DIY Bomb Squad: Defusing Your Child's Emotional Outbursts | Heroic Fatherhood

DIY Bomb Squad: Defusing Your Child’s Emotional Outbursts

Published on 14 December 2018 by Charlie King | Filed in Parenting

Your Quiet Evening Just Became The “Last Stand at the Alamo”

Your average “adult day” probably isn’t much different than mine. I come home pretty tired after a full day, maybe feeling a little distracted or anxious about something that happened during the day. As soon as I walk in the door, I’m helping with dinner prep, I’m hoping we’ll sit down and get dinner on the table soon. After dinner, the kids will have homework and bedtime routines. At some point I’m can’t wait(!) to sit down and unwind.

Getting Blindsided

It’s when I am most tired that I’ll walk into the house and one of our kids has randomly opened a verbal tirade on the other, or me or my wife. They are upset, they have a complaint and SOMEONE has done them wrong. The upset is way out of proportion to their complaint. They are far more interested in escalating the argument than resolving it. Have you experienced this?

When Kids Get Opinions

It’s a big year for us. Kids are getting older, becoming young adults. This is a double edged sword. They are more self sufficient and more capable, making them more helpful in running the household. They are more confident in their opinions and willing to stand up for what they believe in. These are great attributes for young adults to have. However, the day to day experience of this “awakening” is like sticking your hand into a spinning coffee grinder.

The day to day experience of your kids becoming young adults is like sticking your hand into a spinning coffee grinder. Click To Tweet

Handing a Baby a Battle-Ax

This pre-adult phase is amazing to behold. Kids sound more like adults, act more adult-like and are looking more adult-like. Kids have the will to stand up for what they believe in, and the confidence to say what they feel. But even with all these adult-like attributes, kids are lacking the nuance to understand themselves well enough to see what’s driving their upsets.

“Alex, I’ll Take Mood Swings for $200”

Fluctuating kid emotions is familiar territory to most parents. Abrupt declarations of what they “will do” and what they “won’t do” and why we “just don’t understand” are pretty common. Their outbursts can be overwhelming, especially because I pride myself on my relationship building skills.

Listening Behind What’s Said

It’s really easy to get caught up in the upset of the moment, to get “hooked” by what you upset child just said. The key is to listen for what’s BEHIND what they are saying. What do I mean? Try to answer this question: “What’s the upset BEHIND what they are saying?”

Your child’s current complaint won’t go through a “mature brain filter” to distinguish what the real “problem,” “concern” or complaint” is. The”mature brain filter” hasn’t developed yet, so it’s just an airhorn of emotion, no filter needed. Their upset is a symptom of an underlying issue that hasn’t been distinguished yet.

  • A blow-up with your child about doing their chores (that many days they do without complaint) may be about a falling out with a close friend.
  • Slamming doors may be more about the embarrassment of receiving a poor grade on a test than it is about “Turning down your music, please.”
  • Stubbornly refusing to play a family Board Game may be a reflection of feeling rejected by a romantic interest than it is about family togetherness.

Getting Curious Is The Name of The Game

When you find yourself on the receiving end of an unexpected emotional grenade, consider this: If the explosion-of-the-moment isn’t about what they say it’s about, what is it REALLY about?
Also, the upset your child is having right now (!!!!) likely has NOTHING TO DO with what they are really upset about. Especially if it seems out of character or out of place.

Here’s What You Can Do

Ignore the first salvo. Yup, as much as that retort or snappy comeback is on the tip of your tongue, let it go. You haven’t had a chance to think about what you want to say, you’d just be reacting to what they just said. Remember, you’re not interacting with a mature adult (brain fully matures at 24).
Allow a moment of silence. Like 10-20 seconds. This allows everyone involved to take a breath and think about what’s been said. It buys you a little time to decide how you want to address what was said.
Don’t address what was said right away. Sometimes a complaint or outburst is straightforward. Sometimes it really IS about the Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich you made for lunch. In this example we are talking about those times when the reaction seems out of line with the content of the upset.
Address what you hear BEHIND what was said. What emotion was being expressed? Acknowledge that and get curious:
“It sounds like you’re upset…..(angry…frustrated…overwhelmed…sad…)”
The root of the upset is probably happening away from home (otherwise you’d know about it). What’s going on in school that’s causing this upset? What has changed in their social lives that might be at the root of this upset? How’s their sport going? Their dating life?
“….. how was school today?”
“…. how did your test go today in English?”
“…. How was practice?”
“…. How are things going with (insert name of romantic interest)?”
“….Did you see (insert name of best friend) today?”

In Closing

Getting curious is the best way to find out what’s going on behind the upset. My experience with kids (and adults alike!) is that the real issue lies underneath the outburst. You may ask questions that fall flat. That’s OK, we all do that. But don’t let that deter your inquiry. Keep going, and you may find at the root is a young person who just needs to be heard.