When it is More than Just a Phase
There is no parenting journey that compares with loving and leading a child with intense emotions. No one hands you a helmet with ear plugs, offers you a defense shield, or tucks words of wisdom in your back pocket. You are left standing there – unprepared and unprotected from the onslaughts of emotional outbursts from your child, as well as the self-imposed criticisms you hurl upon yourself because you child seems so unhappy, easily upset, or even angry. How are you supposed to teach and guide a child who seems to be poised on the brink of intense emotions at any given time?
Does My Child Have Intense Emotions?
Probably at some point in time, many parents feel that their rambunctious toddler is emotionally intense, screaming if she doesn’t find her favorite stuffed animal in time for her nap. However, this likely isn’t an every-day occurrence, but one that arises from a short-lived, singular event, such as a busy morning with Grandma.
Children with intense emotions have consistent emotional needs multiplied by what feels to be at least one hundred. Also known as emotion dysregulation, children who experience emotions at heightened levels usually react quickly and intensely to situations that might not typically elicit those same responses in people who don’t react so fervently. Parents of children with intense emotions often describe their kids as something such as “going from 0 to 10 in less than a second” – there seems to be almost no hope for responding to certain everyday situations calmly.
Your child might even be diagnosed with other conditions such as ADHD, Asperger’s, sensory dysfunction, or even something like a personality disorder. Because intense emotions can piggy-back on top of other issues, it can be difficult to discern one from the other. In fact, some research has shown that high functioning academically gifted children might be misdiagnosed with one of the disorders just mentioned, but in reality are gifted and dealing with intense emotions.
But there is hope. There are strategies that you can use – and the earlier you start, the better. The road of parenting a child with intense emotions is rarely smooth and pristine. In fact, it is often filled with potholes –
- self-doubt because you can’t understand what is happening
- criticisms by others who think you are a lazy or spoiling parent
- stress in the family because the intense emotional behaviors are affecting the household
- stress and anxiety for your child who feels helpless and hopeless
- a whole array of other, not so warm-and-fuzzy feelings about your child, yourself, and your ability to parent
I Think My Child Struggles with Intense Emotions – Now What?
Breathe and know that you’re not alone. For every child who is experiencing the world through intense emotions, there are parents, caregivers, and family members whose worlds are also being shaped by these sometimes overwhelming emotions.
- Journal about your child’s behaviors. Include the circumstances immediately preceding the emotional outburst, the behaviors of your child, your reactions to the situation, and any consequences (didn’t get to attend the birthday party, missed the bus, etc.).
- Consider the differences in your reactions – emotionally and cognitively. When you react to your child’s behaviors out of emotions you are feeling, chances are your reactions are swift, not completely thought through, and are not long-lasting solutions. Work more on your responses to your child’s emotional reactions.
- Begin to recognize the triggers of the behaviors. If you know that your child struggles with the concept of time, and then reacts emotionally when he feels rushed, do small things to help lessen the impact of the triggers. Give 10 and 5 minute warnings before needing to leave, help your child become more organized (setting out clothes the night before) so the mornings aren’t rushed, or choose activities wisely that aren’t always dependent on time.
- Consider dialectic behavior therapy (DBT). This is not something to which you send your child – it is something through which you both learn how to communicate and respond in healthier ways, especially emotionally. The goal of DBT when it comes to parenting children with intense emotions is to teach parents the skills needed to understand emotion – from the source of it, the triggers, the reactions, and the responses. There are four main goals that drive DBT.
Mindfulness of the entire situation – the triggers, the emotions, and the perspectives of all involved
Interpersonal effectiveness – communication and action strategies
Emotion regulation – this is the step most parents want to skip to, but the first two are essential
Distress tolerance – parents work toward acceptance of their child with intense emotions, and move away from judgment (Why do you have to be so crabby?) toward effective parenting strategies (I see that you are upset – let’s work together to find out why and what we can do about it.)
When parents can learn these tools, they can learn to intervene early, respond to their children more effectively, and work toward a more peaceful home. Two of the leading experts on the subject, Pat Harvey and Jeanine Penzo, have written a wonderful resource for parents: Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions. This book gives practical solutions and helps parents to see that they are not alone, they are not helpless, and the situation is no hopeless.