Targeting Kids’ Emotions Can Help With Irrational Behavior

Parents: Ever wonder what’s going on when your child or adolescent does something irrational?

  • A favorite meal one night is the most “disgusting” food the next.
  • A simple “How was school?” is met with “Leave me alone you’re so annoying!”
  • A wonderful day of indulgence together is followed by  “I hate you, Mom…you’re so mean!”

If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing any or all of these scenarios, fear not! Focusing on emotions can help.

Emotional struggles define childhood

All of these scenarios share a common origin. They all stem from kids’ ongoing struggle to manage and regulate their emotions.  Childhood and adolescent behavior problems have roots in underlying emotions that, for a variety of reasons, become too difficult for kids to tolerate. Rather than face the (yucky) feelings directly, kids act out behaviorally.

Since emotions are a constant in our lives, we need to think about which emotions are at play in a given situation — whether it’s a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old.  Looking at childhood development and behavior through what I like to call an “Emotional Lens” can give parents extraordinary insight and useful tools to help kids cope and excel.

Seeing the world through an Emotional Lens

The starting point for all of the counseling and parenting I do is this:  all behavioral problems originate from kids’ struggles to manage their emotions.  And when we view children’s behavior through this Emotional Lens, we are far more equipped to help them.

I want to show you want I mean by applying this thinking to one of the scenarios above, which is inspired by my six-year-old daughter’s dinnertime behavior.  A favorite meal one night is the most “disgusting” food the next.  So what is the underlying emotion in this scenario?  It may sound surprising, but it actually has to do with the sadness and frustration that comes with her sense of loss. Usually when my daughter has an extreme reaction to dinner, she is reacting to an expectation she had about what she wanted (pizza, macaroni and cheese, take your pick) and realizing that she’s getting yesterday’s turkey meatloaf.

Losing is hard!

As adults and parents, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could experience a sense of loss from having to eat meatloaf again. Often my reaction is “Really?!” “You’re really upset about that?”  I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment.  But my reaction to her seeming irrationality is never helpful and only serves to further fan the flames.

While I can’t necessarily stop her from being upset, nor can I always get her to come around to the idea of having yesterday’s dinner again, I can help her learn how to more effectively deal with the sense of loss she’s experiencing. This will better prepare her for dealing with the many future losses to come (like tomorrow night’s dinner).

How do kids learn to manage their emotions?

Accepted theory on emotion regulation says that children first learn to identify and categorize emotions by seeing emotions reflected in others. This process is called mirroring.  Mirroring is what you see when a parent or adult makes ridiculous, over exaggerated faces to a baby. These faces allow the baby to see a happy face and learn eventually to label it as “happy”. Baby also learns to match what she sees as happy with what it feels like inside to be happy.

Eventually children learn to identify in themselves what they are feeling, make inferences into the way other people might be feeling, and use words rather than actions to help control these emotions.

Adults are better at managing their emotions because they’ve had more practice. An example of this is a couple that’s having a heated argument.  One partner is beginning to feel angry and recognizes this feeling based on the internal cues she’s learned to associate with anger (like her increased heart rate, rise in body temp and pressured speech). She says to her partner, “I need to get away from you right now, because I’m getting really angry and might say or do something I’ll regret.”  What she’s doing here is crucially important: she identifies her emotional state, steps away from the heat of the argument, and calms herself down.

I wouldn’t say that all adults have mastery of this skill.  But compared to adults, children really struggle with it. Kids often have a difficult time pinpointing the emotion that gets triggered, and they act out their frustrations through bad behavior or tantrums.  The goods news is, though, there are a number of ways we can help foster these skills in our kids.

So getting back to the meatloaf, my daughter has very little control over how she processes feelings of sadness and loss. Ultimately, the goal is to help her to recognize the sense of loss within herself so that she’s able to talk through it.  Rather than pushing her plate of food on the floor or knocking over her chair, my daughter will eventually be able to say, “Awww, I really wanted to eat pizza tonight, Daddy.  I’m so disappointed!”…. at which point I will fall on the floor in shock.

Ways to help kids along emotionally

There are a few things we can all do to help our kids gain more control over their emotions.

Create a narrative: You may not know the exact reason why your child is doing the crazy thing they’re doing, but use your best guess. A good guess is that they’re feeling disappointment and sadness over a perceived loss.  Basically, they didn’t get what they wanted.  By putting “feeling” words to their experience, you’re helping them see the root of their frustration so that one day they can identify and verbalize it themselves. “You’re really sad/angry/frustrated that you didn’t get pizza tonight.”

Stay calm: Staying calm affords kids the opportunity to get through the emotion on their own and also helps them see that these emotions aren’t overwhelming. If you can handle these difficult feelings, then perhaps they can handle them too.

Normalize the feeling: This might be the hardest thing to do, harder even than keeping calm, since empathizing with tears over meatloaf isn’t easy. However, doing so will send the message that it’s normal to feel sad/angry/frustrated. This puts kids into a better position for working through tough emotions rather than trying to fight or avoid them. Many of the teens I work with who struggle with serious behaviors like substance abuse, self harm and suicide not only try to fight the negative feelings they have but also beat themselves up for feeling them. The more we can be OK with kids’ feelings, however irrational they seem at the time, the more they’ll be OK with them too.

Use media as a medium: TV, movies, YouTube, video games are all potentially teachable material for kids regarding emotions. Talk about the characters and their feelings. Speculate on what the characters are feeling and why they might be feeling that way. Talking about a character’s sadness is a lot easier for kids than talking about their own feelings. It allows kids to explore emotions without getting defensive and creates space for kids to begin accepting these feelings in themselves.