Inside: The following research-supported steps have worked surprisingly well in helping us navigate negative emotions. They can help you too.
“Please, go to sleep… please, go to sleep… please…”
I was trapped in a rocking chair nursing my baby to sleep for ten hours… okay, maybe just one hour, but it felt like ten.
That’s when I heard the door creak, and my two-year-old stomped into the room.
“Mom,” he said loudly because “loud” is the regular setting on every two-year-old boy, “I want pasta.”
“Shhhh!” I whispered in a panic, “your sister is almost asleep. Just wait five minutes.”
“No,” he said firmly, “I want pasta.”
If he could, my two-year-old would have explained that he had already waited long enough. I could see that his adorable little face had “I’m done” written all over it. And he was not afraid to act on this feeling.
As you might expect, within the span of the next few minutes, my baby was wide awake and crying, my two-year-old was screaming “PASTA!!!” like it was his long-lost mother, and I was tearing my hair out in frustration.
At that moment, all I wanted to do was something silly like kicking a wall or screaming (to no one in particular), “it’s not fair!“
Once you become a parent, however, you lose the right to behave like a two-year-old. The way I behaved was going to be how they behaved, and I definitely didn’t want them to kick and scream.
But if I always stayed calm in heated situations, would my kids think big emotions just don’t happen to other people? And then when they felt mad (or sad), would they feel like there was something wrong with them?
I didn’t want that either.
I obviously needed help figuring it all out.
Here’s the Problem…
I don’t know what your family was like when you were growing up, but emotional coaching didn’t take place during my childhood.
Did we get mad at each other?
Did we talk about it?
Besides hearing the occasional request to keep my temper under control, my emotions and I were pretty much on our own, trying to figure each other out.
Many of us enter adulthood without a clue about how to handle our negative emotions. We all have them at times – anger, sadness, fear, or frustration. It’s part of life. But we often let them get the best of us because we don’t know any better.
It wasn’t till I discovered yoga, meditation, and the self-help aisle at Barnes and Nobles that I realized I didn’t have to let my negative emotions bring me down. I could consciously choose something else.
Choosing a Better Way
Anyone living with a child knows how incredibly annoyed, lost, or mad you can feel at times. However, you don’t have to throw your hands in the air and say, “Well, that’s just the way it is!”
We have no obligation to continue to be the person we were yesterday. At any time, we can choose to become aware of our knee-jerk reactions and unproductive patterns, and we can do better, a little bit at a time.
An enormous new body of research shows that no matter what kind of family you grew up in, you can learn to regulate your emotions even after reaching adulthood. And, what’s even more amazing, you can pass this new knowledge on to your children.
The following research-supported steps have worked surprisingly well in stopping us from freaking out in situations where reality fails to meet our expectations. They can help you too.
Don’t expect an overnight miracle, though. You have to keep choosing the new way over and over again… Fortunately, many parts of the process become automatic over time and require less and less mental effort. Eventually, it’ll be a habit.
The list is going to feel long because I’m taking care to explain everything thoroughly. Once you know the steps a bit better, I have a short version to act as a reminder.
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The step-by-step Guide to Helping Kids Navigate Negative Emotions
1. Take a Breath
Think of a mind amid strong emotions as of a herd of galloping horses in a stampede of confusion. Thubalup – thubalup – thubalup. Going, going fast and furious, and in the wrong direction. The dust at our feet feeds the energizing surge of adrenaline that carries us to the precipice, where we say and do things that were better not said or done.
Scientists have discovered that the brain centers responsible for language, logic, and patience essentially shut down during such times. We’re moved by a power stronger than our minds.
Or are we?
Scientists also tell us that taking a deep breath can stop (or at least slow down) those metaphorical galloping horses. It creates a pause in that thubalup rhythm. During that pause, deep inside our brain, a myriad of cells are hard at work trying to steer us towards a healthier response. (Yep, nature made us intelligent like that. All we have to do is use that superpower).
