Category Archives for Parenting

Navigating Strong Emotions and Outbursts

Knowing how our brains work can be a powerful tool for helping our teens deal with strong emotions. I am an educator.  Therapists and counselors are great resources for helping families develop tools for navigating strong emotions. If you are concerned about the intensity, frequency, or specifics of behaviors you are seeing, please seek help from a qualified professional.

I think that one of the hardest things for parents of teenagers to deal with is their son’s or daughter’s emotional swings. One minute they are fine, the next minute it seems as though the world were coming to an end. Bedroom doors slam. They stomp around the house. They yell or cry. They may withdraw and isolate. They may seem sullen or irritable. Sometimes we just look at them and try to figure out where they came from. We might say to ourselves, “I never thought my child would do that!”

Teenagers and young adults can be moody just by virtue of their age and development. How does this impact their families? Aggressive behaviors, such as door slamming, yelling, and stomping, can interrupt the family. Those behaviors can be startling, unsettling, and they can make us feel unsafe. I believe that the social changes thrust on us by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the stress levels for everyone involved and made it harder for all of us to navigate strong emotions.

So, what can we as parents and educators do? The key lies in unlocking the secrets of the brain. It is important to recognize what is happening in the brain during these emotional outbursts. You see, there are two very important parts of the brain at play at any given time: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is often referred to as the lizard brain. It is one of the oldest parts of our brains. It’s mission? Self-preservation. When it perceives “danger”, it takes over control.  “Danger” was pretty straightforward in the early heyday of the lizard brain. An animal is chasing me in hopes I will be its lunch? My lizard brain makes me want to run away. Have you heard of fight or flight? That’s what the amygdala is all about. The amygdala in our modern day now interprets the following emotions as signals of “danger”: fear, anxiety, sadness, overwhelm, stress, frustration, and more. When our teens are feeling these strong emotions, their lizard brain takes over. You know what happens then…

What about the prefrontal cortex? Well, that’s the part of our brains that is in control when the lizard brain is not. Many refer to the prefrontal cortex as the “wizard brain”. This is where organizing, decision making, attention, problem solving, and rational thought occur. It is important to be aware of the fact that this part of the adolescent brain hasn’t fully developed yet. It is still growing.

I promised you a key; here is where it fits into the lock.

Have you ever tried to train a lizard? I haven’t, but I am quite certain that they CANNOT be trained to negotiate a compromise, make amends for their actions, and problem solve in complex social situations. When anyone relinquishes their control to their lizard brain, they can’t think well, they are impulsive and reactive (again, reactive could mean isolative and mopey).

You really can’t talk and reason with someone else’s lizard brain. So, what can parents do?

Do’s:

  • Give some time and space. Give teens a chance to cool down before speaking with them.
  • Use short, clear directions, if you need to speak. Examples: “Stop.” Slow down.” (Lizard brains register conversations much like the wahh wahh sounds from adult voices on Charlie Brown cartoons.)
  • Ask questions to engage the wizard brain. (This is a wonderful tool. Questions really depend on each person.)
    • What are you feeling?
    • Who are you upset with?
    • Can you count to 100 by 12’s? (They may not want to count, but they must go to their wizard brain to decide whether or not they can.)
    • What did you have for lunch today?

Don’ts

  • Don’t act from your lizard brain. Check in with yourself to determine whether or not this is the right time to act. Take space if you need to. Focus on your breath. If your teen and everyone who is there is safe, don’t act until you know you are using your wizard brain.
  • Don’t take things personally. One of my sons used to say horribly hurtful things to me when he was angry. He would lash out at me even when I wasn’t a part of why he was upset. I finally had to create a “Rules for Anger” plan with him, to get it to stop.

Plans

  • When you and your teen are feeling okay, and they are able to problem solve with you, create a plan or come up with rules together.
    • Consider beginning with recognition that everyone experiences strong emotions, especially teens and young adults.
    • Think about creating lists of expressions of strong feelings that are comfortable for the whole family.
    • Be clear about behaviors that interrupt or negatively impact the family

Knowing how our brains work can be a powerful tool for helping our teens deal with strong emotions. I am an educator.  Therapists and counselors are great resources for helping families develop tools for navigating strong emotions. If you are concerned about the intensity, frequency, or specifics of behaviors you are seeing, please seek help from a qualified professional.

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The Amazing Power of I-Statements

Blog Post

“I-statements?!” Not again! Honestly, if I knew the theme for the study group was going to be “I Statements” that evening, I probably would have skipped it. I have heard many trainers teach participants how to form “I-statements”, and I completely understand how to create one. “I-statements” are used when you want to broach a serious subject that might be upsetting to a person. This way the person you are talking to might not get defensive and shut you out.

This trainer was different. She explained that “I-statements” could be used for setting limits or making requests. For example, if a kid is upsetting you and you want him/her to stop making the sound that reminds you of fingers on a chalkboard, instead of saying “Stop!” or “Cut it out!”, you could say, “I feel anxious when you make that sound, please stop.”

Examples from home:

  • I feel frustrated when the living room gets messy.
  • I feel worried when you are out past curfew.
  • I feel stressed out when music is too loud.
  • I feel disappointed when dishes aren’t rinsed off before they go in the sink.

Shocked, I say! I can’t begin to tell you how shocked I was to see these “I-statements” work in my own life. Working with a particularly challenging group of students, I used “I would appreciate it if everyone would sit down in their seats.” They all sat down! Not only did they all sit, but they stopped talking and looked up at me, ready to listen! It was amazing! Before I used “I statements”, it was about a 50-50 chance that the students would respond appropriately.

I know. This probably sounds a bit silly, but using “I-statements” has great potential. Try it out! Let me know how it goes. I would love to hear from you!

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