When Your Kids Are a Mess

Recently, my sixteen-year-old son verbally threw up all over me via text because he was upset about having to reschedule his learner’s permit test (I got tied up and couldn’t take him as planned). I knew nerves and disappointment played a lot into his less-than-gracious response to the news, but when he kept going on, I stepped in and told him to stop before he veered off into disrespectful territory.

As moms, we have to wade through a lot of emotional and verbal junk. Our kids, whether big or small, often have outsized emotions and often don’t know how to handle things (the 2015 animated film Inside Out perfectly captured this).

How can we help our children navigate the emotional messes without losing our ever-loving minds? Here’s what worked for other moms I’ve coached and me.

Ignore as much of the emotional and verbal junk as you can. 

Yes, I know. Teenagers spewing verbal vomit can be taxing, but the more we can overlook emotional outbursts, the less likely the outbursts will escalate. My rule of thumb is to ignore them as long as they are not tearing someone else or themselves down—then I step in and end it.

Don’t take it personally. 

Most of the time, even when a child yells at a parent “I hate you,” it’s not about the parent—it’s about the child. Recognize your child or teen will say things about you and to you that aren’t truly directed at you and let it roll off your back like the proverbial duck. This can take some practice, but whenever my children screamed “I hate you” at me, I usually smiled and said, “I love you too.” Which, of course, baffled them, but it also told them I was a safe person to vent to and that I, being the grownup in the situation, could handle it.

Recognize their emotional triggers. 

Girl tantrum discipline in public

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Antonio_Diaz

This was brought home to me when my four children were little—that I could predict an emotional outburst a mile away, usually because the child in question was tired, hungry, or both. If you know your preschooler becomes a grisly bear if she misses her afternoon snack, then you can try to plan ahead to avoid the situation or be more understanding if you can’t. Other triggers might be not giving them time to decompress after school, piling on multiple things to do at once, and taking care about the timing when communicating non-essential things to them.

Teach them to regulate their emotions. 

Every child can learn to control their emotions. Every. Single. Child. Some kids might take longer than others, but we need to provide guardrails to guide them toward self-regulation. Even our nonverbal, autistic foster kindergartner has learned to master his outbursts and will choose to stop tantruming or go to his room to have the tantrum in a safe place.

If you’re battling a lot of emotional outbursts from your child, designate a “tantrum place,” or “screaming place,” or, in the case of our children, a “crying place.” 

When your child begins his emotional outburst, gently direct him to the place where he can cry, scream, stamp, throw himself on the ground, etc., to his heart’s content. The place should be somewhere out of the way, as we don’t want spectators, and avoid the child’s room if possible. Some suggestions include the bottom or top of the stairs, a stair landing, a rarely used powder room, a guest bedroom, a laundry room corner, etc. Make it comfy with a beanbag chair or something equally soft to sit or lay on, plus tissues, a soft blanket, and a few soft pillows. Low lighting will help make it a soothing place. The key is to direct the child to the area with the instructions: “Come out when you’ve stopped crying/screaming/spitting, etc.” Then you leave it up to the child when he feels recovered from his emotional outburst. When he returns to the family, as long as his tantrum has receded, you hug him and welcome him back. This isn’t the time for lectures!

Permit them to be emotionally messy. 

Mom comforting daughter

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/PeopleImages

Designating a tantrum place gives our kids the okay to let their emotions hang out sometimes. We all want to scream at the unfairness of something or an emotional hurt we’ve suffered. We want our children to learn how to control those outbursts and have them in an appropriate place. But some kids will always need a tantrum place because their emotions hover close to the surface, and letting them know it’s okay to have messy emotions sometimes is a wonderful gift we can give our kids.

Sit in the Chair of Wisdom (but sparingly). 

Often, our children’s emotions spill over because they disagree with a decision we’ve made as the parent. My rule is to rarely explain your decisions to the preschool and lower elementary school set—they truly don’t have a developed-enough brain to understand our reasons (and no child has ever said to a parent after the mom or dad laid out the perfect explanation—“Gee, Mom/Dad. When you put it that way, I see your point”). For those in upper elementary through middle school, you can occasionally give your reasons for your decisions. For teenagers, you can sometimes provide an explanation.

However, anytime you decide to offer your thought process behind the decision, sit in the Chair of Wisdom (with a nod to John Rosemond, who pioneered this idea). When the parent is in the Chair of Wisdom, the child has a set time limit (usually a few minutes, always timed) to make their case as to why they disagree with the decision—but the child has to agree ahead of time they will abide by the original decision even after having their say. Sometimes, kids just want to be heard, giving them a safe emotional outlet to rail against the injustice of the decision.

Model healthy emotional outpourings. 

How do you handle stress? Do you manage your own anger or roiling emotions? While we won’t do it perfectly, our kids need to see how we manage our anger, stress, and emotional outbursts. We should be quick to forgive and willing to forget. We should work on reducing our own emotional rollercoasters. We should let our kids know if we’re going through an especially stressful time at work or for some other reason. We should offer age-appropriate explanations for our sorrow, joy, anger, and frustrations while working to do better next time.

Help them learn their anger cues. 

Dad disciplining his daughter

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Inside Creative House

This one is so important! Children (and adults) of all ages should learn to know and heed their anger cues. While kids and teens sometimes think their anger comes roaring out of nowhere, that’s usually not the case. Most angry outbursts result from a slow build-up that reaches the boiling point. While this isn’t a piece on overcoming anger, here’s the short version:

Watch your children and see what their body language does before and during an anger episode. 

Do they clench their fists? Do shoulders rise to their ears? Face or ears get red? Ask them if their chest feels tight or their stomach gets upset. All of those are anger cues that begin to happen before the child spews forth in a hot mess. Help your child replace those anger cues with something benign, like shaking out their hands if they clench their fists and taking a deep breath if their chest gets tight. If you’ve never recognized your own anger cues, work on those together and get your kids’ input—you’ll be surprised at how quick they are to point out what Mom and Dad do when they’re angry.

One final note: Sometimes, our children or teens might be emotionally all over the map because of an undiagnosed mental health challenge. If the above methods aren’t working or you see mood swings or withdrawal from normal activities, please take your child to a healthcare professional pronto. If you’re interested in learning more about youth mental health challenges and how you can be a safe place for your teenagers and their friends, consider becoming trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. I’ve done it, and it’s well worth your time and can provide more training in case your child or teen has emotional needs beyond what’s neurotypical.

Above all, don’t worry if you find yourself mired in an emotional quagmire with no easy way out. Our kids go through emotional highs and lows as well.

Sarah Hamaker

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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