Children and Emotional Distress

One of the most challenging experiences for a parent is learning how to help a child in emotional distress.  A parent can feel overwhelmed and inadequate, when faced with the acute emotional distress of their child; especially when they try to respond by attempting to calm the child down or with problem solving…and it doesn’t work. Panic can set in. How a parent responds can lead to a total meltdown of both child and parent.

Understanding how a child’s brain develops and operates, plus learning some simple strategies, can lead to a resolution where parent and child maintain emotional connection even in the most stressful of moments. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind explains that our brains are developing from before we are born into early adulthood. Our limbic system, which involves automatic responses, is mostly developed at birth. A baby will cry when it is hungry, tired, or needs a diaper change. And until those basic needs are met not much else will soothe the child. Ever watch new parents frantically trying to find out why a baby is crying? We can resort to some pretty silly things trying to sooth a little one.

As parents respond, and do so calmly, the child begins to develop a sense of trust. They know that their basic needs will be met (along with this is beginning to learn many things about their world). The cerebral cortex of the brain is now developing, and it will continue to develop until the child is a young adult. Children will be learning until then how to regulate their emotions. Dr. Dan Siegel explains this process as integration.

As parents we can sometimes misunderstand what is happening when our children are in emotional distress. What is often happening is their brain is having an experience that requires integration, and how we respond will help them with this process or could prevent it from happening. Sometimes parents need to learn this for themselves as well, in order to help their children. Learning this process creates connection between child and parent and lessens the lasting effects of emotional distress.

Children can learn at an early age the power of storytelling. Oftentimes a person who has suffered trauma benefits from the retelling (in a safe place and with a safe person) of their story. Once events are put in order, emotions given a name, and a person can bring their thought processes together with their emotions; they can finally make sense of what happened. Once we can make sense of an emotional situation, the impact of the emotion can lessen, and we can then begin to see alternatives. We can make “new associations.”

When we “can give words to our frightening and painful experiences— when we literally come to terms with them— they often become much less frightening and painful.” In this process, when a person shares an emotionally distressful experience with another and that person supports them through it, the experience brings healing. This process of storytelling can be used with a child who has been bullied, fallen off a bike and injured, or had an embarrassing experience at school. It involves integrating the right side of our brain with the left. Emotions with Thoughts.

It is important for parents to take the time to hear the stories. Parents must hear their child’s experience and validate it, not discount what they feel. Doing this allows the child’s mind to find resolution and quiets the intensity of emotional distress. Their experience is what it is, and is it real. Whatever emotions they have, they are real to them; and ok. In order for parents to do this, it is important for them to be integrated as well.

The other parts of the brain that require integration are what Dr. Siegel calls the upstairs and downstairs brains, or the cerebral cortex and the limbic system. A toddler, for instance, may respond with full emotional force when they cannot have what they want. Their downstairs, automatic responses work quite well. And when the downstairs part of the brain is fully activated, they don’t have access to their upstairs brain until the emotion lessens. But their upstairs is not yet developed. They need help integrating. The behaviors we want from our children such as, “sound decision making, control of their emotions and bodies, empathy, self-understanding, and morality” take years to develop because these are not automatic responses; these are learned and must be taught.

If we discount emotion and just tell a child to stop, this often makes the emotion stronger. Taking time to attend to the emotion allows the child to identify it and to feel heard. Then it is time to integrate. This is the process of building the upstairs by exploring alternatives and problem solving (and discussing discipline, if necessary) can begin. Jumping to problem solving and discounting their emotions usually leads to more intensity. In this process the parent isn’t giving in. They are simply helping the child to integrate.

Integrating the whole brain also involves daily experiences where problem solving, decision making, etc. can take place before emotional distress occurs. Being aware of opportunities (teaching moments) and utilizing them to help your child integrate will continue the process. Children learn best when they are not under emotional distress. The brain has difficulty learning when saturated by emotion. If you would like to learn more about how to help your child with communication and emotional distress, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services in Orlando today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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