To Manage Your Child’s Behavior, Find the Triggering Emotion

Mother with her daughterThe refrain is familiar. Frazzled parents enter my office and are at a loss as to how to handle the intense emotions of their child. “He goes from zero to 60 in no time flat,” they report. Sometimes the child is lashing out in anger, sometimes he or she is overcome with sadness. The overall effect is that the parents are left confused about how to help the child put on the brakes when emotions take control.

Let’s look at a case of a child we’ll call Justin (not his real name). Justin, a third-grade student, has always had trouble managing intense anger. He often loses his temper with his younger brother, resorting to screaming, hitting, or saying very mean things (i.e. “I hope you die!”). He sometimes makes hissing noises at his parents when he becomes so angry that he can’t express his feelings in words. Other times, he attempts to escape the situation by leaving the house or hiding.

Justin’s parents never know exactly what will set him off, so they find themselves walking on eggshells in their own home. The types of events that may trigger an emotional reaction for Justin are often minor and seem out of proportion. Chores, homework, and other daily activities can ruin an entire day, and the family sometimes feels compelled to leave social events due to his behavior.

His parents simply want Justin to be resilient enough to handle the obstacles he faces in his daily life. They know his behavior has, at times, impacted his peer relationships, and although Justin desires more friendships, he has a difficult time establishing and maintaining them because of his anger outbursts.

When Justin comes to counseling sessions, we spend a lot of time exploring these events and searching for more appropriate coping skills. As Justin has progressed through counseling, he has made strides to recognize that his intense emotional reactions are causing more problems than they are solving. We work on relaxation and realistic reframing of negative thoughts to help get through these events.

As we worked through these types of experiences, a pattern began to emerge that I have frequently seen with others.

Finding the first emotion is a skill that is beneficial for both children and adults. Parents can help to coach their children through this process as well.

When Justin had an angry outburst because he was going to have to share his post-baseball game ice cream with his brother, he was already in a poor mood because his team had lost the game and he had struck out. Was this outburst really about having to share his ice cream?

After having a tantrum at home because he would not be allowed to play with his neighborhood friend due to other family commitments that day, his teacher sent an email sharing that Justin had been upset at school about an argument with that friend. Was the meltdown related to the fact the family had other plans and he wasn’t getting his way?

Being asked to put his homework away after spending over an hour on a writing assignment caused a major incident with books being thrown, name-calling, and Justin being carried to his room because he was unable to calm himself. Was the incident caused by being asked to transition from homework to dinner time?

In each of these situations, there was a preceding event that triggered some uncomfortable emotions in Justin. He felt embarrassed by his performance during the baseball game; he was worried about the impact of the argument with his friend; and he was frustrated by the writing assignment that he felt had to be “just right.” It is easy to mistake the reaction as the stubborn response of an obstinate child.

By working with Justin to trace back the events to the true trigger, it became clear that he experiences uncomfortable emotions and struggles to verbalize them and process them independently. This results the discomfort building and eventually exploding as anger, directed at anybody who may be nearby. Through therapy, Justin continues to work on identifying the first uncomfortable emotion and finding ways to reduce the resulting anxiety before it builds to the point that he acts out in anger.

Finding the first emotion is a skill that is beneficial for both children and adults. Parents can help to coach their children through this process as well. Here are some steps to help you get started with identifying the first emotion:

  • Help the child understand that emotions are neither good nor bad. Some make us feel uncomfortable, but that is a natural (and beneficial) experience.
  • Process events once the child is calm. Backtrack and identify the first occurrence of an uncomfortable emotion. Work to identify the original trigger. Guide without judgment. Ask, “What happened before that? How did you feel when that happened?”
  • Focus on the first emotion. Most likely it is uncomfortable to talk about and is related to feeling frustrated, worried, unsure, or embarrassed.
  • Brainstorm ways to resolve that uncomfortable first emotion. It can be sharing the feelings verbally, finding ways to reframe negative thoughts associated with the uncomfortable emotion, or using self-talk to get through those difficult moments.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jill

    June 18th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    Brilliant! I think that there are too many times when we only address the behavior and not the underlying things that are actually causing the child to react in this way. I know that it could be easier said than done, but this is really is the path to better behavior and more answers for parents in lieu of simply causing even more problems.

  • LeeAnn

    June 18th, 2015 at 8:27 PM

    I completely agree with Jill and this article. Many times anger is just a second emotion caused by a trigger. This article is also very helpful and insightful for adults or dealing with a significant other who has had problems expressing themselves and or did not have a parent to recognize the triggers as a child and redirect the behavior.

  • Donna

    June 18th, 2015 at 2:25 PM

    Amazing I’m often on the losing end of tantrums half of them about not getting her own way other half is normally when something isn’t quite right such as her socks she gets very frustrated if they don’t feel right x

  • Gabby

    June 18th, 2015 at 4:05 PM

    But I think that for many parents they are afraid of looking for those triggers because to them it hits a little too close to home for them to feel comfortable with exposing that.

    For them it almost seems easier just to fight the battles with the kids rather than digging deep and seeing how those emotions really run underneath all of that anger.

  • Carson

    June 19th, 2015 at 7:53 AM

    Children are not just little adults who need to be figured out. You have to listen to them and watch them so that you can have a better understanding of what they feel and how you as the parent can help to make it better

  • kennedy

    June 19th, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    As a parent there are times when I have to commit to taking my own time out in order the effectively handle what my child is feeling.

    If I go into the situation with just the thought of ending it then what good will I be for my kids?

    I think that it is more important to step away from the situation for a quick little minute and figure out what is going on with me and with them to determine what we can do to remedy the problem.

  • Sean

    June 20th, 2015 at 5:44 AM

    I have been in situations where your child is acting out and you just want to do anything that you cna to stop the behavior. There is not always a very convenient way to work it out over hours and hours to find what started the actions. Those are things that you work on in private at home.
    When you are out in public most of the time you just want to figure out a way to get them to be quiet and work on it later.

  • aaron

    June 21st, 2015 at 5:11 AM

    as much of how our kids behave reflect directly upon us, then I can see how some parents will just want to stop it not really caring about the cause of the meltdown.

  • Cam

    June 24th, 2015 at 3:00 PM

    Although it is wrong for kids to act out in certain ways it is also wrong to necessarily make them feel too bad about that behavior. There is a right way and a wrong way to behave and they have to be taught that but in a way that is kind and gentle too.

  • Shaz

    August 7th, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    I have just read this article. It is my child down to a tee. The only problem is he is now 20 and this still applies. There is always something behind their outburst that has nothing to do with the outburst. The trouble is the older they get the less they want to share their thoughts with you and the angrier the outburst. I wish I’d had some information when he was young and it may have helped us now. Our anger bursts have become quite dangerous and scary at times. I have been trying to get help for my son since he was 8years old. As you can see we haven’t succeeded in calming the beast yet. To parents of young ones, research this for all its worth and try to calm it down before the teenage years hit. Hope this helps. Am open to any suggestions.

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