So how should you breathe when you feel mad or frustrated? I like to concentrate on moving my ribs out 360 degrees with my breath, exhaling for twice as long as I’m inhaling.
Inhale. One. Two. Three. Exhale. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
To teach your children to breathe deeply when they’re upset, practice when they’re happy. Take about 10 minutes a few times a week to practice blowing out the candles on the pretend (or real) cake. Notice how, when the children want to blow all the candles out, they naturally take a very long inhale. Then, when the situation calls for it, remind your kids to “blow the birthday cake candles out” before they do anything else.
2. Name It to Tame It
Our lives are full of activities, plans, and dreams. Not all interactions or events go as planned, and that’s okay. Negative emotions get a bad rap because we don’t like to feel them. But there is nothing wrong with negative emotions.
In fact, many of them aid in our survival. First, consciously notice that you’re feeling negative emotions and then probe them. Ask, what am I feeling?
I’m feeling mad.
I’m feeling irritated.
I’m feeling sad.
Many studies show that simply recognizing emotions weakens them. In one fascinating example, simply saying, “that tarantula is terrifying,” helped participants feel less intense emotion in the presence of a live tarantula.
Why did that happen?
It turns out that labeling emotions moves the brain activity from the emotional amygdala to the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (that is, the area that plays an important role in downregulating an emotional response).
Isn’t that a powerful piece of information?
So how can we put our feelings into words? You can start by increasing your emotional vocabulary. In Permission to Feel, Dr. Marc Brekett talks about addressing a group of executives whose emotional vocabulary was so poor that they could only come up with “good” or “bad” when asked to describe in detail how they were feeling. If that’s what you get from executives, what can you expect from your toddler?
Share a list of emotions with your children. You can print ours below. Simply ask your kids to color the faces, then attach the list to the kitchen wall with gentle painter’s tape that won’t damage the surface when pulled off.
You can take it a step further and ask kids to draw a face to match a feeling. Don’t try to do all of them at once; just print them out and keep them handy. Then, when you have a few minutes to talk about it, say, “This child is feeling happy. How do you think a happy face looks?” And invite kids to draw the face.
Another way to do it is to wait till you notice that your child is feeling something strongly, then say, “I think you are feeling scared right now. Can you draw what it looks like for you?”
You can print our Feeling Faces below.
It might at times seem like your children are not really absorbing this new information, but they are (I promise you).
Start by simply noticing and acknowledging your child’s feelings without judgment. It looks like you are feeling mad, hurt, or bored. (Don’t say You’re mad. Because they are not Mad. They are Antony, Anna, or Max. They are not their feelings.). Then, support their discovery process: How angry are you on a five-point scale? Hold your hand up and ask them to pick a number.
Or, for a visual aid, print our feelings thermometer. It’s a powerful visual tool to help kids know what to do with themselves amid big emotions. It can be used to identify where they are on a scale (Which zone are you in right now? What in your body tells you that you are in that zone?), and then help them shift (What can you do to move back to the green zone?).
I believe that the feelings thermometer often works simply because kids are so grateful for your involvement. They are not enjoying their freak out, for sure. And they appreciate that you don’t abandon them to deal with big emotions on their own. Kids do handle emotions well when they can, and when they can’t, they need your help.
3. Create a Happy Ending
Have you ever spent extensive time after a heated argument fuming over things you should have said?
You are not alone.
For most people, it’s hard to come up with the optimal response during intense emotional arousal. However, instead of berating yourself or feeling sorry for yourself, you can choose to learn and grow from your experience.
Think of this step as your chance to break the cycle of knee-jerk reactions, and shape your future response.
One surprisingly simple strategy is to visualize a happy ending to the situation that brought about that big emotion. One rule, though, is that you can’t change other people or aspects of the external environment. The only thing you have control over is your own response.
Imagine yourself handling the situation well and controlling that big emotion.
