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Reining In Strong Emotions

April 1, 2016/by Betty Gewirtz

This post is part of our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program.

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Question: My child is a fourth grader. There are days when she comes home angry, after school. My first thought is that something upsetting must have happened. She used to talk to me but now I feel shut out of her world. When she does talk she tells me I don’t understand. What could be happening and what should I do? How can I help her with how she’s feeling?

Response: You may feel you have lost importance or credibility in your daughter’s life. You are experiencing her behavior as a personal rejection. When children leave home and go to school, their world gets bigger and other influences compete for attention and gain significance…friends, teachers and coaches to name a few. If your daughter looks angry, sad or disappointed, for example, use the word that best expresses what you observe and ask her if she wants to talk about it. When your child begins to open up to you, listen to her and accept her feelings, even if you feel she is overreacting. Making a judgement might be your immediate reaction but your child will feel criticized or conclude that feelings will be misjudged. It is important to allow your child to express negative feelings or other feelings that might be difficult for you to hear. Listen to her and help her name her feelings, letting her know you can see that she is frustrated or hurt, for example. Then you could ask her if she can tell you what happened. After listening you can reflect the reason behind the feeling. For example, you feel hurt because Susan did not ask you to play with her. That gives meaning to your child’s feelings. Making sense of a feeling, giving it meaning, is one way that helps to rein in strong feelings.

Parents are likely to have strong feelings, triggered by their child’s attitude or actions. Be aware of your knee jerk reactions. A common automatic reaction is, “you shouldn’t feel that way” or ”don’t complain.” Instead pause for a moment, take a deep breath, give yourself time to think about how you feel. You can communicate your pause, to your child, saying you need a little time to think about what you’re feeling before you respond. Tell her you would like to talk later, if that is okay. Your response models a way to deal with strong emotions by taking a step back and taking the time to think about how you feel before you respond. That thoughtful, caring and respectful response is a powerful one for your child. It is comforting to your child that you can rein in your feelings. It demonstrates a skill that your child can begin to model when she feels angry or upset.

Making sense of feelings…helping your child to know that feelings are connected to something and thus have meaning is an important tool to understand and manage feelings. Secondly, developing an awareness of your triggers and knee jerk reactions, then pausing to think before reacting, is another way we rein in our emotions and model that behavior to our children. Reining in feelings help us communicate more effectively and respectfully with our children.

We are not born with skills that help us regulate our feelings. We learn them from others and improve over time with practice and self-awareness.

FamilyKind offers a parenting skills course for parents who want to become more mindful of their interaction with their children through learning and practicing skills in a safe, caring forum. The course is called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP). You can learn more by going to the FamilyKind home page and click on For Families and then Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP).

Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program. Learn more.

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