Image of calm boy lying on grass, to accompany blog: Kids' Emotional Dysregulation: What To Do, What NOT To Do

“Connection Before Correction”: But you also need to teach emotional regulation!

Connection before Correction: This is an incredibly popular parenting strategy, but as I said in a recent blog, Connection alone is not enough to solve a strong-willed- or oppositional child’s problem behavior.

So real quick, just to recap: If you want to teach your strong willed-, oppositional or defiant child to listen and cooperate, you actually need four main strategies: First, yes, you do need to be positive; second, you need to know what to do when your child gets angry; third, you need an Accountability System; and fourth, you need to meet your child’s need for control!

I talked about parents being positive in July (go here to read that blog), and today I’m going to talk about something else you need to do: You need to deal with your child’s frustration and anger.

You need to help your child self-regulate.

You need to know how to help your child to self-regulate when they get frustrated. Why? Every day I talk to parents who tell me, “I HAVE tried to set boundaries with my child, I HAVE said, homework before screen time, or, No means no – but when I do that, they get angry. And their meltdowns are EXTREME!”

And this is not uncommon! it’s NORMAL for strong-willed kids to get mad when your rules and expectations get in the way of their doing (or having) what they want. As I’m sure you know, this frustration can mean anything from grumbling and complaining to hour-long, violent meltdowns. And this is why, in my parent coaching practice, Emotional Regulation is one of the first things we focus on. Lots of parents want my help getting their child to listen and cooperate, but in the beginning it’s not uncommon for strong-willed kids to get really mad when they’re asked to listen, and if parents don’t know how to manage that frustration, they’ll be AFRAID to ask their child to listen.

So what DO you do when your child gets really angry?

Emotional Regulation Strategy 1: These big feelings are OK!

The first thing you want to do is just ACCEPT and ALLOW the anger. Of course we don’t want to accept aggression or violence, but we DO want to be really OK with frustration, anger, RAGE – whatever the feeling is. Did you know that one of the biggest obstacles to kids learning how to manage their anger is the message that anger is either bad or it’s a problem to be “fixed”? But there’s actually nothing wrong with having a meltdown if you don’t hurt anyone, and accepting the anger as normal makes it MUCH easier for kids to just express the anger – and thereby let it go. I really can’t stress this enough. Kids need you to be OK with their anger!

Emotional Regulation Strategy 2: Don’t add fuel to the fire!

“OK, Rebecah,” you may be saying. “I get it. Of COURSE feelings are just feelings, and there’s nothing wrong with feelings. But if he’s screaming, and stomping, and throwing things, and even hitting me – I don’t WANT to just accept it! Here’s what I want to know: How can I get him to calm down??

Well, first let me tell you what NOT to do. I do need to start with what not to do, because – Spoiler Alert – most experts will tell you to do these things! But when your child is REALLY angry,

1. Don’t try to “empathize”: “Oh, sweetie, I know you feel frustrated. I can see that you’re really angry with me. I get it.”

2. Don’t encourage them to “identify,” verbalize, or talk about their feelings;

3. Don’t encourage them to take calming breaths and/or focus on their body;

4. Don’t try to get them to “understand” the reason for the situation they’re mad about, and don’t try to convince them that the situation isn’t as bad as they think it is.

Now all this may seem counterintuitive, and I know that therapists and parenting experts often recommend these strategies. But these things just don’t work with the REALLY big feelings.

And why not? These strategies don’t work simply because emotion and rationality are distinct neurological processes. And it’s almost impossible for a child who’s having a meltdown to switch tracks; start up their rational brain – and then verbalize their feelings, or “understand” that it’s no big deal, or engage in self-calming activities. I don’t know how many parents have told me, “When he gets in that space I can’t even talk to him… It’s like he’s not even there,” or, “He won’t use the techniques he learned in therapy; in the moment he just screams No.”

But the inability to just talk it out or just calm down is completely normal when emotions run high, and if you try to stop the anger in the heat of the moment, you just add fuel to the fire. Of course empathy is a good thing, and of course it’s good to talk about our feelings – and it’s true that the above strategies DO work when the anger is at a low enough level that the rational brain can kick in. But intense anger is a physiological process characterized by physical arousal and significantly increased energy, and the best way to process intense anger is through some kind of physical expression.

Emotional Regulation Strategy 3: Help them express it!

Really big feelings mean a really big increase in energy, and screaming, yelling, aggressive or violent behavior – these happen in part because the child is driven to RELEASE all that energy. So the other thing you want to do when your child gets angry is, if necessary, direct them to a Cool Down Space – a physical space where they can have a meltdown without being disruptive or destructive.

Often this space can be their bedroom, or a section of the garage or playroom; and because it’s the space where they go when they’re really, really mad, it will contain items they can use to help them vent – say, cushions or a mattress or a punching bag they can punch, or paper or cardboard they can rip.

Parents sometimes find it hard to identify potential cool-down spaces, but, for example, one family I worked with had NO extra space in their small apartment, so they used a couch instead, and when the kids were angry, they went over and punched the couch. As another example, another family I worked with put up a tent in their living room, and this was the Cool-Down Space.

YOUR Cool-Down Space – and what you need to do to get your child to use it – really depends on your individual situation. And yes, a lot of kids DO resist the Cool-Down Space at first. This is normal, and it’s a very common objection parents have: “My kid would never GO to their Cool-Down Space!” If your child is very young and you can pick them up and move them, your solution will be different from that of the mom whose kid is 15 and they’re bigger than her and they’d rather direct their anger at her. But I promise – this is a problem that can be solved every time. I’ve seen it over and over in my work with kids with big feelings (and physical aggression).

it’s perfectly normal for strong-willed kids to get mad when your rules and expectations prevent them from having or doing what they want, and this is why, in my parent coaching practice, Emotional Regulation is one of the first things we talk about. Parents want their child to listen, but in the beginning strong-willed kids get really mad when they’re asked to listen, and if parents don’t know how to manage that frustration, they’ll be AFRAID to ask things of their child.

So you need to need to know how to help your child to self-regulate when they get frustrated. And as it turns out, the most effective responses to kids’ big feelings are to:

1. Accept and normalize them

2. Teach kids to express their feelings without hurting anyone or anything; and

3. Refrain from using popular therapeutic approaches that that essentially require the child to be calm enough to engage their “rational brain.”

While cognitive approaches do work for the more easygoing kids, one of the best and most healthy processes kids have for calming down is simply to express the anger safely. Of course, self-regulation does not automatically lead to cooperation, but here’s the good news! When you use the strategies I listed earlier – be positive; help your child express their big feelings; have an effective Accountability System; and meet your child’s need for control – kids’ “anger events” REALLY decrease in frequency and duration!

Need help?

There’s wrong with emotional intensity and big feelings – but daily, hour-long meltdowns? Strong-willed- and oppositional kids’ emotional intensity can be very difficult for some parents, and if this is you, I can help. With the right response, kids’ meltdowns REALLY decrease in frequency and duration, and I think you’d be amazed at just how quickly this can happen. (In my coaching programs, where most of my kids have emotional dysregulation and many are also aggressive we typically reduce the meltdowns by 90% in the first 3 weeks, and we solve the aggression, too!) Go here to schedule a free consult with me!

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