Have you ever been so overwhelmed with an emotion that it felt all-consuming? If so, you know that when emotions take the reins, it’s impossible to focus on the situation at hand, process logical reasoning, and problem-solve.
The crippling impact of overwhelming emotion is even stronger for children and adolescents because they are still developing neurologically and don’t have the same capacities as adults to self-regulate. This is particularly true for kids with ADHD, a condition defined by challenges regulating emotions and behaviors.
What can you do when your child is swallowed up by fear, worry, anger, or sadness? Following are some tips to help you help your child manage these strong emotions
Address the Emotion. When your child is having a meltdown, don’t try to problem-solve. Recognize that she is in an emotional tailspin, with the logical part of her brain shut down. Even the most revelatory comment will go straight over her head. Instead of trying to fix the problem, address the emotion. Label it (“I can see that you’re upset”) and validate why she feels that way (“I understand that you’re really mad that you have to finish your homework before you watch TV.”). Oftentimes having somebody acknowledge how you feel helps lower the emotional temperature to a tolerable level, which then makes it easier to reflect, redirect, and problem-solve.
Help Your Child Ground. “Grounding” skills are techniques designed to direct focus to something occurring in the present moment in order to prevent the brain from being carried off by emotion. A helpful grounding skill is the 5 Senses Activity. Guide your child to identify 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. In a pinch, you can do even simpler grounding activities, such as counting activities (“How many light switches do you see in the room?” “How many tiles are on the floor?” “How many surfaces can you sit on?”). The more you focus on something in your immediate environment, the harder it is to become distracted by anything else, which gives your emotions time to cool down.
Preempt the Emotion. Those first two skills are for use in the moment, when the emotion has taken over. In the long run, however, it’s best to identify patterns and warning signs before an outburst. Spend some time observing your child and getting a feel for common triggers. This can help you preempt significant escalations in emotion. For example, if your child tends to get “hangry,” save difficult conversations for after he’s had a snack.
Raise Self-Awareness. It’s also good for children to learn to “build the muscle” of tolerating difficult emotions, but this needs to happen in a graduated way. In calm, quiet moments, work with your child to help her identify when she tends to get upset and how she knows her emotions are rising. What does she feel in her body? What thoughts go through her head? Once kids become familiar with their own signs of emotional arousal, they can practice self-regulation skills before it’s too late. These include deep breathing, positive mental imagery, or separating themselves from a difficult situation. In time, these skills will become more automatic, and she will be better able to initiate self-regulation strategies independently.
Model Self-Regulation Skills. Children learn about emotions from those around them. The more you’re able to regulate your own emotions, the more they learn to do so themselves. This doesn’t mean your child can’t see you upset. What’s helpful to kids is to see that it’s okay to have these feelings (at safe levels), and that there’s something they can do about it. When you’re upset, it’s healthy to let it show in small doses, to talk about your feelings in developmentally appropriate language, and most important, to talk about what you’re going to do to help yourself feel more calm. Young children will enjoy joining you in self-regulation activities, such as the ones listed above, and it will be good practice for them to get into the habit!
Build Your Tolerance for Their Distress. It’s typical for kids to have big reactions to strong feelings while they get the hang of self-regulation. The goal is to help them feel confident in their abilities to self-soothe, but this doesn’t happen overnight. When your child is having a meltdown, remind yourself that he is doing his best in that moment, and you can continue to help him build his regulatory muscles when he is calm again. Take a few deep breaths, and trust that if you are able to stay regulated yourself in those most difficult of moments, it will help your child see that he is safe and protected by you even when he doesn’t feel safe and protected in his own body. And remind yourself that you are doing your best, too! Learning to self-regulate is hard work for everybody. It will become easier in time!
Caroline Segal is a psychotherapist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sasco River Center in CT. She specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.