Are you a parent struggling to manage your child’s intense emotional outbursts? If so, you are not alone and there are some strong neuroscientific reasons why your adolescent may be behaving the way they are.
The rapid growth and development of the brain during childhood and adolescence, significantly affects young peoples’ ability to manage their emotions. Famous neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, in his book ‘Brainstorm’, explains how the emotional brain is more active during adolescence. This means that intense emotions can arise really rapidly, leading to distress, rage and anger or alternatively, rigid, withdrawn and shut-down behaviour. For all of us, when intense emotions erupt in our minds, we need to find ways of feeling and managing them. For adolescents, this is a very important part of becoming independent and developing strength and resilience in life. Lauren Spigelmyer, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Behavior Hub (www.thebehaviourhub.com) offers a simple 4 step framework to guide us through this process:
Identify how you or your son / daughter is feeling. Sometimes it is difficult to capture emotions. For younger children, a colour system to represent different emotional states can be helpful:
BLUE: This is a low energy emotional domain. It includes emotions such as tired, low, sad, bored and disengaged.
GREEN: This is the optimal energy emotional domain. When children and young people are operating in this domain, they are calm, focused, contented and settled.
YELLOW: This is the emotional domain where children show signs that they are starting to feel a little out of control. They may be restless, frustrated, over-excited and/or irritable.
RED: This is a highly emotionally charged domain which is triggered when young people feel out of control. It is characterised by anger, rage, agitation and high levels of anxiety and distress.
This system can be used by parents/carers to help children to put a name to what they may be feeling. This step alone can help young people to become more aware of their feelings, which in turn makes them more manageable. With younger children, fictional characters which are personally meaningful to them, can also be used to represent each emotional domain. For example, in the Pixar movie ’Inside Out’ there are animations representing the main emotions inside the head of the main character Riley.
It is ok to experience emotions and we all move in and out of different emotional zones every day. It is therefore important to convey to our children that it is ok to be in the blue, yellow or red area. In fact, as adults, we can share and model how our own emotional states change and how we can respond in a helpful way to emotions that challenge us. Naming the emotion or labelling which colour we are in can help us change our emotional state:
In partnership with your child, create a space. This could be a sofa, a bedroom, a particular chair, or for younger children a den, or any area where the child feels safe. It’s important that the area has a name, e.g. Daisy’s den; my quiet place; my zone. When emotions are elevated, the energy tends to be very high. It can therefore be helpful to encourage ourselves and our child or teenager to move away from the heightened energy and to take a break in this space. It provides an opportunity to calm the emotional brain and to get back into the calmer, thinking brain.
Younger children should not be forced to use their space, as it’s not a punishment. If they are reluctant to go there, it’s helpful for parents to remove themselves and model step 2 by either going to the child’s space or to their own space. Modelling what to do, when to go to the space, what to do when you are there and when to leave the space helps the child to learn what to do for themselves. It also shows the child that it’s okay to have strong feelings and to use a space to manage this.
Whether your child goes to their space or not, teach a range of coping and calming skills which your child can use. It’s important for both children and adolescents to find their own tools and through practise, perhaps over time and many occasions, to identify which strategy works for them. Let your child know that they are doing well. Also let them know that you too are using calming strategies when you’re in the red emotional domain.
This final step helps change the behaviour for next time. It doesn’t have to be immediately after the event but having a very brief conversation to reflect on the incident can be helpful. This could be based on the following:
An example of step 4 could be: “I think you were feeling angry that you had to come off your phone; I was feeling stressed, as supper was ready. The problem was that I didn’t want the supper to get cold and it’s important for us to eat together as a family. What do you think would work in the future, so this doesn’t happen again? Perhaps we can come up with some ideas together?”
I hope that trying out this plan over time and with patience, kindness and persistence, can offer you and your child a helpful way of managing emotions.
5 December 2020