Communities That Care: Straight Talk helps parents to steady the emotionally reactive child

Dealing with children who have strong emotions can be very tricky; it is a delicate dance of validation and redirection. These children have intense emotions that frequently don’t match the situation at hand. They are quicker to become upset and harder to soothe. These responses can be overwhelming and sometimes frightening for the caregiver and the child.

Parents frequently describe it as “walking on eggshells” with their child, as they are fearful of triggering a meltdown. However, with this approach, the child’s exaggerated responses end up being reinforced as the correct way to handle distressing situations.

The other situations parents and caregivers find themselves in is one of escalation and exasperation. In this scenario, adults respond with intensity and emotion that matches the child’s, which causes the child to become more upset and, in turn, amplifies the adult’s response. This becomes a no-win situation for both parties.

These examples portray two ends of a reaction spectrum — from avoidance to control, neither of which helps children learn how to cope with or express their strong emotions. Ideally, the adult is able to remain “present” with the child without being pulled into the emotional storm that is occurring.

For the adult, finding that ability to be present means recognizing and disengaging their own emotional buttons, and understanding why the situationcauses them such distress so they either detach or explode. For many, the trigger is a need to move forward, get something accomplished, meet a schedule demand or an internal idea of what should be occurring. For some, the trigger becomes tied to the idea that the situation at hand defines who they are as a parent and the quality of their parenting. Understanding this allows the adult to understand their own needs and emotions and how to process them in those moments.

When emotions are driving, actions become more reactionary than responsive. Allowing a moment to reflect and calm down during the times the child is falling apart will help the caregiver respond to the situation at hand, rather than reacting to it. Being responsive allows the caregiver to help the child identify the feeling that is occurring, validate the emotion and assist the child to move through it.

It’s important to let children experience the distress and discomfort they’re feeling and acknowledge it exists. This step allows the child to develop better understanding of what emotions are and to learn that, while the feelings might be intense, they are temporary and will pass. By staying calm and present, the caregiver reinforces that there is nothing to be afraid of in that moment, and the child will be able to slowly self-regulate and calm down by observing calm, reflective behaviors.

Children who feel intensely cannot be rescued from their emotions; they need guidance to learn how to weather their emotional storm by a beacon who will show them the way.

Join me at 7 p.m. March 17 at Mount Nittany Middle School for an informative Straight Talk session.