Author: Stuart, D.
Organization: Davidson Institute for Talent Development
The basic approach to helping a child deal with difficult feelings is (a) to help them build the capability to observe themselves while they’re in the midst of experiencing the feeling, (b) to help them form a story or narrative about their experience of the feeling and the situation, and then (c) to help them make conscious choices about their behavior and the ways they express their feelings.
Validating the Child’s Feelings
The starting point is to validate your child’s feelings—whatever they might be—and acknowledge and accept that the feelings are there (you can accept the feeling without having to accept the means of expression of the feeling). Use words and language that are appropriate to your child’s verbal and emotional maturity. You need to communicate that the child’s feelings are understandable and natural, under the circumstances, and for the way that your child sees the world.
In the process of validating your child’s feelings, you’re also modeling the position of being an observer. You want to simply be offering an empathic narrative about what may be going on in the child’s mind and the connection between the trigger event, the interpretation or meaning it had for the child, and the resulting feelings that arose in the child.
Dealing With Anger and Conflicts
Anger (a secondary emotion) can protect us from more vulnerable underlying feelings of hurt, humiliation, self-defeat, pain and sadness (the primary emotions). Anger is often a way to avoid showing vulnerability when it doesn’t feel safe to reveal or express the softer emotions. This turning to anger is therefore usually an automatic, unconscious process, but it can become conscious, and we can take steps to avoid the escalation when two people start butting heads with each other.
As the parent in these interactions, you have the opportunity to model healthy ways of dealing with frustration and anger in the ways that you, yourself, react when these feelings come up for you. The goal is to model that your own and your child’s difficult feelings can be observed, can be tolerated without “destroying” you or “driving you over the edge,” and that they can be managed in conscious, healthy ways. Here are some alternatives that you can try, in order to avoid getting caught up in the power struggles, debates, and escalating arguments that you may have with your child, and to help your child learn to manage difficult feelings through your own modeling of healthy ways to do so yourself:
- Monitor your own level of frustration or anger. Learn to recognize your own internal signs for when you get close to “not being able to take it anymore,” or to “exploding.” It’s ok to give yourself a time out, and it’s not a sign of defeat. In fact, it’s modeling behavior that you want your child to use. You can say something like “I’m getting close to the point where I can’t think clearly, so I’m going to take a few minutes to clear my head and then we can talk about how we’re going to handle this.” This has numerous benefits: a) you’re modeling the self-observing/self-monitoring that ultimately is essential for being able to manage difficult feelings, b) you’re modeling the ability to make the conscious and healthy choice to disengage from a situation before things get out of control, and c) you’re showing respect for your child by demonstrating that you don’t want to continue to react in automatic ways that may end up hurting your child’s feelings, and that you may later regret.
- Help your child to understand the underlying feelings behind the anger, and address those feelings instead of reacting to the anger. To pull this off, however, you have to be managing and not reacting to your own frustration and anger. You also have to avoid the urge to argue back and defend or justify your position. The benefits are: a) you’re modeling the ability to be in an observer role for the child’s experience and feelings, b) you’re validating the child’s anger as a natural reaction to his perception of the situation, and c) you’re communicating, through your own calm manner, that the feeling can be tolerated and “survived.”
- If your child reverts to behavior that is destructive or unacceptable when she’s upset, then form a plan AHEAD OF TIME for how you’re going to respond to it. You want to establish clear rules for what is and is not acceptable behavior, write them down, and post them for your child to see and remember. Then, you want to formulate clear and precise consequences when the rules are broken, write them down, and post them for your child to see and remember. The critical elements in making a system like this work are clarity and consistency.
Help Your Child Understand What Triggers the Feelings
Part of helping a child understand his feelings is helping him recognize what event triggered them, and helping him understand how he interpreted that event in the way that led to him to feel the way he did. (Remember, events themselves don’t have meaning… it’s our perception or interpretation of them that creates the meaning that we react to.)