What could you have done or said to bring that happy ending about?
Write down specific actions and words that will help you get the ending you want: How do you want to feel? What do you want to say or cause to happen?
If you scream at your children and decide that you want to be cool next time they fight, rehearse going through your specific steps in your mind. This way, that conscious choice will be more readily available to you next time.
Providing guidance to children should take place when they are calm. The most important first step of emotional regulation you can teach your children is to accept all emotions.
You don’t always like how you feel, but you can develop the courage to stay with whatever is. Don’t try to control it. Run away from it. Or act on it. Just be with it.
This isn’t easy, even for most grownups!
You can talk to kids about calm-down strategies to help them avoid behaviors that can get them into trouble when they are in the midst of big emotions. Instead of pushing a sibling when they are mad, they can push a wall. If they want to say something mean, they can drink a glass of water.
You can also look together for the root of the problem. Why is this situation so upsetting? I believe that children always do well when they can. If your child seems to deal with the same issue repeatedly, it might be that you need to practice how to handle frustration, sadness, or anger. You can play with the Feelings Thermometer (above) and role play. You can pretend to accidentally break your child’s favorite toy, and they can pretend to be really mad about it. And then, you can together figure out what would be the best course of action in the above pretend scenario.
When you brainstorm solutions to the problem that created all the fuss, you are acting
“as a surrogate frontal lobe” to your child.
Don’t worry; you won’t have to do it for the rest of your life.
Kids learn fast.
Practicing their responses in no way suggests that you want them to be mimicking your instructions like puppets. On the contrary, spending time talking about what is a mindful response, and sharing the values you believe in, is training them to choose their response with awareness. You’re teaching them to think about, decide, and take responsibility for their behavior. It will help them make better choices when you are not around.
4. Lead by Example
Our children are watching our every move.
Don’t believe me?
Try to reach for a chocolate bar. I bet you’re going to hear “what are you doing?” before you even get the chocolate to your mouth.
But don’t worry about perfection. Nobody needs your perfection. What counts is the effort.
It helps me tremendously to keep in mind the 90-second rule. It’s a concept developed by Harvard neurologist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. The idea is that it takes 90 seconds for our bodies to flush a negative emotion out of our body (or more precisely, to flush out the chemicals that are released in our bodies as a result of negative emotion).
It’s a very short amount of time, isn’t it?!
Why it’s barely enough time to say, I’m feeling angry because my kids didn’t pick up their toys again. By the time you identify your emotion and label it, you have barely enough time left to watch it dissipate as you regain your presence of mind. And this is a much better state to be in, to come up with a productive solution to the problem of toys.
Does it always work?
But it works most of the time. And that makes an enormous difference.
Recognize that if you feel stuck in a negative emotion longer than 90-seconds, you need to revisit the story you tell yourself about the situation. Kids never pick up their toys. I have to do everything around here. Do they think I’m their slave?!
Your thoughts are actually restimulating the circuits that release those stressful chemicals and keeping you stuck in an emotional loop.
Model the process of breaking out of the loop. I guarantee that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. And what a powerful lesson it is to demonstrate to our children.
5. Read Together
Books are such a great way to provide exposure to emotional words and situations. Read books about characters that go through difficult and frustrating situations, and help your kids practice identifying emotions, as well as recognizing productive ways of dealing with them.
- What do you think went through his mind here?
- Why do you think he was angry?
- What could she do now to make the situation better?
- What made her feel so upset?
- If that happened to you, what would you do?
I made you a list of books to make learning to deal with negative emotions easier. I enjoyed reading those books with my kids (aged 4 through 13), and I hope you will too.
Dealing with negative emotions is a learned skill that we can share with our children. As parents, teachers, and caregivers, we have the potential to strengthen our kids’ emotional regulation and give them tools to manage negative emotions. It takes a bit of time but ultimately saves us a lot of grief and makes our homes and classrooms much more pleasant places.