Pat Harvey and Jeanine Penzo, both licensed clinical social workers, have a book called Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions. It’s a book that I have been enthusiastically recommending to parents who are confronting this difficulty. The book teaches Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills, established by Marsha Linehan for treating adults. These skills help parents better understand, accept and respond to their child’s intense emotional outbursts and thus do a better job of parenting.
The authors encourage parents to believe that their child is doing the best that they can do in the moment. It also teaches parents how to help their child do better. The authors point out that it is unrealistic to think that the child knows how to behave correctly in all situations. Rather, they state that parents can teach their child new behaviors. The child can reach the point where they successfully use the behavior in appropriate situations. They encourage parents to let go of the belief that there is an absolute truth as to what happened in any given instance. They advise parents to avoid power struggles with their child by calmly agreeing to disagree about “exactly what happened”.
The term wise mind is used in the book to describe a form of thinking that does not evaluate a behavior but instead describes the behavior. The authors encourage parents to validate their child’s feelings, even while not necessarily agreeing with the child’s behavior. When the parent does this validation, it helps the child feel accepted, which the authors state is a prerequisite for change.
What to do
Know what your child’s vulnerabilities and risk factors are and avoid these if possible. However, what to do when your child is expressing an emotion in an intense manner? When you judge that he or she is safe and is not breaking anything, let your child have some time alone. Don’t ask them what is wrong. When your child is calmer, acknowledge that they seem upset about something. Tell them that you will be there to listen when they are ready to talk. If they deny being upset, accept their response. Remain calm yourself. Do not put pressure on your child at this point to do anything. Easier said that done? Of course.
Take care of the caretakers
The authors know that parents are in a tough situation and they offer advice to help parents respond to these tough situations more effectively. One thing they advise parents to do is to take care of themselves. Reading the book and using its advice is one way that a parent can take care of herself or himself.
The authors outline behavioral principles that are known to be effective in creating behavioral change. They explain how to maintain expectations, limits and routines. There is also guidance for parents in how to deal with their child’s school. Other chapters provide advice about how to help the child’s siblings deal with the situation at home as well as how to deal with members of the extended family. The authors cover it all in an easy-to-read format that conveys the caring that they want parents to have for themselves and their child with intense emotions.