Weekend Q&A: Addressing Emotional Outbursts
Welcome to my first Weekend Q&A, where I address real-life concerns submitted by real people. Since my blog is new and I am still establishing my “routine,” this first Q&A sesh comes via an unearthed email exchange from my archives.
After responding to this question, I realized that there were simply too many topics involved to thoroughly address each of them at length. Instead, I’ll work to provide a general summary of the issues and redirect to pieces that discuss them at greater length as I build up a larger body of blog posts.
Let me know if you have a question you’d like to see addressed in future articles or any additional advice that you have for addressing this specific issue.
A few months back, I heard from a mom who was looking for an appropriate way to address her four-year-old daughter’s emotional outbursts.
“I have such a hard time with this. I have this need to correct, probably where she gets her bossiness from. I would really love some support in learning how to phrase things. The calm voice/body, gentle touch, etc. are my go to phrases, but I am seeing that it is leading to a downward spiral and there are a lot of really intense meltdowns. I don’t know how to get her out of them when she is in the moment, except to let her go through them, cry a lot and really hard.
I have to take a break a lot of the time. They often happen in the living room/common space, and what we have been saying is that we can see that she is having a really hard time/feeling strong emotions, etc, and that it is ok, and we can do that in a safe space in her room or the play room, but that the living room is a space for peace and love. Maybe that is making her feel like we can’t handle her, or like she can’t be close to us?
I don’t know, but it is wearing me down. I’d love help.”
My perception of this particular mom is that she is not controlling at all, but rather patient, attentive, loving, and present. Her daughter, like all children, needs a venue for emotional expression. However, this space can be designated with strong, clear boundaries to protect the rest of the family’s mental health.
It’s natural to want to quiet down upset kids because we associate crying with an inherent lack of okay-ness. Keep in mind that your child can be perfectly fine even when she appears not to be, such as when she is screaming or crying.
In the moment, remember not to try to fix her emotions. Note your own responses and remind yourself that the testing of such limits is perfectly normal—your child’s emotional outburst is just a part of her normal developmental process. You may even want to observe patterns surrounding her outbursts to understand what her triggers are—perhaps, no matter how much she may initially resist, she really does just need that afternoon nap after all!
Accept Her Feelings
Rather than trying to modulate her emotions, just let your child be, even if she screams or sobs. Trust that she can handle her intense emotions and that learning to do so is a normal part of growing up.
Your energy will communicate this understanding—by taking the position that she can handle her outbursts, her own emotions can become less scary and overwhelming to her. There’s nothing for you to fix—you are just there to be a witness to her experience. She needs you there to validate her experience simply by seeing her get through it on her own.
When parents say things like, “shhh, it’s okay” and “you’re okay,” they unintentionally invalidate their child’s experiences. We know that she is okay, but telling her as much suggests that your version of “okay” is more important than her authentic experience of feeling not okay.
There is no need to explain nor pacify. Identify the emotion in question, honor it and attend to your own needs: “You are feeling something that I don’t understand. It seems like a big feeling. I can give you a hug or a cuddle but, if you need to yell like this, you’ll have to find your own space because it’s too loud for us in here.”
In this way, you differentiate between the feeling and the behavior. She is not her yelling. Rather, she is someone doing the yelling. You are not rejecting her, but rather the noise itself.
When a child expresses herself in a way that is too loud, too physical, or just too hard for you and your family to handle, it’s perfectly fine to ask her to go to another room until she’s ready to come back more quietly (or safely, or whatever boundary you set up). This direction gives her the freedom to express the feeling, get emotional support, and have control over when she chooses to rejoin the common area.
Just as importantly, however, you are indicating that you, as a person modeling self-respect and self-care, need a calm setting for your own mental health. It is important for parents to show children how to prioritize their own needs too, building both self-awareness and empathy.
Children come to understand that parents have needs too and that there’s no need to apologize for getting these needs met. In the end, you may not get that quiet space, but don’t apologize for trying!
I suggest reframing your living room description to help work toward this more peaceful environment over time. Designating your living room as a “space for peace and love” is a great start but it may be useful to make some nuanced changes.
Communicate (with your words but mostly your demeanor) that love is a steady and stable presence, not dependent on behaviors or places. There is even love for and from her while she is having her outbursts! The idea that, if her emotions erupt, then peace and love may crumble is complicated and scary. These are big words and hard concepts—to think that emotions over which she has little control could have such power feels like a lot of responsibility for a child.
Instead, try to be honest and tell her the truth: you need quiet space and calm bodies around the family.
Note Your Own Responses
We all have different thresholds for handling noise and we all have unique and personal reasons for these limits. Do you feel like you dance around her possible meltdowns? Do you notice yourself staying ahead of them or walking on eggshells around your child to avoid them?
Perhaps you are afraid of conflict, are highly sensitive to noise, or have experienced childhood trauma that makes such meltdowns especially difficult to handle. There are many possible reasons for your personal limitations and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for being you—just as your daughter is allowed to experience her big emotions, so too are you permitted to have your own complex feelings.
I want to give you permission to accept your limitations and try not to tolerate more than you should. Your mental health is also important and an essential part of you being a good parent!
Remind Yourself that Testing Limits is Normal
Your daughter receives ample love from you and your family, and she knows it. But, she’s a kid, so she may want to test this love/bond/trust at times. She may even find ways to do it that can trigger guilt in parents. Kids will go so far as to say, “You don’t love me!” or even “I will never love you again!” (these are actual examples that parents have shared) but they rarely, if ever, mean it.
In such cases, children are typically just looking for the most powerful statement in their artilleries, curious to see what happens if they employ such harsh words. It’s not personal—they are just experimenting with power!
Close observation can help avoid preventable challenges. Is there a pattern to when these meltdowns happen? Is it usually between playtime and dinner? Dinner and bath time? Weekends or weeknights?
Identifying when problems come up during the daily or weekly routine can often point to an underlying cause (hunger, fatigue, anticipating transition). The answer to ending these outbursts could be as simple as adding in a mid-afternoon snack!
The bottom line here is that, when you’re clear that you are offering your child ample space for emotional expression and making sure she is seen and attended to, there is no reason to feel guilty about attending to your own needs and setting boundaries. Know that you are doing something positive when you model self-respect. You are creating a context for the expression of big emotions that works for you, your family, and your child.
Accept your child’s feelings and model self-care during her outbursts. Then, note your responses and remind yourself that her behavior is perfectly normal. Once the outburst has ended, take note of possible factors—you may find that there is a pattern to her experiencing such strong emotions that can easily be handled.
For More Support
No matter how long parents have been raising children, bringing up a child of your own can still feel like venturing into an uncharted frontier. For support understanding your children and helping them develop into happy, healthy, and mature adults, visit stephanieantoni.com. You may even send your own question to receive an in-depth response in a future blog post!