This past week one of my kids had a really big meltdown. A meltdown happens when we experience emotions that are greater than we have the capacity to process. This definition compels me to have compassion. However, meltdowns don’t look pretty. They are often irrational and can involve anger, sobbing, rude remarks, or withdrawal, which can lead to anything but compassion.
My son’s meltdown led him to withdraw. He shut himself in his room and wouldn’t respond to us, and when he did respond he was cruel in the way he spoke. I was able to engage him in a calm way, but I was also offended by his rude behavior. Now, the behavior was not okay, but during our interaction I was so focused on his actions that I was missing the emotions that were driving them.
As I was reflecting later that night, God brought His gentle correction and showed me how I had missed my son. He showed me how much pain he was in and how his behavior was a sign pointing me to see that pain. A deep sadness filled my heart. I remembered key times in my life that I had melted down myself and lacked someone who could handle my emotions enough to sit and be with me. Instead, I was often left feeling ashamed for having my big feelings and very alone. This wasn’t how I wanted my son to feel! I wished I could jump back in time, hug him, and just be with him in his overwhelm.
The next morning I apologized to my son and told him how I wished I had responded differently. I could tell that it meant a lot to him. I made a commitment to help draw out his feelings in the future and asked him to make an effort to share with me what he is feeling instead of being rude or shutting down. I am sure we will still make lots of mistakes, but we are growing.
As parents, I don’t think any of us want our kids to feel alone. But the reality is that sometimes we inadvertently leave them feeling that way when we shut down, shame, or ignore their emotions. Sometimes we just can’t see past their behavior, and sometimes we simply don’t have a big enough emotional capacity ourselves to handle what our kids are feeling without being triggered.
Either way though, there is hope that we can grow and learn to journey with our kids through the big emotional places in their souls. Here are a few tips to help:
1. Intentionally Expand our Own Emotional Capacity:
It is almost impossible to sit with someone else in a big emotion that we don’t have our own capacity for. For example, if I don’t process sadness well, I might really struggle to validate and care for someone else’s sadness. If you get overwhelmed by your kids’ emotions, that’s a good sign to invest in growing your own emotional capacity. A great place to start is by building foundational relational skills through THRIVEtoday’s Foundational Five series.
2. Stop and Listen for the Emotion Behind the Behavior:
When one of your kids acts out, instead of trying to fix the behavior right away, stop and pause. Can you hear an emotion behind their actions? If not, you can ask Jesus for insight, or ask them. An emotions wheel (you can search for one on google) might help them if they struggle to name their feelings. You can also ask where they feel it in their body to help them grow in awareness. NOTE: you might need to help them calm first before they are able to discuss what they are feeling.
3. Even When We Have to Set Boundaries, Communicate our Heart to Connect:
If your child cannot behave in a respectful way or you need a breather, it is okay to set a boundary. But make it clear that your goal is to connect, and that you want to be with them in what they are going through. You could say something like, “I am so sorry you are angry, honey. Let’s take some time to calm down, and then I would love to sit and just be here with you.” Once they/you are calm and you are able to validate and comfort their feelings, you can go back and address their actions and ways they can handle their emotions better next time.
4. Normalize Emotions:
We can teach our kids how to process their emotions by discussing our feelings as part of normal conversation. Have everyone share memories from your day at dinner and add in an emotion word to describe how you felt during those memories. Tell your kids how joyful you are to see them when you pick them up from school or how peaceful you feel snuggling with them before bed. Invite them to share how they feel. The more you normalize emotions, the more aware you all will be about how you feel and the better you will be able to be with each other when feeling big things.