How to manage your kid’s emotional outbursts

Have you ever thrown away or hid your kid’s favorite toy because they couldn’t keep it in the toybox? Or snapped when your kids wouldn’t give you just one minute of alone time when you needed it most? We’ve all been there, in those moments when we’re frustrated or overwhelmed, we say or do something we later regret. It’s called emotional hijacking. If we as adults have problems maintaining control of our emotions, imagine how hard it is for our kids, who haven’t yet mastered emotional intelligence – the ability to identity, understand, and manage emotions.

Emotional hijacking is our brain’s response to external threats. It happens when the amygdala—the area of the brain that specializes in detecting and responding to threats—goes into overdrive and overrides our logical reasoning skills. The amygdala is the part of the brain in charge of initiating the “fight, flight or freeze response”— the amygdala is fully formed at birth. Why? To keep our kids from wandering out of the cave alone and getting eaten by sabertooth tiger.

Emotional hijacking can cause problems for people, especially young kids who aren’t yet tuned in to their emotions. When presented with a situation that isn’t necessarily threatening but perhaps overwhelming, a kid’s brain goes into overdrive and elicits a fight, flight, or freeze response that results in an emotional outburst, whether that’s yelling out in frustration, picking a fight, or breaking down in tears.

As a parent, you may be trying to simply get your kid to turn off the ipad, but before you know it, it’s an all-out war zone in the living room. Your kid is shouting, kicking, and crying, experiencing a total breakdown. But all hope is not lost—you can help your kids to learn to self-regulate, with some reflection and planning.

Enable your kid to self-regulate

Self-regulation is one of the 16 habits of success that all kids need to live happy, fulfilled lives—it is a child’s ability to recognize and deal with their feelings. Along with attachment and stress management skills, self-regulation of one’s behavior is a core skill for healthy development. When our kids have been emotionally hijacked by their own brains, we can use these moments as teachable moments. Instead of judging, step back and talk your kid through their emotions, then use that progress to plan for the future, for the next emotional hijacking.

Here are three steps to helping your kid rein in their emotions and self-regulate:

  1. Reflect: After an outburst, find a moment to talk with your kid about what happened. Ask reflection questions that help them understand themselves, their feelings, how they responded, and what they could do to respond differently next time.
    1. As a parent, there are a few questions you can ask yourself first: 
      1. How do my moods affect my thoughts and decision-making? 
      2. What is my communication style and how does it affect my family?
      3. Am I a collaborative parent with my partner and kids? Why or why not?
  2. Make an “emotional response” plan: Sit down with your kid to discuss the wide range of emotions that have led to emotional outbursts in the past. Then, brainstorm together ways they could react differently in the future. Print out and help your kid fill out the Emotional Response Strategies List from Turnaround for Children. This strategies list gives your kid a way to think about emotions: they don’t just happen to us, they are responses we can control. By working with our kids to plan out strategies for dealing with hard emotions, we are helping them self-regulate their behavior in tough situations. If you and your kid get stuck in thinking of emotional response strategies, here are a few you can suggest: 
    1. Pause. Take a moment to collect your thoughts. That may include taking a deep breath, counting silently to ten, or going on a relaxing walk if you have the time and ability. Let your kid know it’s okay to take a breather.
    2. Ask these three questions. When the need to express our thoughts or concerns arises, it is sometimes better to think first. Encourage your kid to stop and ask themself three questions: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me, now?
    3. Adjust your volume. Shouting and raising our voices prolongs heightens emotions. Coach your kid to be mindful of their voice volume. That simple act of lowering their voice can provide comfort and a shift of mindset and perspective.
    4. Ask for feedback. When we’re worked up, sometimes the problem is that we don’t know what has gone wrong. This is a good time to ask for feedback about how we’ve contributed to the situation. Pass on the value of receiving constructive criticism to your kid.
    5. Say you’re sorry. When we feel regretful, ashamed, or out of control, apologizing may be a good option. Teach your kid that apologizing is an option.
    6. Focus on the positive. Reframing the situation to see what’s going well can help a person find emotional peace. Help your kid see the bright side of life—this may also be an opportunity to instill the importance of gratitude.
    7. Practice empathy. Sometimes we can get wrapped up in our own emotions, but when we take a step back to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can see the bigger picture more clearly. Help your kid practice empathy to understand how others in the situation may be feeling as well.
  3. Check in: Keep tabs on your kid’s emotional growth by checking in daily or weekly. You can implement daily check-ins and check-outs with your family to help each person talk about and cope with their feelings. Also consider doing weekly 1:1 time with each of your kids to give them personal time to talk through the challenges and joys they’re experiencing individually. Taking time to check-in with your kids lets them know they matter, their feelings matter, and there is always a place to talk it out. When we use specific words to describe our feelings, we’re better equipped to understand why we feel them. Encourage your kid to name their feelings and understand the root causes of those feelings—from there, your family can work together to find strategies and solutions to make sure everyone is feeling supported and emotionally well.

Your goal as a parent is to help your kid transform their habit of responding instantly and intensely into a habit of reflecting and responding thoughtfully. In order to make the shift from being overwhelmed by emotions to controlling them, your kid is going to have to practice what it feels like to successfully manage a tough emotion.

With reflection, planning, and ongoing check-ins, your kid will be on their way to mastering the habit of self-regulation. That way, when their emotional brain takes over, they’ll have the strategies they need to take back control.

Control emotional outbursts_Emotional hijacking with Prepared Parents