How do Parents Help Their Kids with Strong Emotions?

A brain in chaos needs reintegration, escalation

A few nights ago, my wife and I were having a particularly difficult time getting our 4 year old son to go to bed and stay in bed.

kids emotions

The Negotiator

Now, before I continue with this story, you have to understand that my boy is a negotiator extraordinaire. He will negotiate about everything: how often he has to take a bath, how many songs we sing him before he goes to sleep, how long he has to brush his teeth, how many bites of food he has to eat at dinner. The list is endless. My wife and I often joke that by the time he’s a teenager, he’ll be drawing up contracts for us to sign stipulating the parameters of his curfew and driving privileges.

Back to the story. We both love bedtime with our boy. It’s the last few moments of the day when we get to reconnect with him during story time, put away any frustrations or bad feelings that have arisen since the start of the day, and sing him a few goodnight songs before he heads off to sleep. But…lately, he’s been turning the bedtime routine into another frontier of negotiation. And his biggest sticking point at the moment is the number of songs he gets before bed.

I realize there are some parents who will read this and think, “What the heck? That kid should feel lucky to get one song at bedtime. How many do they sing him?” But our son was born 8 weeks early, spent 6 weeks in the NICU, and didn’t sleep solidly and consistently through the night until he was 3 years old. So we spent a lot of time in those first years up at random ours of the night, singing him songs and trying to soothe him back to sleep. For better or worse, this is part of his routine, and we like it. One day, he won’t want us to sing songs any longer, and we’re content to wait until that day arrives on its own.

Eventually, There’s Got to be a Consequence

So back to a few nights ago. My wife and I had both reached a particularly high frustration point with his negotiations around songs, so I made a deal with him before bedtime started about the number of songs he would get and the consequences if he tried to fight it: he would lose one of his favorite toys for the remainder of the following day. He solemnly agreed, but after the songs were done, when it came down to closing his eyes and going to sleep, he just couldn’t resist. He started negotiating, begging for just one more song. We tried to warn him, but he simply would not listen.

At this point, we either had to follow through with the consequence or risk losing credibility with our son. So, we had to lock up his toy. This, of course, resulted in a complete meltdown. He was undone by this course of events, and begged and pleaded with us to reverse our decision. He cried and screamed. He was truly upset.

Stop Having Your Emotions!

Now, at this stage in the process of disciplining a child, it’s easy to get caught up in their emotionality and start moving toward punishing them for being emotional. It’s the old “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to give you something to cry about” routine. But 25 years of brain research has shown that this approach really doesn’t help your child develop the kind of emotional regulation they need for long-term success.

When your child dissolves into a chaotic, emotionally charged, unreasonable fit about something, this is usually a sign that their brain has literally become disorganized. Neurons are firing off in every direction, and the irrational, emotional right-side of the brain is winning the day. It’s not that your child doesn’t want to be rational, listen, and obey. It’s normally that they simply can’t do it in that moment.

I found myself going down the “stop crying” path initially. As our son screamed and cried about his consequence, I started to become agitated. Suddenly I heard myself say, “If you don’t calm down, you’re going to have to go into timeout.” Fortunately, my brilliant and level-headed wife, made a face that said, “You need to reign it back in, Neil.” So, I stopped for a moment to reassess.

When your child is in the midst of a full-blown right-brained meltdown, the last thing they need is one more threat to escalate things even more. Instead, they need help reactivating their left-brain functions of rational, calm thought. A brain in chaos needs reintegration, not escalation.

Reintegrating the Brain

So, I pulled myself together and thought about my training and experience. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic of growing emotionally intelligent children. I use the principles in this book nearly every day with my own kids, and even sometimes with my adult clients. One of the tactics they use to help kids calm down is the process of writing something down.

I decided to try this same tactic in this situation. I went to our counter, picked up a small notebook and a pen (while our son is still wailing and crying on the floor), quietly walked over to where he was, knelt down, and began writing out a note. Immediately, he stopped crying and wanted to know what I was writing. Within seconds he was helping me compose the note, which was telling about how Mom and Dad had taken away his favorite toy and how upsetting this was. The wailing and screaming stopped, and he was now engaged in a process that was calming him down.

Why does this work? Well, writing and language creation are left-brain processes. You can’t really do those things when your right-brain, emotional processes have taken over. By sitting down on the floor and starting to write something, I “switched on” my son’s left-brain processes, which gave him a break from the emotional storm he was experiencing in his right-brain. This process might not work for all children, but it will work for many. Kids are eternally curious about what their parents are doing, especially when it involves something that requires their left-brain processes to engage and decode what’s happening.

Bringing Back Balance

In the end, the note-writing helped him calm down. We got him back into bed and off to sleep. For parents who read this, I hope this story reminds you that your child’s emotional life is often one of chaos and confusion. They don’t always know what they’re feeling, or even why they’re feeling it. As parents, it’s our job to help them bring those chaotic feelings back under control, but contrary to many popular ideas, the best way to do this is not with threats or additional punishments. It’s achieved by helping your child reintegrat their entire brain, so that both sides are engaged. This is how we calm our emotions as adults. Children are still learning how to do this. The more we can engage in processes that bring them back to right- and left-brain balance, the more capable they become of regulating their own emotional states as they grow up.

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