When your child becomes frustrated or angry with something, wait until he’s calmed down just enough to be able to respond to you and talk to you. Then ask, “what was happening BEFORE you got upset?” or, “what were you doing BEFORE you got angry?” Help your child to identify what was going on during those last few moments when he was feeling ok, and reiterate to your child what he was doing during that time and how he was feeling. Then, ask your child to play the tape in ultra slow motion, to describe what happened next, in the split moment just before he noticed feeling frustrated/angry/upset. Try to focus on the instant when he observed or encountered something different. You might ask, “And then something different happened—something changed just a bit. Can you tell me what it was that changed? Can you describe what you saw or heard, or did that was different, right in that moment before you reacted?”
Next, help your child to examine what thoughts and reactions went through his mind, as he was looking at/experiencing the new event. There will usually be internal thoughts (self-talk) that give meaning to the event, and you want your child to start becoming aware of these thoughts. Some children think of them as voices inside their heads, telling them what to do, or more often, what they SHOULD or MUST do or be, and also what SHOULDN’T be. These internal thoughts are often what lead to the feelings.
Continue with some gentle, empathic questioning about what this might mean to your child, and how he ended up feeling, in that instant before it turned to frustration or anger. You might say, “When you heard that voice in your mind say ‘I’m not going to get it right, I’ll never solve it,’ then what did that mean to you? What does that say about you?” Typically, if you’ve taken this slowly or gently enough (and that takes practice, so don’t expect miracles the first time!), your child will come back with something that reveals a more vulnerable feeling. In this example, it might be, “It means I’m not that smart after all. If I’m so smart, this should all come easily [notice the ‘should’]. I’m really stupid after all.” (This example is not such a stretch… even PG children can wonder if they’re as smart as adults seem to think they are, and can feel tremendous self-doubt about whether they’ll continue to “live up” to this label.)
When your child reveals self-doubt or feelings of injury, humiliation, or rejection that often underlie the reactions of frustration and anger, DON’T rush in to reassure him that “of course you’re really smart,” or “of course I love you just as must as your little sister,” or “of course it was just an accident that you weren’t invited.” Here’s where you want to respond with complete validation and acceptance of your child’s experience, with things like, “Yeah, if it makes you feel stupid, of course you would get frustrated. That’s a horrible feeling, to doubt your own abilities, or to wonder if I’m going to be disappointed in you.” If you do this repeatedly—helping your child to “freeze frame” the process and become aware of the onset of the difficult feelings, your child will start to respond with greater awareness to the events that trigger the difficult feelings. With this greater awareness, your child will eventually be able to make more appropriate choices for how to deal with the feelings and will tolerate them more easily. Your child will also be able to tolerate the more vulnerable feelings underneath, and will therefore feel less need to protect himself, or escape from the feelings through the acting out of the frustration and anger. Even if your child doesn’t arrive at any earth-shattering insights about his internal thoughts and beliefs, simply offering the opportunity to be curious and to explore them is laying the groundwork for developing the self-observing capability that will help him manage difficult feelings down the road.
“Stop, Think, Choose” Technique
You can also work with a more explicit behavioral process to help a child step out of automatic reactions and unacceptable behavior. I like to use the sequence, “Stop, Think, Choose” as the keywords for a child to use to coach himself toward more conscious choices for behavior. The trick is to develop the association of this sequence with the onset of the frustration or anger. You would work with your child during calm times to offer acceptable choices for ways to express the feelings (I know a lot of you have done this already). Then, help the child to pick a trigger or identify a “switch” that informs the child he’s starting to reach his limits of tolerance. This might involve having the child recognize that he’s clenching his fists or feeling tension in his body, being able to recognize and articulate “I’m angry,” or anything else that will help the child catch himself in the process of becoming upset. At first, you will have to help the child to catch himself, and you might do this with comments like, “I can see that you’re starting to get frustrated. Is this one of those times when you could use your ‘stop-think-choose’ technique?” Presenting it as a choice gives the child the opportunity to learn that he can exercise control over his reactions and behavior. You may still need to coach your child through the process of stopping, thinking, choosing before the child can manage it himself.
