We’ve all been there—in a moment of frustration or anger, we say or do something we later regret. But if we as adults have trouble keeping control of our emotions, imagine how hard it is for our kids, who haven’t yet learned to identify, understand, or manage what they’re feeling.
In moments of stress or tension, emotional hijacking can cause kids to lose control of emotions and behavior. And when kids are consumed by big emotions, learning can be nearly impossible. Luckily, emotional regulation is a habit that can be practiced and learned.
The ability to identify emotions and to monitor or shift one’s emotional state is a key part of Self-Regulation, one of the 16 Habits of Success that all kids need to be successful in school and in life.
Going deeper, the term amygdala hijack was coined by author Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence to describe what happens when the amygdala—the area of the brain that specializes in detecting and responding to threats—goes into overdrive and overrides our logical reasoning skills. The amygdala is the part of the brain in charge of initiating the “fight, flight or freeze response.” And when kids are presented with an overwhelming situation, that reaction can result in an emotional outburst.
Your goal as a parent or coach is to help kids transform the habit of responding instantly and intensely into the habit of reflecting and responding thoughtfully. To make this shift, kids need to acquire a vocabulary for expressing emotions and to practice managing these difficult moments successfully.
That change doesn’t happen overnight. So we advocate for a two-part approach to developing this important habit: plan for emotional responses and reflect after outbursts.
Step 1: Plan for emotional responses.
Planning for emotional responses involves deliberate practice identifying nuanced emotions and planning strategies to respond.
- Labeling emotions is a prerequisite to emotional regulation. Building an emotional vocabulary helps kids become better equipped to understand why they experience emotions the way they do. But how do you build this vocabulary? Have regular, routine conversations that ask kids to describe feelings using specific words beyond good, bad, happy, and sad. Think of the incredible difference, for example, between sadness and frustration!
- With a vocabulary of emotions, you can begin to plan response strategies. Having an array of strategies for dealing with emotional moments gives kids a new way to think about emotions: they don’t just happen to you, they are responses you can control.
- In a calm moment with your kid, print out and complete the Emotional Response Strategies List (provided below) from Turnaround for Children, an organization that translates the science of learning and development into tools, strategies, and services for educators. (They’re a co-developer of the Habits of Success framework!) This simple, but effective activity asks kids to think about specific situations that evoke strong feelings (“When I feel…”) and describe other ways to deal with those feelings in the moment (“I can…”).
The Mood Meter from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence is an outstanding tool, with 64 different emotions and a nuanced key for defining them. There’s even a Mood Meter app!
Kids might identify one of the following strategies to use in stressful situations:
- Pause. Take a moment to collect my thoughts and notice my emotions, and see if I can identify the emotions others are feeling.
- Construct an “I statement.” Saying “I feel… when…” will let me put together my own feelings, and describe what created those feelings.
- Ask three questions. When tempted to express negative thoughts in a heated moment, I’ll ask:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does this need to be said by me?
- Does this need to be said by me, now?
- Adjust my volume.
Shouting and raising my voice further heightens emotions. Lowering my voice can provide comfort and a shift of mindset and perspective.
- Ask for feedback. When tensions are rising and I just don’t know what has gone wrong, I’ll ask for feedback about how I’ve contributed to the situation.
- Say I’m sorry. When I feel regretful, ashamed, or out of control, apologizing may be a good option.
- Focus on the positive. Reframing the situation to see what’s going well can help me show gratitude and find emotional peace.
In stressful moments and in reflection, encourage kids to use “I statements,” as in “I feel… when….” The “I statement” is an important tool in emotional regulation, because it focuses on the feelings of the speaker, and when used appropriately, it avoids attributing blame or negative characteristics on the listener.
Step 2: After an outburst, reflect and practice a new strategy.
Outbursts are going to happen, despite our best efforts at preparing for them. After a strong emotional response, find a moment to talk with your kid about what happened. Be prepared for this conversation—it may not go well, but it’s still worth doing.
Ask reflection questions to help them think deeply about the event, what they were feeling, how they responded, and what they could do differently the next time:
- How do you feel? Encourage kids to use “I feel… when…”—that is, the “I statement” format described earlier. It’s important for kids to go beyond “sad” and “mad,” and to attach specific, nuanced emotions (“I feel…”) to the stimulus that created them (“when…”).
- What made you feel that way? Try to use “what” rather than “why,” because “why” often puts kids on the defensive when asked about their behavior.
- What do we need to move forward? It can be helpful to use the inclusive pronoun “we” so that kids know that the problem and solution can involve others as well. It emphasizes that, even though a kid has work to do, they’re going to get support and they’re not alone.
Once you’ve explored their feelings and the root causes of those feelings, you can work together to find strategies and solutions for the next emotional event. For example:
- Rehearse a conversation. Have kids imagine a conversation with the person or people who created the stimulus for the emotional response. Practice empathizing with their point of view, and rehearse a response that doesn’t result in hijacked emotions.
- Practice having the “I statement” focused conversation. “I statements” (described above) require kids to share their feelings with another person. By focusing on their own feelings (and not another’s behavior), kids learn that they cannot control others’ reactions, but they can control their own.
With practice and reflection, kids will be on the way to mastering emotional self-regulation. That way, when their emotional brain takes over, they’ll have the strategies they need to take back control.