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Dealing With Strong Emotions

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kids say a lot of stuff over the course of a day. Some of it we listen to, some of it we hear and dismiss, some of it we ignore. But what we listen to and how we respond can have a big ripple effect on our relationship – and on our children’s behaviour. One of the quickest ways to improve the behaviour of your children is to really listen to them when they talk. Listening without fixing, or moralizing, or judging, or rationalizing is what we all want, it’s just that adults don’t usually throw a temper tantrum when they feel misunderstood. (Then again, sometimes we do…)

Begin by making sure that you’re really present and listening when your child starts to talk. She may not tell you specifically she wants to talk (“Hey, Mom, do you have a minute?”), it may be more that she is speaking and showing a great deal of emotion at the same time. She might be talking about a friendship, something that happened at school, a rule at home that she doesn’t like, or reacting to something you’ve said – you can use this approach any time that she has a strong reaction to something, or when you feel yourself getting heated in response to what she’s saying.

Nobody likes to feel as though they’re less important than the task at hand, so make sure you pause what you’re doing to really listen and hear what she’s saying. Encourage her to keep talking by nodding and saying, “Hmm” and “Uh-huh”, or by reflecting back what she’s just said to you (“You felt rushed into making a decision”, for example, or “Wow, the teacher yelled at you in front of the whole class.”) Resist the urge to challenge what she’s saying to you! If she says, “I’m the dumbest kids in the class,” as a parent, we want to reassure her: “Of course you’re not, honey. You got an A on your last test!” Fight that knee-jerk reaction. The conversation will be more valuable to her if you instead reply, “Sounds like you had a hard day” or “You’re not feeling very good about yourself right now.” These kinds of responses are much more likely to keep her talking, rather than making her more upset and convincing her that you just don’t understand.

Next, give the feelings a name. “That sounds frustrating!” “You’re really angry.” “You seem really hurt.” These are all statements that give kids in the midst of an emotional meltdown a way to make sense of their feelings, as well as being reassured that you really do understand them.

Sometimes, this in itself is enough. Just by listening without judgment, reflecting back what you hear them say, and getting them to talk through their own problems, the problem resolves itself. At other times, it can lighten the mood enough that your children are then able to hear your thoughts on the situation, and you can work together to resolve the problem.

Here’s a little cheat-sheet of the steps to try:

Listen – Acknowledge – Name the Emotion – Offer Your Thoughts and Discuss Solutions

You’ll be amazed at the arguments and power struggles that dissolve when you go approach your child’s emotional outbursts this way!

(The book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish is an excellent book with a similar philosophy – definitely worth checking out if your family could benefit from improved communication.)

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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