Imagine this: It starts to storm outside. The thunder is loud. It is shaking your home. It’s bothering you. So you go outside and say in a calm but authoritative voice: “Stop that.”
But the storm continues anyhow. So you say more firmly, “Stop that right now. Just stop.”
The storm ignores you again. It continues to storm. You are getting angry now! You say in a very loud voice: “I said stop that right now. I mean it: No more. This ends now.”
When your child has a true emotional storm, it makes no more sense to order the emotional storm to stop than it does to order a thunderstorm to stop. Your child has lost control. Your commands to stop will not help. They will most likely make it worse. And that will make your emotional state worse as well.
Here is why it makes no sense to order a child who is in the midst of a true emotional storm to stop:
There is a complex relationship between the thinking, rational, self-regulating brain (the frontal lobe) and the emotional brain. There are lots of two-way connections between these two parts of the brain. Usually, each part of the brain informs and influences the other. (Although most people over-estimate the power of the rational, thinking part of the brain and fail to recognize how much of our behavior is governed by emotions. This is true of supposedly rational calculated behavior like investment decisions…)
But when the emotional brain is kindled and emotional arousal is very intense, a fuse blows in the lines linking the thinking and the emotional brain. There is a short-circuit between the thinking brain and the emotional brain. The thinking, rational brain (frontal lobe) is cut out of the loop and can no longer moderate, modulate, or control the emotional brain.
You got trouble.
And all you can do is wait for the storm to subside. The best thing you can do is help your child get to some emotional shelter until it subsides – a place that feels safe and where the child cannot really do much harm. A terrific second grade school teacher taught me this is the clearest possible way. When one of her student’s lost it to an emotional storm, she would have the rest of the kids leave the room to allow the stormy child a quiet place to settle down.
Please note though: Every display of strong emotion is not necessarily a true emotional storm. Some kids will put on a display in an attempt to get what they want. But most parents can tell the difference.
So what can you do to help your stormy, anxious child? Here are some helpful steps:
1. Acceptance: It’s a storm.
- Tell ourself: “It’s not my fault. It’s not his fault. It’s not my spouse’s fault.”
Do not worry about what the storm means. Do not worry about what caused it. Do not worry that your child is spoiled. Do not worry that your child will become an aggressive adult. It’s just a storm. And storms end. And they come again.
Tell yourself: “He has a bit of a problem. He can’t just make it go away. He can improve over time. You can help him/her improve over time.”
2. Stay calm yourself.
- Like in an airplane: you put on your oxygen mask to be able to assist your child. Staying calm is your oxygen.
3. Do not provide yet more stimulation to a child who is already over-stimulated.
- Don’t talk to your child until both you and he are calm and capable of collaboration.
- If either you or your child is too bothered to talk calmly, take steps to get calm
4. Help your child learn to self monitor.
Talk to your child about making a “bother meter”. Ask him to rate how bothered he is on some scale he understands. You can use a simple 1 to 10 scale. You can use a visual bother meter showing how bothered you are by how close together your hands are. Whatever will work for your child.
You may want to start this with some other family member, so your child does not feel it is aimed at him. Then practice with your spouse and other children so that your stormy guy can see it happening and does not feel targeted. Hopefully he/she will want to do it too.
Ask your child how bothered he is when he is a little bothered and medium bothered. You want him to practice under low stress conditions so that he gains the skill to use it when he really needs it.
5. The next step is to begin to work with him so that he is more or less constantly self-monitoring – watching his bother scale. His job is to catch it before it gets too high and take action to calm himself down before he loses control.
Help your child learn strategies he can rely on to help himself calm down or settle when his bother meter goes up. Whatever works to reduce his emotional arousal is fine. He might retreat to a quiet place, play with legos, go for a walk. Its good to find some strategies that can be used out in the world also.
Then he needs lots of chances to practice, to build his skills at recognizing when he is getting bothered and taking timely action to calm himself down so he remains under control.
Here is where the storm metaphor breaks down.
You can prevent emotional storms…..or learn to prevent them more often.
This self-regulation development program is not that hard to implement. Most kids take to it readily. They like it. (I have never met a child who genuinely likes to behave badly…)
But if you would like help putting this in place for your stormy, anxious child, contact us. We’d be glad to help. We have other approaches to helping the anxious child that might help your child and your family as well.