Picture this: Your son, Colin, comes to you screaming, “I forgot about a test I have tomorrow! I know I’m going to flunk! The teacher doesn’t know how to teach, and everyone hates her! I give up! I’ll never get into college! My life is ruined! There is no way I’m going to school tomorrow!”
Stopping versus finessing a flood of emotions
What parents call a meltdown — or an outburst, tantrum or freak-out — psychologists call “flooding.” Flooding is the physiological arousal caused by a stressful trigger that makes it almost impossible to think rationally, behave wisely or listen to logic. The elevated decibel level of a person’s distress and distorted thoughts are a dead giveaway that they are flooding.
Until the arousal level of your kid’s flooding brain reduces a bit, he can’t think rationally to solve the problem at hand. The big problem for the parent is that if you tell your kid that, he’ll escalate to a DEFCON 1 state. You may say it anyway, since you are technically correct.
But do you want to be right or effective?
And to state the obvious: This doesn’t happen to kids only. It happens to all humans. It’s just more common among kids because they don’t have a fully developed self-control center yet. We parents possess mature circuits for self-control, and yet we struggle with moderating our emotions on a regular basis. We especially struggle when our buttons are being pushed by screaming, threatening and upset kids!
Think about how you feel when your kids are out of control. Why do we handle outbursts so ineffectively when we sincerely want to help them? Here’s the crux of the problem: Emotions are contagious, and we can get so upset when listening to our kids’ extreme outbursts and absorbing their stress that we forget the self-calming skills that work for us. Being with someone who is freaking out is distressing, so we jump to the agenda of trying to “help” by attempting to stop the flooding. While it’s irresistible to intervene and encourage coping, rein it in; instead, tell yourself, “Not so fast.”
First, understand biology, then use psychology
A little stress can actually be good. It energizes us, focuses our attention and helps us reach our optimal performance. However, when the demands of the situation exceed our ability to deal with the challenge, we “flood” with stress hormones, become confused and can’t function well. Stressors can trigger our “threat system” (the brain’s amygdala), which has the fastest and most powerful neural pathway in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the amygdala is old, part of the paleomammalian (“old mammal”) brain that is the center of our motivation, emotions and memory.
Why did evolution preserve this ancient system when it messes up the thinking we need for coping with stressful situations, you ask? In humankind’s tooth-and-claw days, the diversion of all brain activity to systems that enabled our bodies to “fight, take flight or freeze” saved our lives. It still does, when we veer our car away from oncoming traffic or grab our toddler before he falls off the jungle gym. But unfortunately, amygdala hijackings occur in reaction to many false alarms that are not lethal threats, even though our heaving chests and sweaty palms trick us into feeling that they are.
Stress, stress everywhere and not enough time and practice for calming
A terrible problem with modern life is that with stress coming from everywhere all the time, we don’t devote enough time to calming and restorative practices. With more and more time spent stressing, the neural circuitry for worry gains strength. If we don’t learn and practice calming techniques, our coping skills will be deficient. Worry demands attention and the more we worry, well, the more we worry.
The only thing worse than experiencing extreme emotional distress is when someone important to you tells you that what you are feeling is wrong, silly or blown out of proportion.
If stress is chronic and unrelenting as a result of a deficit of health-enhancing coping skills, we can experience burnout that harms our immune system or develop maladaptive illnesses, such as anxiety, depression and problem substance use. No wonder we have to make it a priority to help our children to develop coping skills for self-calming and problem-solving.
An important concept from neuroscience explains another problem with chronic stress: The neurons that fire together, wire together. Living with the stress circuit constantly firing can establish a Niagara Falls of stress-provoked thoughts, feelings and behaviors. As one of my teenage patients describes it, “My mind gets stuck on WOEs,” which stands for worries, obsessions and emergencies.
Station break for two don’ts: ‘Don’t demand rationality’ and ‘Don’t minimize your child’s stressors’
Reading those previous paragraphs about the impact of chronic stress could get a parent to worry so much about their child that they could become overzealous about pushing Junior to develop coping skills — right now! Hold back on that well-intentioned urge.
It is important to fully appreciate the biology of flooding and how calming works. When someone is flooding, don’t try to talk them out of their extreme thoughts and feelings. Reassurance that exams, teachers and social slights aren’t worth freaking out about when children are in the midst of an emotional seizure won’t help them calm down. Such assurances come off as dismissive and uncaring.
Their flooding brain sets off a physiological cascade of biological and psychological effects that feel like torture. The only thing worse than experiencing extreme emotional distress is when someone important to you tells you that what you are feeling is wrong, silly or blown out of proportion.
So, don’t tell your irrational child that they are irrational! Judgments about another person’s catastrophizing can get you into big trouble (even if you are right). We have all flooded in response to stressful experiences, such as losing a friend or messing up at school or a job. Didn’t you feel bad when someone told you that the problem was no big deal or that you’d get over it?
