Managing Big Emotions

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Guest Blog by Bridget Bertrand, Psychotherapist, LMFT 83020

Emotions: the invisible and yet powerful experiences we all have. What is an emotion? Merriam-Webster calls it an “...affective aspect of consciousness, a state of feeling, a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body”. Phew…that is kind of a workout just to read. Even if you are a little taxed just thinking of emotions, I want to inspire you to keep reading AND keep listening to your emotions.

We all have our emotions and our emotional blow ups. When kids blow up you will not always understand where it came from. Are they sick? Tired? Hungry? Maybe they are just out to get us? (I’m kidding, kind of. ) Then cue the parent doubt and anger: Am I am being to harsh? Too soft? Why won’t your child listen? Why is your child screaming / talking back again? Or maybe you don’t question it and you just want any and all push-back to stop. That is understandable. Yet here are our kids, ready willing and able to push our buttons because that is how development happens.

Emotions and thoughts are so intermingled. All we want (I imagine) is a more peaceful house. Let’s pretend you have just had one of “those” mornings. How do we slow down and process some of what is happening in the moment? What if we got down on the same physical level with our kids and say something like, “I wonder what is happening for you right now?” Then listen and try hard not to fix the situation or change it. We just let the kid be where the kid is. This process is teaching self-discipline and the self-refection process of “mindsight”. One of my favorite websites for families, kidsinthehouse.com, has several videos by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel who expertly guides parents in teaching children about emotional and social intuition. You can watch this short one minute video by clicking this link .

To see into the mind is what Dr. Siegel calls mindsight. Dr. Siegel says, “Take a moment to learn about the internal world of your self and your child." In a similar vein, Dr. Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott, LMFT, of Positive Discipline are very often asking these same questions of parents. They ask, “What were you thinking, feeling and deciding?” as this difficult event was happening? In Positive Discipline classes and talks I often ask that of the parent as they role play being their child. The more you practice this process of inquiry with yourself and your kids in the moment the more it will begin to happen almost without your thinking of it. Mindsight can become more of an automatic way to live (with practice). I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to groups of parents in my community lately (see the link to upcoming talks here). What I’ve heard shared are issues of disconnection, kids not listening, and much more. I say this to help you know you are not alone.

Though I think half the path is getting support with the challenging parts of parenting, I always try to give folks some tools to use. There is not a “cure all” for any household struggle. Big emotions are not going to totally go away (I know, it's a harsh reality). Here is a list of ideas that tries to connect getting to know yourself, your kid(s), and being insightful about your whole family experience.

These are from positivediscipline.org with a little tweak here and there from me:

  • Involve your child in a useful task to gain useful attention
  • Say what you will do as a parent, "I love you and I need you to ___ (fill in the blank)”
  • Avoid saying "Do you want to? or “Can you do ____(this task)?”
  • Avoid special services (putting on shoes or dressing kids that can do it themselves)
  • Say it only once and then act. “I will serve you dinner when the table is set.”
  • Have faith in child to deal with feelings (don't fix or rescue)
  • Say, “You feel very angry.” (The end, no more talking.)
  • Take time for yourself so you can sort out your feelings and project less onto others.
  • Plan special time (every week) or 10 minutes a day.
  • Set up routines. Instead of nagging, point to the routine, as in, "The routine says it's time to do homework now."
  • Engage child in problem-solving. Ask, “How do you see this going better?”
  • Use family meetings every week. Write the agenda down and follow up
  • Ignore the behavior (don’t engage with words)and instead use touch
  • Set up nonverbal signals. “When I point at my watch it’s time to go.”

Lastly, send me an email with any comments or ideas you would like to see here.


Wishing you happy peaceful parenting!
Bridget Bertrand, Psychotherapist, LMFT 83020

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About Bridget

A 2011 graduate of Santa Clara University with a degree in counseling psychology, Bridget is a licensed marriage and family therapist. As a post-graduate intern, she provided therapy to children, adults, families, and groups at two nonprofit agencies on the Peninsula. In addition to teaching positive discipline at Parents Place, she has a private practice in San Mateo. Bridget began her professional career as a theater and preschool teacher.