Emotional control can be a little bit like a shootout in the Old West, especially where blow-ups, meltdowns, and temper tantrums are involved.
Imagine a quiet little western town. The townsfolk are busy with their daily affairs. Kids are playing outside the schoolhouse. Ranchers are hauling supplies. The stagecoach driver is loading suitcases. A few puffy clouds float in the clear sky.
But then someone cries out, “The Daltons are coming!” Suddenly the atmosphere of the town changes. The Daltons. Their reputation precedes them. People scurry to safety. Store owners close their doors and peek out through the curtains.
That may seem like a scene from an old black-and-white film, but something similar plays out every day in families across the world. When a child gets angry, anxious or fearful — and reacts in negative or even destructive ways — it can feel like a totally different person has arrived. And parents can’t just hide from these unwelcome guests.
Helping Your Kids With Emotional Control
Most kids are still learning to control their emotions, and sometimes challenging moments feel overwhelming. They can’t find their soccer cleats. Anywhere. They can’t play a video game as long as they want. They get mad about something that happened at school that day and throw a temper tantrum.
Thankfully, your kids are not left helplessly to the whims of their inner Dalton. In fact, with your guidance and practice, they can learn emotional control. In turn, this can minimize the occurrences of blow-ups, meltdowns, and temper tantrums that your child has. Here are four steps for helping your children regain the upper hand when intense emotions threaten to spiral out of control.
1. Recognize the Root Emotions
Our kids’ emotions are sometimes like a pleasant soundtrack to a wonderful day. Other times, those emotions are a tsunami that overwhelms kids and short-circuits their thinking. When that happens, they often end up frustrated, angrily saying, and doing things that only worsen the situation. Blow-ups, meltdowns, and temper tantrums can become patterns and get out of hand if emotional control is not taught.
So the first step in teaching emotional control is to help our kids recognize the source of these emotions, to give them a name. Are they sad about a friend’s comments? Fearful about a situation at school? Anxious about an upcoming challenge? There are levels of severity for these feelings, and it is helpful to teach your kids to use words that communicate exactly what they are experiencing.
Here are three negative-feeling categories with terms to help describe their intensity from lowest to greatest:
- Sad: disappointed, discouraged, down, sad, depressed
- Anxious: shy, worried, nervous, overwhelmed, scared
- Mad: annoyed, frustrated, mad, angry, furious
Share these categories with your kids. You can use other descriptive words or place the words in a slightly different order, whatever works with your family. The important point is to help your kids learn to be aware of their feelings, to develop a vocabulary for communicating those feelings in a clear and accurate way. Encourage your kids to use specific words for their feelings and to clearly describe and define the situation distressing them. Identifying what is causing emotional turbulence is the first step toward helping them have a healthy response to those emotions.
2. Redirect Toward a Positive Response
Once your children are aware of their feelings and can put a name to them, they have the power to move those feelings in a healthy direction. Strong feelings don’t have to result in unhealthy or unproductive words and actions, such as temper tantrums or meltdowns that kids may later regret. Having alternatives for responding to strong feelings can help our kids better control their emotions.
The following options can allow kids to work through their feelings in healthy ways:
- Talking with parents, siblings, friends, teachers, school counselors.
- Lying down and closing their eyes or taking a break in a quiet spot (such as their room or a comfy couch).
- Asking God to help them calm down, and then thinking about a favorite or relevant Bible verse.
- Doing a relaxing activity (coloring, tossing a ball, building with LEGOs, reading, playing with a pet).
The goal here is to interrupt the surge of emotions by changing location or focusing on a positive or even just a neutral activity. (Notice that these alternate responses won’t cause the problem to get worse.)
If your children are not ready to talk to another person in a productive way, they can at least make the effort to calm down. Sometimes, just taking deep, slow breaths is enough to deter a negative response. Once they have allowed their emotions to settle down, they can take the next step.
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3. Rethink the Difficult Scenario
This is the key step in the process. Emotions are not just the products of situations, but of how your kids perceive those situations. Brains are high-speed processing machines, so it’s possible for inaccurate or incomplete thoughts to slip past your kids’ radars and impact their emotions negatively. False perceptions rarely lead to positive emotions.
We always want our kids to think things that are true. They’ll initially need help in learning to rethink, but they can eventually learn to do this more independently. Once your child has calmed down, guide him in rethinking the situation that is stressing him out. There are two parts to this.
1. Identify Your Thoughts
This means to have kids state exactly what they are thinking and how they are viewing a situation. Your child could be thinking: I’m the worst player on the team; I’m ugly; I have the lowest score in math; I’ll never finish in time, or other skewed thoughts. Help your child identify these thoughts and state them out loud rather than through a temper tantrum or meltdown.
2. Examine Your Thoughts
If something is true, there will be plenty of evidence to support it. And false perceptions will have little to support them. One key is to help your kids notice extreme words, which are rarely based in truth. “I’m always ____.” “I’m never ______.” “I’m the worst at ____.”
Here are some questions you can use to help your kids examine their thoughts.
- Is there any evidence this is true?
- What are some basic facts about this topic?
- Do other kids ever go through something like this?
- Are your expectations realistic?
- Is it possible for this situation to ever change or improve?
- What steps can you take to change or improve this situation?
4. Practice Emotional Self-Control
Tell your kids that everyone experiences strong emotions. It’s important to learn how to handle them in a smart, respectful way. Just like practicing math problems, sports, or a musical instrument to improve their skills, your kids can also practice a good plan for handling strong emotions. Here’s how you can customize the process of emotional control for your kids:
Review with your kids a few basic feeling categories (happy, sad, anxious, mad) and have them give some feeling words in the same category, identifying which ones are of greater and lesser intensity.
Now make a list together of healthy ways to calm down when emotions flood our brains. Reflect on this list, and let your kids choose which ideas they think will work best for them. Brainstorm together the logistics of how your kids will use these ideas when they feel overwhelmed or distressed, where they need to go, who they can talk to, and so on. Then discuss how these ideas will help them respond better to strong emotions.
Have your kids make up some difficult situations (such as losing a sports game or doing poorly on a test) and then identify ways of thinking about those circumstances that sound either true or not true. If it is true, ask your kids to explain why they believe it is true. If it is not true, encourage them to say why that thought doesn’t sound true. Here’s an example:
Situation: I forgot to turn in my homework, so now it is late. This rarely happens, but this was a big and important assignment.
False Thoughts: My teacher thinks I’m lazy. This late assignment will wreck my grade. Everyone else turned it in on time. I should never turn things in late. Now I can’t get an A in the class.
True Thoughts: Everyone makes mistakes. It was an accident. I can turn it in tomorrow. My teacher knows I’m a good student. One late assignment won’t really hurt my grade.
As your kids learn to recognize, redirect and rethink their responses to difficult situations, they will be better able to handle their emotions and make wise decisions that reflect a maturing and godly character.