When my daughter was little, she experienced impressive tantrums. I’d try to stay calm as she screamed, but eventually, I’d get triggered too. My frustration only fed her anger and created more disconnection. This scenario replayed itself over and over like a broken record. Until I figured out I needed to change the dance.
Do emotional outbursts in your family tend to follow a certain pattern?
Often in relationships, we get into a habit of reacting a certain way. For example, let’s say your teenager breaks a house rule. You calmly share the consequence. They explode with anger and storm off. This outburst ticks you off, so you threaten to take something else away and give them a piece of your mind. Doors slam, the silent treatment ensues, and nobody feels heard.
The response is habitual, even though it doesn’t work well.
Clearly, my response to my daughter’s tantrums was not effective and not helping the situation. I needed to check-in with my intention for these interactions and choose a different response. My intention was obviously to make the tantrums stop, but also to help my daughter (and me) learn to navigate anger. I also wanted to use these moments to connect instead of disconnect. So, here’s what I did.
How to Change the Dance during Emotional Outbursts
1. Instead of reacting in the usual way, I pause. When my kids are experiencing a big emotion, like anger or sadness, I pause, breathe and remind myself of my intention. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction or going off on my own emotional roller coaster at that moment, I settle myself. By keeping my feelings and reactions in check, I can best help my kids navigate their emotions. This also helps me avoid saying things I might regret later.
2. When I feel calm and grounded, I help my child navigate their emotions and empathize. Strong emotions can be overwhelming for kids. Helping children understand and manage intense emotions is a skill that takes practice and guidance. The phrase “Name to Tame” is used in child development circles. When we put words to what emotions we’re feeling, we’re on the path to regulating those emotions. Younger children usually prefer to have a trusted, calm caregiver right by their side, helping them navigate the feeling. Older children tend to need some time to cool off before they can process the emotion.
Big emotions are uncomfortable at any age.
Empathy in these difficult moments can open the door to what is going on underneath the outburst. Usually, sadness or fear is hidden beneath anger. When we empathize and listen deeply, we have a chance to truly connect with our kids.
Choose statements that acknowledge and validate their feelings such as,
- You have every right to feel disappointed. I felt like that when I was your age.
- You are mad. I understand. You have every right, but it’s not okay to yell at me.
This doesn’t mean parents condone inappropriate behavior or do not set limits. It means we recognize their discomfort and make sure they feel heard. When we do this, we have a better chance of maintaining connection.
Changing the dance and breaking old habits is hard.
It takes a lot of self-control. I still mess this up, especially if I’m feeling off myself. Just keep practicing and doing your best. You are re-wiring your brain, which takes time. At some point, you’ll notice that there has been a shift in you and your child. You’ll see your child beginning to understand and manage their emotions in a healthy way instead of lashing out. You’ll feel more grounded during arguments and outbursts. And the best part, you and your child will experience more connection.
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PASS IT ON. Jessica Speer’s BLOG focuses on helping kids and families thrive. Posts offer simple ideas to help kids and families connect & foster healthy relationships. If you know someone who might appreciate this content, please pass it on!