When we are triggered, for any reason, we aren’t able to assess how reasonable the threat is until that stress response abates, our heart rate slows, and our thinking brain comes back online. Perceived coercion to “get yourself under control” or to “calm down” usually bombs when your brain is hijacked by the threat system. And when children or teens feel this push from a parent, it can set off a firestorm, not just a flood, of emotions.
The most important skill of all: validation
Validation can soothe a person’s suffering. Validation is not agreeing with the extreme statements uttered during the freak-out, nor is it approving of the expletives and cruelty that might erupt with the volcano of emotion. Validation is appreciating and having empathy for the terrible experience of flooding. Remember: An amygdala hijack — when your body releases stress hormones to deal with perceived threats — inevitably sets in motion extreme and distorted thoughts about the stressor at hand.
When your loved one is freaking out, recite this refrain to yourself inside your mind, “My child is doing the best she can, given her emotional state. And I want her to feel better and do better. And she will, if I can empathize with her pain.”
Let’s get back to your imaginary son, Colin. Colin wants to hear that you “get it”: that he is experiencing hell on earth. With some gusto, you convey that you understand that being unprepared for a test can feel like a pack of tigers is after you. And if Colin believes the teacher’s ineptitude contributed to his undoing, his fury makes total sense. Of course, he doesn’t want to go to school when he envisions that disaster and peril await there. (Full stop here: If you utter one “but” or pivot to problem-solving too quickly, you will nullify that fabulous validation.)
Note that with your validation, you didn’t agree with his assessment that his teacher is terrible. Or that his situation is so awful that he should give up. You also didn’t say that you’d allow him to avoid school. But you did try to appreciate all the 911 alarm bells in his brain that were making him utterly miserable.
When can a parent shift from validating to problem-solving or coping skills?
When kids (or all humans!) are feeling heard and validated about their pain, the acute tsunami of emotions usually abates. In talking about what triggered them, they may flood again a bit, but the general pattern is an ebbing of crashing emotional waves. Brain scan studies have substantiated the old assumption that talking about feelings is helpful. There’s a saying: “Name it to tame it.” When we articulate dilemmas, identifying emotions redirects the firing of circuits in the emotional centers to those in the thinking brain.
Once you detect your child’s reduced panic and arousal, you can ask her what she thinks might be a good way to proceed at this point. Ideally, you would have already talked in cooler-headed times about favored coping approaches. Maybe she’ll want to decide on a plan of action with problem-solving. Maybe she’ll want to “reset and reboot” her emotional stability with something she has found soothing in the past. Even very young people usually know what methods of stress reduction work best for them.
When we pivot to suggest coping strategies too soon or jump to solve a problem for them, we rob them of the experience of mastery.
A favored distraction from problems these days is digital entertainment or social media. Resorting to this can be a mixed bag. If the soothing ocean videos slip into a marathon Netflix binge or the reaching out to a friend turns into the black hole of Instagram posts, digital connection can go south pretty quickly.
Ask gentle questions instead of attempting parental fixes
Research has shown that when parents try to fix their child’s upset, the parent’s stress is reduced and the child’s stress increases. When we pivot to suggest coping strategies too soon or jump to solve a problem for them, we rob them of the experience of mastery. They need to practice and learn these skills themselves. We don’t learn to play tennis by someone else telling us about it or showing us their great serve. The neurons that fire together, wire together, and so coping requires a lot of practice.
It takes supreme patience and self-control on the parent’s part to stay humble and inquiring during these times of flooding. The child may stay in the “helpless, hopeless, ‘everything is impossible’” mode for what seems like an interminable amount of time. Sitting with someone who seems to cling to misery is, well, miserable. Emotions are contagious, so we need to summon a boundary that keeps us thinking about the science and psychology of emotions (and this protocol), instead of the extreme things the child is thinking and feeling. Remember: Trying to get rid of negative emotions usually backfires.
Parent, heal thyself
I know, I know. Parents are sick of hearing that they need to be good role models. But it is true. If we are running around with our hair on fire (aka, amygdala hijacks), of course we are igniting our kids’ red-hot stress systems, too. Lucky kids have watched their parents, when they get hot and bothered, cope by putting cold washcloths on their faces, or running around the block to reset, or excusing themselves to do deep breathing.
Worry demands attention. We love our children and worry about their stress levels so much that it is natural that we think a lot about what we can do for them, rather than contemplate the power of their learning from our behaviors.
Parents understand the problems with “helicopter” or “snowplow” parenting: Kids don’t develop their own competencies. But the worry-saturated home is another problem: Kids absorb our worry and then worry more. When parents get “sticky brain” on the list of their kids’ problems, they don’t see how their stress levels increase with their children’s in a circular pattern. The ambient stress level in the household has profound effects on child stress levels.
As a child psychologist, I like to think of this “heal thyself” agenda as liberating rather than another burden. Go on a vigorous walk or get out with a friend who makes you laugh. Summon that boundary that keeps you thinking about your own health rather than the “parenting” part of your life, which can suck you into a wormhole of worry.
Since the play circuits of the brain compete with the worry network, choose to play more! Strengthen the circuits for positive emotions. Seek joyous moments. What a wonderful thing you would be doing for yourself as well as your child.