Emotional Explosions. Like wrestling a bag of wasps. What should you NOT do and What SHOULD you do?
Ever heard yourself telling someone who is as mad as a bag of wasps to “calm down?” How did that go then? Yeah I thought so. Me too. As a seasoned social worker of 20 years I heard myself say this to a young person once. And yes, I got stung. Hard.
Telling someone to calm down when they are clearly not in control of their emotions at that moment is like poking a bag of wasps, insulting their mother's, and then opening the bag! Not pretty, very noisy and someone always gets hurt!
Telling someone what you want them to feel when they are clearly feeling something else is futile. This is because all behaviour, (whether it is inconvenient, convenient, pleasant or otherwise) is communication. And if you haven’t received the message (and shown that you have received the message) then the person trying to communicate with you will escalate the behaviour until the message is received.
This is why ignoring your child’s inconvenient behaviour is just not effective. It will escalate it as they try to connect with you, or they will redirect it somewhere, sometime or to somebody else. So what can you do? Well it’s simple. To coin a catchphrase - "Say what you see". Don’t describe what you want them to feel, describe how they are actually feeling. Examples might be...
“You are furious, I can see that, what can I do to help?”
“You seem really angry with me, I’m sorry you’re feeling so mad.”
“You are so disappointed about the party being cancelled, I know, I would feel that way too, but please don’t kick the back of the car seat.”
You may have to repeat the displayed feeling several times but as you correctly identify their feeling the emotion dissipates a little each time, and as you match the newly reduced emotion with a different word, you are helping your child to connect feelings to words - you are teaching emotional literacy - a key skill for emotional regulation. Here's an example in helping a child who was picked last for the school footie team and appeared at their mother's car after school ready to kill dead things:
“You are FURIOUS!!, something must have happened, tell me about it.” And then,
“You are still SO mad, I can tell this is a really big deal for you.” And then,
“You are angry, that is understandable, you must feel hurt by being picked last.” And then,
“You are disappointed and feel left out and unimportant, and those are hard feelings. I get it. You will always be loved and included in our family.”
This builds emotional regulation and intelligence skills where your child will start to recognise that the feeling they are experiencing is disappointment not anger, or hurt, not anger, or panic not anger.
Anger is a pseudo-emotion. That is one we use to express other more complicated, vulnerable and difficult to express emotions. It is an easier emotion to express, it is effective in that it gets the attention of people and it communicates something is wrong. But it isn’t really the crux of the matter and if we are to really soothe and help our children solve their problems, we need to get to the crux of the matter. If you are interested in learning more about how to communicate restoratively and to effect better connection with your children, students or partner, reach out. We'd love to help.
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer, mum, partner, mediocre saxophonist and excellent chocolate quality controller.