Butterflies in your stomach, lump in your throat, red in the face, mind racing, roller coaster of ups and downs.
These are all common phrases we use to describe what we may experience when having an emotional reaction to a situation. A lot may be going on beneath the surface when we interact with the world around us. Parents may find it difficult to understand what is happening when they see their children struggling with big emotions. Adults may also struggle to understand what is happening within themselves during emotional experiences. It’s helpful to understand that such strong emotions are connected to the thoughts and bodily sensations we experience in the moment, as well as to how we behave.
However, the first thing the outside world sees is the behavioral response. In children, behaviors that may garner the most attention from adults include: classroom disruptions, meltdowns, ignoring requests or prompts. Beneath these behaviors may be emotions such as fear, anger, worry, sadness and frustration, along with related thoughts about making mistakes, not wanting to transition from a fun task or low self-confidence. Children may also experience an upset stomach, the sensation of increased heart rate or even changes in breathing. Together, these experiences become overwhelming and cause children to feel helpless or scared, and unable to think. The same processes happen for adults, possibly leading to the belief that our emotions control us or that we are powerless to respond in a positive way. This belief can set up patterns of intense emotional interactions between parents and children, who may both be feeling out of control and helpless.
The good news is that through increasing our awareness of our emotions and identifying strategies to help our emotions from intensifying, we can begin to feel more in control and less helpless. Once we have discovered this for ourselves as adults, we can begin to help the children in our lives to do the same. Many strategies can help us manage our emotions, thoughts, behaviors and body-based reactions. When we are successfully able to address one of these areas, the benefits extend to the other parts of the system.
Two such strategies that have recently gained both clinical attention and popularity are movement (including yoga, Pilates, tai chi) and art (think adult coloring books). These approaches have proven to help increase self-awareness and relax the mind and body. By regularly practicing such strategies, we are empowered with a greater sense of control and confidence in handling intense and/or distressing situations. The brain is designed to encourage us to avoid distressing situations, including people, places or things that cause uncomfortable feelings. However, when we avoid our emotions they only grow stronger and keep us stuck — similar to a tire getting stuck in the mud, when we hit the gas, we only sink deeper. By learning ways to help ourselves and our children manage these emotions, we have an invaluable resource for navigating our relationships with each other and the world around us.
Rachel Love is a licensed developmental psychologist at Taking Flight Developmental Center.