What to do when your kid is losing it

(This post includes a printable fridge sheet.)

Before I got help for losing my temper, I used to lose my temper whenever my kid would lose it. (Hot tempers tend to run in families.)

My kid would get upset about something and I would either argue with them or try to fix it. Usually, my efforts to stop their upset didn’t work, and it ended with me yelling at them.

Yelling sometimes scared them into their room or quieted them, but that’s not how I wanted to raise my kids, controlled by fear. A child who is raised controlled by fear learns to be controlled by fear in general as an adult. They also become an adult who controls others through fear.

I was raised by my dad who controlled the house through fear. It made me a fearful adult with irrational beliefs that I would “get in trouble” for some things. It also made me into a wife and parent who thought it was my job to control others through fear.

I was ready to end the cycle. I didn’t want to pass this down to my kids and grandkids.

So I got help and figured out healthy things to do when my kids lose it. I’m going to share those things with you:

> Make sure your child is safe and that they aren’t hurting themselves or others. For a small child trying to hurt you, you can hold up a pillow to block them from hurting you. Then look down (because eye contact can feel threatening), and gently say, “You’re safe. This is a safe place.”

> Imagine your child is on a train. Their little train is all over the place, up and down, side to side, fast and slow. Your goal is to stay off their train. You’re on your own large, steady train. You can observe their train ride from a distance, but you stay off their train. You are on a calm adult train ride. And you can’t really stop their train. You can be supportive during their ride, but they’ll get off when they’re ready.

> When a child is losing it, they’re stressed out. A stressed-out person has a hard time with rational conversation, so don’t say too many words. Here are some things you can say that might help:

  1. Notice what their body is doing. Say it out loud: “Your legs are stiff. Your jaw is tight. You’re stomping your feet. Your hands are in a tight ball.” etc.
  2. Make a guess at their feelings. Chose at least three feelings words. Say, “You’re feeling ________ because ________.” Like, “You’re feeling angry, sad and disappointed because we aren’t going to the store.”

NOTE: Avoid giving consequences for losing it. Instead, reassure your child: “I love you always, no matter what.” While losing it (and afterward), everyone can use some love.

Acknowledging your kid’s feelings does not mean you agree with them. Whatever is going on is important to them — that’s the train they are on. And by noticing their train, by talking about their body actions and their feelings, you are teaching them something called “emotional intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence is the ability to give names to the feelings we’re having while maintaining composure. Paying attention to how our body feels give us clues to our feelings (such as feeling a lump in your throat when you’re sad). Emotional intelligence helps us feel our feelings (instead of stuff them down) and it gets us back into rational thinking so then we can solve problems with more ease.

Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) said his goal was to make feelings “mentionable and manageable.” That’s what emotional intelligence does. So when we have intense feelings like anger, fear, and sadness we can feel them without hurting ourselves or others.

One of the joys of emotional intelligence is that you also can learn to recognize good feelings. When your child’s happy or proud, notice what their body’s doing and name their feelings too: “You’re smiling and jumping around. You feel happy, excited and proud.”

These simple techniques also work for adults. A friend of mine encountered an angry, upset adult the other day. She didn’t get on their train and argue with them. She said, “You’re feeling angry,” and the adult calmed down.

I’ve noticed that practicing emotional intelligence around the house has expanded my kids’ vocabulary around feelings. It’s fun to hear them use the words. If you’d like to give it a try, I created this Fridge Sheet for you. Print it and stick it on the fridge.

When you put the Fridge Sheet up, talk about your goals with the kids. When they’re calm, you all can brainstorm about how the body feels when different feelings are happening. Like, your heart feels heavy when you’re sad. Your shoulders feel tight when you’re stressed. Your stomach feels upset when you’re nervous.

It’s normal to have feelings (all humans have them), and your family is working on noticing them and feeling them in healthy ways.

The Fridge Sheet has awesome tips, like if you feel overwhelmed, it gives you a clue that “overwhelm” means you have a combination of feelings. (Hint: the fridge sheet is helpful for moms who lose their temper too.) <3

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