard time not feeling like such an event is the end of their world. To them, the injustice feels real and threatening. Similarly, when your child’s favorite stuffed animal vanishes and she refuses to go to sleep without it, it’s not so much about her inability to sleep without the specific toy as it is she’s feeling fear and loss for something she cares about and worrying she won’t get it back.

So what can you do to help them it work out? Talk with them. Once you get them back to a rational state of mind (again, see my previous article), you can start asking questions. “You were really sad when Molly took your doll. What felt sad about that?” “I know you’re angry at me for saying you need to get ready for soccer instead of playing video games. Can you tell me what about having to switch those activities makes you feel mad?” Throughout the dialogue, you can work your way back to the root issue and remind them that, no matter what, they are loved. They are safe. They are secure. They have what they need. They are not alone. And in the course of the discussion, you’ll also be creating a kind of “vocabulary” your family can use for future situations. “I know you’re upset now, but remember when you didn’t want to share your doll with Molly? You were angry then, too. Do you feel now like you did then?” And, hopefully, with time, such dialogues will become a natural part of your family’s way of speaking, paving the way for healthy discussions versus emotional outbursts and confusion.

Of course, it’s always good to keep in mind that tiredness/lack of sleep, hunger, dehydration, and not enough healthy foods in a kids’ diet can also contribute to and aggravate emotions. If you think your child’s angry meltdown might have something to do with tiredness, try to get him or her to nap or rest with a quiet activity before dialoguing what happened. If it could be hunger, get him or her a healthy snack to munch on while you talk. You might even want to join them in the snack or nap. After all, none of us think straight when on an empty stomach and tired.

For more on Inside-Out and what folks are saying about it as both a family-friendly movie and a tool for families to use in working through emotions, check out these articles:

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