When A Child’s Emotions Spike, How Can A Parent Find Their Best Self?

With families around the world spending unprecedented amounts of time in close quarters – and under varying degrees of stress – emotions can run high.

In good times and in hard times, parents can take steps to help their children strengthen their emotional competence.  As parents, “we are co-creating the emotion system for our kids” says Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive.”

“Emotions are constructed by our interactions with other people,” says Brackett. Caring for a child’s emotional development is key to life-long flourishing “because while part of our success in life is knowing how to count and read and write, a bigger part of our success in life is knowing how to get along well with other people and deal with life’s ups and downs.”

Parents may not always feel up to this task – especially in challenging moments – and yet parenting can be an opportunity for adults to strengthen their own emotional intelligence. In order to help children regulate their own emotions, we must keep working on regulating our own, says Brackett. “It’s all about adult development.”

Responding To Children’s Signals

The emotion system is a signal system, and how we feel on the inside drives how we approach a task, says Brackett. How we read and interpret the emotions in other people also sends signals to our brain.

“When I look at your facial expression, if you are displaying a lot of anger, it says to me, ‘Avoid. Avoid. Avoid!’ That’s what emotions do. They signal,” says Brackett.

But here’s a crucial difference when it comes to parenting: when our children send out classic “avoid” signals –  such as yelling or angry expressions – this is actually a signal to approach them.

“That’s really critical for parents: for kids, all emotions are approach,” he said.  

As adults, we often give our friends and partners space when they are in a bad mood. But with young kids, “you always have to follow up,” says Brackett. “It’s your moral obligation to know what your child is feeling and to support them in developing healthy strategies.”

This can be very difficult. When adults are under stress, our instinctive biological response is to fight, flee or freeze.

“Many parents get easily activated and triggered by their kids. The kid throws something, the kid is crying, the kid is screaming, ‘I hate you!’ and all of a sudden you’re triggered.” In these moments, take a deep breath and try to replace “fight or flight” with “stay and help,” says Brackett.

When both parent and child are emotionally activated, it’s “very hard to problem solve” –  so parents may need to take a walk or time to collect themselves. But it is critical to circle back and attend to the child.

Getting Curious About Emotion

Feelings offer information about what might be happening within the individual. One strategy for improving emotional regulation is to become an “emotion scientist.” Brackett encourages adults to “get curious” about emotions –  their own and their children’s. Parents are often tempted to be an “emotions judge” by challenging, shaming or minimizing a child’s big feelings. 

In contrast, “the emotion scientist is the curious explorer of their child’s emotions,” says Brackett.  A preschooler’s angry outburst might indicate they are overstimulated, stressed, in need of connection, hurt by someone’s actions,  or in need of a snack or a nap.

“The emotion scientist says, ‘My child needs some support here.’ Let me see what kind of strategies I can use to help my child deal with emotions. The emotion judge says, ‘Get over it,’” Brackett says. When adults train themselves to see all emotions as information, they can use that data to support their child.  

Using open-ended questions can help children process emotions. Rather than saying, “Pull it together,” a parent might say, “It looks like you are really upset about something. What happened? Tell me more about that.” 

Brackett recommends the phrase, “Tell me more” because it’s simple, gentle and indicates non-judgemental curiosity.  

The Skills Of An Emotion Scientist

Brackett and his team use the acronym RULER to describe five key skills parents and teachers can help children cultivate. Here is how he describes them in his book:

  • R: RECOGNIZE our own emotions and those of others, not just in the things we think, feel, and say but in facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, and other nonverbal signals.
  • U: UNDERSTAND those feelings and determine their source— what experiences actually caused them— and then see how they’ve influenced our behaviors.
  • L: LABEL emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.
  • E: EXPRESS our feelings in accordance with cultural norms and social contexts in a way that tries to inform and invites empathy from the listener.
  • R: REGULATE emotions, rather than letting them regulate us, by finding practical strategies for dealing with what we and others feel.

For young children, developing an emotional vocabulary is a powerful tool.

“Labeling emotions is a form of communication. It helps us make meaning of our experiences and communicate that to others.”

Learning the difference between anger, frustration, annoyance, and disappointment can help children think about the causes of their emotions. 

Take disappointment and anger, says Brackett. “Oftentimes they look the same, but their underlying cause is completely different. One is about unmet expectations. The other is about injustice. And I would say 99% of the people I talk to have no clue about that. Yet the strategy for helping my child manage disappointment would be very different than it is for anger.” 

Take a child who says, “I hate school.” When the adult gets curious and asks questions, the child offers, “Nobody wants to play with me.” Now you are learning something, says Brackett. Ask a few more questions and you might discover that they sit by themselves as recess.

“And now you realize that your child is feeling left out. They are not just sad – they are actually feeling isolated and alienated. That points to a different strategy you might take as a parent.” 

“How Would My Best Self Respond?”

Children are great anthropologists of parent behavior. They watch how we handle stress and how we recover from episodes of fear, frustration, anger, and disappointment. Brackett urges parents to pay attention to their self-talk –  because our children are listening when we say “I’m an idiot” or “ I’m going to lose it.” 

With practice, parents can use self-talk to model healthier ways of moving through emotion. It might sound like, “Mommy had a really long day at work and needs a little space to take a deep breath. I want to talk to you, but first I need to take a little break and then come back to you”; or instead of saying “I’m so stupid! I always mess up this recipe,” saying “Well, daddy did it again! So now I’m going to take a step back and figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.” 

When parents feel their emotions spike, they can take a meta moment, says Bracket. This is a process that helps us build awareness of our triggers, “and parents have a zillion of these –  when my kids pull my hair, when they’re nagging, when they are whining about going to bed, when they refuse to eat things.”

First, just be aware of your triggers. Next, notice where your brain goes when you experience one. What is your automatic, go-to self-talk? Is it “I hate my life?” Is it “I can’t handle this?” What is your go-to behavior? 

When you are aware of your triggers and your habitual, unhelpful reactions, you can begin to purposefully move away from these into healthier ways of responding.

“Immediately pause and take a breath,” says Brackett. “You have to give yourself space. That deep breath helps you deactivate the reaction and activate your best self. Ask yourself, ‘How would my best self respond?’”

Keeping your “best self” in mind helps you make better decisions in the face of strong, uncomfortable emotions. As Brackett shared, his “best self” is kind and compassionate. So when he’s triggered, he asks himself, “How does a kind, compassionate dad respond?”

These meta-moments “help you take a step back, shift your attention away from the stimulus, bring it back to your values and goals as a parent. And by the way, it’s really freaking hard! So give yourself permission to feel, fail and forgive.” 

The Good News For Parents And Kids

All parents have moments when they overreact – especially when they are under stress. “The good news is that we are more resilient than we think we are,” says Brackett. “We can undo things and learn new things.  And that means you can start today and start tomorrow. We can change the relationships we have with our kids if we work on developing ourselves.” 

In addition, “research shows that the mere presence of a caring and loving adult is a co-regulation strategy,” he says. “If our children believe in their soul that the person they are with cares about them and is there for them – even if that person doesn’t say anything – that’s a strategy. Think about those people who, just being in their presence, make you feel safe.”

It’s never too late to strengthen your emotional skills and help your children strengthen theirs. “A child’s brain is still plastic, so the minute you start regulating your emotions better, their brains will change to reflect that.”

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You can read the original article on KQED.

Deborah Farmer Kris, When A Child’s Emotions Spike, How Can A Parent Find Their Best Self?, April 13th, 2020,