Roller Coaster Emotions: Some Thoughts on How to Deal With Your Child’s Roller Coaster

I went to a conference over the weekend that was aimed mainly at therapists who treat adults.  However, one of the presenters talked about how children learn to understand their own feelings and those of others in the course of interactions as they grow up. I found the talk was really relevant to helping parents teach children about their emotions and about emotional regulation.  Many children who have ADHD, Asperger Syndrome or other learning disabilities have difficulty with emotional modulation.  They easily go from happy and mellow to very irritable and unhappy due to a frustration that looks minor to an adult.

For instance, your child might learn that you are out of his favorite cereal.  Instead of asking what else you have, he might become quite angry.  This is likely because he doesn’t have a good “governor” on his emotional response.  This is difficult for parents, but it is also difficult for the child — he’s often on an emotional roller coaster, and it doesn’t feel good.  How can adults help?

** First of all, it is helpful for you, the parent, to keep your cool and not respond in kind.  When your child is emotionally aroused, his judgment is poor.  If you get emotionally aroused, you are likely to upset him further and make the situation worse.  Further, we adults also have poorer judgment when we get upset, so staying calm is a big help.  (I don’t say it’s easy — more about this later another time.)

** When you stay calm, you model a calm response to frustration for your child.  Children learn a great deal from their parents’ behavior.

** You might also label the emotion, “Wow, you’re pretty angry about this.”

** And you can empathize, “I’m sorry we’re out of Crunchies.”  (You’ve just told him something about your state of mind — that’s helpful to him.”

** Next you could ask your child what he would like to do about the situation.  (You’re inviting him to do some problem-solving instead of jumping in to fix it yourself.)

If all goes well, (and we know it doesn’t always) your child can move along to another breakfast choice.

Say your child does not calm down in response to your calm approach.  Suppose it’s a really bad morning, and your child berates you for not having enough Crunchies, or letting his brother eat too many Crunchies.  You could let him know how his behavior affects you, and you could set a limit.  This might go like, “I can’t help you with this when you are yelling at me.  When you can calm down and talk to me, you can let me know what you want.” You are let him know how his behavior affects your ability to think.  And you withdraw from the interaction offering the expectation that he’ll calm down and the two of you can figure out breakfast.

Staying calm helps you and your child get to a clear-headed place more quickly.  Labeling his feelings can help him learn about his internal experience and become more articulate about feelings.  Telling him how his behavior affects you informs him about how a relationship works.  These are essential building blocks for successful social interactions.


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Photo credit:  haven’t the slightest on Flickr


8 Responses to “Roller Coaster Emotions: Some Thoughts on How to Deal With Your Child’s Roller Coaster”
  1. Carolyn,

    Once again, I come away from your post with the reminder that, if I want my kids to show good coping skills, I have to be on top of my own coping. It makes perfect sense that I can’t expect a child to tolerate frustration if I don’t tolerate frustration. Thanks for the solid information.


  2. Hi Ann,
    It’s difficult, but it’s true. They learn from us. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Hi Carolyn, I really like this post, especially the part about staying calm in the face of a child who is getting upset and helping to identify and emphasize with her feelings. I think staying calm is half the battle for the parent, who is likely having all kinds of feelings herself. I would add If a parent is truly having a problem maintaining a calm presence most of the time then it can be worth getting additional support from friends, family or even a therapist to help sort out the feelings involved.

    Best, Allison

  4. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Allison,
    Thanks for your comment. I totally agree that when parents are overwhelmed and find they can’t manage to stay calm, they can help themselves by seeking out help. Even having some extended family to take over an afternoon or evening can be a big help. Of course, many people don’t have family nearby. I didn’t when I was raising my son. So, then friends and a therapist who can help you understand what is happening and teach you some ways to respond–these are great supports.

  5. Rachelle Norman says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    I especially liked that you gave us examples of specific phrases to use. It’s so hard to know what to say in these situations.


  6. Hi Carolyn – I love this helps me as I have parents asking e for “how-to” with children, as if there is a prescribed list . The common sense staying calm & labeling feelings is great advice.

  7. dr.cstone says:

    Thanks, Rachelle. I hope that the phrases are helpful to you. Of course, there’s no guarantee. Kids are full of surprises, but I hope these suggestions point parents in a useful direction.

  8. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Kathy,
    Yes, it’s quite frustrating that kids don’t come with a manual. But I find that helping parents to keep their cool is probably the most important part. And if they have an idea of how they want to respond, eg what to say, it’s much easier to keep cool.