Frustration Over Not Being In Control
One of the most common sources of frustration for a gifted child, in my experience, has to do with their perception that others’ rules don’t make sense, aren’t logical, and things that others say or do aren’t rational (and therefore need not be obeyed). They believe that the world should operate according to THEIR rules (which they believe are totally logical), and they feel outraged when the world doesn’t oblige. Their natural (and usually healthy) drive for self-determination and efforts to feel in control of, and to exert control over, their world bring them into frequent conflict with the “real” rules. This can create a deep sense of despair and fear that they can never be in control of their world. Some children may even feel individually punished for not being allowed to be in control, and will fight to protect their self-esteem and efforts at self-efficacy. This can explain why sometimes the smallest incident that seems unjust to them can trigger such intense distress. They’re reacting to the feeling that the entire world appears irrational, uncontrollable and unpredictable to them. Think about how scary that would be!
One possible way to address this is to find some activity or environment where the child truly can set the rules and she can feel in control. This requires some creative thinking by you, the parent, to construct or find such an environment. In my experience, when the child can find one place where she feels that things “make sense,” and feels in control, then much of the distress over not being in control in other places subsides.
Fear of Being a Failure
Another common source of distress for a gifted child is one I alluded to earlier… the fear she may have that she really isn’t as smart as others say she is, and she’s going to fall from gifted grace if anyone ever found out. She therefore feels very protective of her self-image as someone who is “smart,” but feels fragile since she doesn’t believe it’s something she has any control over. For those of you familiar with Carol Dweck’s research on mind-sets, you’ll recognize this as the fixed mind-set. The child will internally have tremendous self-doubt, will be terrified of challenges and will be reluctant to face anything where she isn’t assured of success. She may also believe you expect only perfection from her (children can interpret our reactions and encouragement for their successes in the most distorted, extreme ways, sometimes… to the point of believing we expect only continued high achievement from them). So, she may be petrified about the possibility of disappointing you and losing your precious love. Then, when she faces a slightly difficult problem, all this fear and self-doubt may be triggered, and it comes out as a fit of rage or frustration.
Teach Your Child to Imagine Others’ Perspectives
Here’s another way you can help your child when he explodes over perceived injustices or doesn’t like following rules set by others. The idea is to help your child recognize that other people have different perspectives about things, and that their reasons for doing something may be completely consistent with their own perspectives, even if they’re different from his own.
Younger children, especially, have a difficult time recognizing that other perspectives can exist in other people’s minds. In fact, being able to conceive of a different belief being held in another person’s mind is a learned process, often called Theory of Mind, and usually doesn’t even start to develop until around age three or four. It can take several more years for the capacity to develop to the point where a child can actually understand another’s behavior and reactions in terms of completely different perceptions existing in another’s mind. (Some adults don’t even get to this point!)
Since this is a learned skill, it’s something you can assist your child to develop. One way to do this is by engaging him in games or exercises where you ask him to imagine what’s taking place in the other person’s mind, when he has been in a conflict with someone else, or has refused to do something he’s been asked to do. You can ask him to tell the story first from his own point of view, then ask him to pretend that he’s the other person, and tell the story again from the other’s point of view. Encourage him to explain, in as much detail as possible, what he imagines the other person’s motives were, or what the other person must have been thinking or feeling that made her act the way she did. If he was in an argument with another person, then ask him to replay the argument, but to argue it from the other person’s perspective.
You can encourage your child to try to imagine as many different motives as possible, that the other person might have had for doing what she did. Approach this as a brainstorming exercise and challenge your child to be creative, no matter how outlandish his responses might be. You can help by throwing in some ideas of your own and even making a game out of it where you take turns guessing at the motives and intentions of the other person.
Basically, any type of exercise that helps a child to be curious about the perceptions and intentions of others, and helps him to become accepting of different perceptions, will benefit him in numerous ways. For example, if he felt hurt by something someone did, instead of assuming that the other person must have had the deliberate intention of hurting him, he might be able to see that the other person was trying to concentrate on a task, and was annoyed at being interrupted. This could help him take things less personally in the long run.