I am often asked by parents, “Why is my child so emotional?” This question comes from parents of children as well as teens. It's a good question that doesn't always have an easy answer. Some of a child's emotional reactions are inherited and embedded in their personality, some of a child's emotional reactions are learned based on what a parent permits and what a parent models. Some of the emotional reactions of children are related to puberty and the release of hormones and physiological changes in the body and brain. Yet another factor is the child's environment such as what is going on in the home, social stressors, and pressures that come from academics and extra-curricular activities. We MUST remember that we will NEVER know what it is to be our children's ages - what I mean as that you and I can never imagine the pressure of today's world with all the social media, 24 hour news, and bombardment of images and messages through TV, internet, and texting. It is easy to forget how different the pressures are for our children than they were for us at their ages. These factors creates pressure which triggers the child's “fight-or-flight” response which causes emotional overload.
When you see your child reacting emotionally, you are witnessing the phenomenon of the logical/rational part of their brain disengaging which leads to the child being reactive. It is important to remember that this is a biological response and the child is not purposefully being “bad” or “defiant.” One of the best descriptions that I have ever read of a picture that helps explain the ups and downs of young people is in a book by Irving B. Weiner called Psychological Disturbance in Adolescence ((1970). Weiner quotes Josselyn (1954):
The behavior of the adolescent is typical of that of individuals, of whatever age, who have not found an adequate integrative pattern with which to reconcile their own impulses, demands of conscience, and the demands of reality. Adolescence, as is equally true of neurosis and psychoses, is characterized by relative failure of the ego. Demands place upon it have caused a strain that it cannot meet. (p. 225).
The ego is a term given to represent the part of a person that operates in reality and is able to resist selfish urges and desires in order to behave in a mature manner. Children and adolescents are in a state of ego development and this helps explain why young people appear immature, selfish, and easily emotionally overwhelmed. So, you may ask, how can we help our kids? Thankfully, I have some answers for you.
First, I hope it is evident from this information to see how important it is for you the parent to be non-reactive. Yelling, threatening, or arguing with an emotional child or adolescent is a complete waste of time. Using a firm voice to give directives is different from stooping to their level of emotionality and being out of control. We must commit to being good models of emotional maturity for our children.
Second, work to create an environment of balance and peace. It is possible to live and function in a fast-paced world and use the technology available to us without being overwhelmed by it. By following routine and building in times of relaxation and rest for ourselves and our children, we show them a balanced approach to life. Listen to this quote by Horrocks (1954):
If the environment is such that the adolescent can gradually be inducted into experiences for which he is prepared and with which he is able to cope, if he is allowed to assume responsibility and play a mature role when he is ready to do so, and if there is a real effort on the part of adults to accept his interests and, where possible, to meet his needs, the adolescent will find his transition into maturity comparatively smooth and uncomplicated (p. 700).
Third, through relationship and connection, get to know your child's emotional maturity level. Seek to give them opportunities to step up and experience higher levels of responsibility but not too much that he or she becomes overwhelmed on a continual basis. This is yet another reason to make our homes safe places of love, hope, and encouragement. When our children arrive home after their busy days, our homes can be places of balance where their emotional batteries are recharged.
Fourth and last, spend time with your child or adolescent in play and relationship. Playing helps regulate the brain and pulls the young person out of “fight-or-flight” mode and allows you to model how to deal with the stress of everyday life and still find enjoyment and joy. Be mindful of how you talk with your young person and what you say around them. Do you make life seem as though it is terrible and hopeless? I talk with many young people in my office who are afraid of becoming adults because all they hear from the adults in their lives is how bad the world is. Remember to give them the view that while living in our world is hard sometimes, we always have the ability to make good choices and our attitude is always ours to control. Also, always remember to model the fact that relationships are the lifeblood and foundation to a healthy, stable individual.
Horrocks, J.E. The Adolescent. In L. Carmichael, ed., Manual of Child Psychology, 2nd. Ed. NewYork: Wiley, 1954, pp. 697-734.
Josselyn, I.M. The ego in adolescence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 24: 223-227, 1954.