Whenever I’m asked to help with a child’s disruptive behaviors – acting out, arguing, yelling, crying, hitting, throwing, lashing out, withdrawing, hiding, running away, refusing to participate, you name it – I always begin with this question:
What is the child feeling right now? What is the underlying feeling or need that is driving that behavior?
Because that’s what behaviors are, really – an outward expression of some inner feeling or need.
And yes, I begin with the simple maxim that all feelings are okay, it’s what you do with them that matters. It’s what you do with them that can be helpful or harmful, healthy or unhealthy, socially appropriate or inappropriate.
To be clear, these behaviors are really on a continuum of helpful to harmful – it’s not black and white, either/or. There are many shades of gray. Often our behavior choices can have something helpful in them and something harmful as well. They may be adaptive or self-protective in some ways, and maladaptive or self-defeating in other ways.
So, what do we do with our difficult feelings? You know the big ones: anger and frustration, anxiety and worry, sadness and despair, guilt and shame, grief and longing, even desire and greed.
How are we supposed to regulate these emotions, impulses, and behaviors? How do we teach our children to better regulate their emotions and make wise choices with their behaviors? When they’re upset – acting out, blowing up, or melting down – what do we do? What can they do?
I recommend the “3 R’s” to develop better emotional regulation for all of us.
And, as always, I suggest we begin with ourselves – our own self-awareness and self-regulation practices. When we’re engaged in a healthier relationship with our own difficult emotions, we can be more clear, calm, and kind to ourselves and others. We can foster a virtuous cycle that teaches our children to be more aware, accepting, and wise-acting, as well.
Pause. Breathe. Reflect on our feelings. “What do I notice, right now?”
Allow a moment of stillness and quiet reflection. Bring a kind and curious attention to this question: “What am I feeling right now?” and “How do I know?”
Notice where you feel that feeling in your body. What sensations – hot or cold, tight or tense, pulsing or numb, aching or racing – do you notice that go along with this feeling? Can you just be with those sensations right now. Can you acknowledge them and allow them to be here, without being sucked into or overwhelmed by them?
Can you bring a kind and caring attention to those feelings, as you would hold a crying, distressed baby in your loving arms? Can you notice that there is a (bigger) part of you surrounding that pain?
(There is always a bigger part of you – and a bigger connection with others – that is still here, strong and resilient. You can be okay, you are okay, even when it doesn’t feel okay.)
Notice, too, the thoughts that are popping up – that are associated with this feeling right now. Can you acknowledge these thoughts, and allow them to pass on by, without being swept downstream with them?
If not, if it’s too hard to sit with those sensations or thoughts right now, that’s okay too.
Pause. Breathe. Redirect our behaviors. “What do I need, right now?”
We can recognize that this difficult feeling is here right now. We can acknowledge and allow it, without being sucked inside the tornado. We can notice, “Damn, there’s this raging tornado of emotions swirling inside of me right now – but I don’t have to be stuck inside of it.”
By noticing and naming the emotion, the tornado if that’s what it feels like, we instantly begin to create a little space, a little distance from this difficult emotion. To borrow from Dan Siegel, we can “Name it to Tame it.” We see the emotion for what it is – a combination of bodily sensations and mental thoughts in reaction to some stressor.
We acknowledge it and name it. “Oh, that’s anger. I recognize that anger is here right now.” Or, “Oh, here’s that bothersome anxiety bug again. It’s back. I can tell because I notice the tightness in my chest and the butterflies in my stomach and all the run-away What if… worries buzzing around in my head.”
In the moment of seeing it and naming it, we realize we are not the emotion itself. We are standing next to it, perhaps even holding it (the raging tornado or crying baby in our arms) and we are now able to do something different with it.
Anger is just anger. Worry is just worry. I can acknowledge it, even honor it, thank it for trying to protect me, and move on. I can redirect my attention to what I need to do with it right now to take care of myself – in a healthy and productive way.
What do I need right now, to take care of myself? To take care of this emotion? To take care of this situation? – In a way that is wholesome and helpful?
I can notice that I may have urges to act on this emotion in hurtful or harmful ways. And that I also have intentions, still, to be healthy and happy again. I have the capacity to respond to this emotion in healthy ways, helpful ways.
I can remember when I’ve gone in either of these directions. I can notice how it feels to react in harmful ways. I can notice how it feels to respond in helpful ways.
Then, I can redirect my attention and my actions towards what would help me right now. I can redirect my attention towards my higher self – towards wisdom and compassion. Towards what will serve me and those around me. Towards love and healing.
Pause, Breathe. Reinforce our positive choices. “What will I choose, right now?”
There is a saying: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
So, we can pause again to consider what to do with our difficult emotions…
I can do this thing that will hurt, that when I listen to my gut doesn’t feel right. I can add suffering to my pain.
I can do this thing that will help, that when I listen to my heart, feels true. I can lessen the suffering, even when I’m still feeling pain.
There is wisdom in our heart. There is wholesomeness. We know it when we feel it. We know it when we listen to it – with all our senses. Shhh. Quiet. Listen.
We can choose to respond to our pain with this wisdom and compassion. We can cultivate this habit with a simple, 3-part-harmony mantra: “I can… I will… I am…”
I can do this (with my emotions right now)…
I will do this (with my emotions right now)…
I am doing this (with my emotions right now)…
When we do the wholesome thing, it feels right. It feels better. It begins to dissolve the suffering and resolve the pain. It gets us through. It reminds us we are strong and capable. In short, it’s self-reinforcing.
As we make healthier choices for how to be with our difficult emotions, we can and should celebrate! Recognize and appreciate your efforts. Write them down in a journal. Share them with a friend or loved one. Savor the good. In this way, we create a virtuous cycle that broadens and builds our emotional well-being. We reinforce what is good and right about ourselves. And we can do the same with our children.
Alternatively, when we make unhealthy choices, we can accept that we’re not perfect. Of course we will falter. Of course we (and our children) will lash out at times. We’re perfectly imperfect human beings. So we learn from it; we grow from it. We can – and undoubtedly will need to – repeat this process. Repeatedly!
We can reflect on what went well or not. On what we feel now about it. We can redirect our efforts towards what we need to do to make amends. We can reinforce our positive intentions and efforts, even when we are less that perfect.
What’s the point of all this inner reflection about our feelings? It’s to help us return to healthy self-regulation, which is a key pathway to emotional resilience and well-being.
And remember, we can help our children learn to do these same things.
As caring adults – parents, teachers, counselors – we can keep coaching our kids towards these 3 R’s – Reflecting on their feelings, Redirecting their thoughts and behaviors, and Reinforcing their positive behavior choices.
We can do so by modeling and collaborative problem-solving. We can teach kids better self-regulation by talking them through these steps, exploring together:
It will all come with practice. Patient and persistent practice. But more on these “3 P’s” another day!