When Parents and Kids Have BIG Emotions

By February 17, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By Miriam Dreyer, Ph.D.

Pediatric Neuropsychologist Fellow

Brianna Sharpe’s recent essay for the New York Times – Parenting section titled, “I’d Like to Melt Down When My Kids Do,” captures an essential challenge of parenting – managing one’s own emotions when your child is having big and difficult feelings. Ms. Sharpe writes about her own extensive training as a mental health professional and how even with lots of experience working with children, she was not prepared for the emotional demands of parenting. She writes, “. . . like all preschoolers, my son needs an anchor when the waters get rough. But just when he needed me most, I found myself being pulled under by my own emotions. Although I never called him names or outright accused him of being at fault, I would yell in anger when hurt. My irrational response was often, ‘Why would you do that?!’ Once the red haze faded, I knew he was doing just what preschoolers are designed to do – but I had a hard time reconnecting with him.”

Ms. Sharpe beautifully depicts the intricate link between a child and a parent’s emotions. As parents, one of our essential roles throughout our children’s lives is to help them regulate. From birth, our job is to love, soothe, feed, attend and help our kids make sense of their feelings. This is a hard job, made even more complicated by the nuances and complexities of our own emotional lives.

Emotion regulation is a multifaceted process. As defined by Gross (1998), emotion regulation involves conscious and unconscious processes that operate both before an emotional response is generated and after it occurs. He writes that emotion regulation consists of “processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.” Challenges with emotion regulation are a component of many of the presenting problems we see at our center. Children with ADHD can struggle with emotional impulsivity, shifting and modulating emotional responses. Individuals with depression and anxiety face challenges balancing positive and negative feelings, as well as controlling irrational thoughts and worries. Difficulties with emotion regulation for individuals on the Autism spectrum are also common and intersect with social/emotional and behavioral problems that can arise with symptoms related to rigidity, self-direction and repetitive, self-soothing behaviors.  Symptoms associated with traumatic stress, such as dissociation, mood lability and alexithymia, all interfere with one’s ability to regulate emotionally. Even challenges like communication disorders and other learning disabilities are related to emotion regulation since they generate anxiety and can impede expressing oneself using language, which is a key regulatory process. In fact, theorists are now conceptualizing emotion regulation as a possible unifying, underlying component across psychological disorders (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010).

What are we, as parents, to do then in the face of our children’s and our own stormy emotions?  How do those of us caring for children who are struggling help them while attending to our own complicated emotional processes? A helpful framework for considering these questions comes from researchers who focus on attachment relationships in parenting, mentalization, as well as the mindfulness and self-compassion literature. 

  • Cultivate self-compassion. Parenting is hard, as is childhood. A stance of self-compassion which acknowledges challenges and encourages kindness to oneself helps move out of cycles of self-blame and anger.
  • Encourage curiosity about your own and your child’s emotions. Developing awareness of our own and our children’s emotional lives helps create a buffer in moments of heightened emotional arousal and can shed light on challenging patterns and interactive cycles.
  • Take a pause. Try breathing and mindfulness exercises to regain calm in difficult moments.
  • Consult with a therapist for parent guidance. There are many different types of parenting programs and support that can help tailor strategies and target complicated dynamics within family systems.

 

References

Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review30(2), 217-237.

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of general psychology2(3), 271-299.

Sharpe, B. (2019, June 21). I’d like to melt down when my kids do.  The New York Times.

 

About the Author

Dr. Dreyer enjoys working with children, adolescents and families who come to her office with a wide range of questions about learning, social and emotional functioning. She is passionate about helping children and parents understand the different, often complex, factors that may be contributing to a presenting problem and providing recommendations that will help break impasses – whether they be academic, therapeutic, social or familial.

Dr. Dreyer joins NESCA after completing her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the City University of New York.  She most recently provided psychological assessments and comprehensive evaluations at the Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School for children and families with a wide range of presenting problems including trauma, anxiety, psychosis, and depression.  During her training in New York, she conducted neuropsychological and psychological testing for children and adolescents presenting with a variety of learning disabilities, as well as attentional and executive functioning challenges.  Her research focused on developmental/complex trauma, as well as the etiology of ADHD.

Dr. Dreyer’s experience providing therapy to children, adolescents and adults in a variety of modalities (individual, group, psychodynamic, CBT) and for a wide range of presenting problems including complex trauma/PTSD, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and eating disorders informs her ability to provide a safe space for individuals to share their concerns, as well as to provide tailored recommendations regarding therapeutic needs.

Before becoming a psychologist, Dr. Dreyer taught elementary and middle school students for nine years in Brooklyn, NY.  She also had an individual tutoring practice and specialized in working with children with executive functioning challenges, as well as providing support in writing, reading and math.  Her experience in education informs both her understanding of learning challenges, as well as her capacity to make specific and well-informed recommendations.

She received her Masters in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College, and her B.A. in International Studies from the University of Chicago.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

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