Have you heard the term “emotional intensity.” This phrase really resonates with me as a raise up one of my children. This phrase often is used to characterize certain gifted kids, but I am using the term more loosely today. The emotionally intense child I am talking about feels emotions to extremes. You may see this child excited about life one minute and then a few minutes late start shouting out phrases like, “Worst day ever!” or “Nobody likes me.” Speaking truth into emotionally intense children is important and can be challenging. It’s challenging because they are often not able to think logically when they are “in the moment,” and you may feel frustration as a parent, which can cause a negative interaction. Today I want to talk to you about how I handle these moments when I’m doing it well, which is not all the time. However, it’s my aim to do it better more often. With all my parenting tips, this is a “works for me” type of advice as I relay my own experiences and attempts at raising my children well.
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First, I would like to recommend a couple of books. The first I have read and can say that it is really insightful and helpful. It is called “Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings.” This may or may not apply to your child. Again, I want to make it very clear that today I am not just talking about the “gifted child.” Another book that I have yet to read, but I have heard great things about is “Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors.” I hope these resources might be helpful to you too. While those a great place to you to go for further information and parenting guidance, I also want to now provide you with some of my own strategies, thoughts and experiences.
How to Speak Truth into Emotionally Intense Children
- Check Your Own Attitude – I had to make a lot of changes in myself recently. I had let my emotionally intense child rob my joy, and I began to respond poorly due to my own frustrations and weaknesses. Read more about the changes I had to make so that I could put our relationship in a better place where my words might mean more to her as I try to speak truth.
- Make Sure Your Child’s Physical Needs are Taken Care Of – Your child may have something going on physically that contributes to their emotional intensity, and it’s part of our job to figure out the puzzle. They might be gifted, as the term “emotional intensity” often implies. With my daughter, we discovered that she needed to have food at regular intervals because we believe drops in blood sugar contribute to some episodes. We are also exploring the possibility of restless legs, which I’m going to talk about in an upcoming article. We also found that constipation was contributing to stomach pains and headaches, which would make anyone grumpy. Is your child getting enough sleep? Do they do better in a more structured environment? Are they getting the physical exercise they need? Do they have sensory processing issues (My friend, Dayna, over at Lemon Lime Adventures is a great resource if you think this might apply to your child. You may want to start with her article “Decoding Everyday Behaviors“)? Make sure you are setting up your child for success by taking care of their physical needs. Whatever their needs might be, I like to keep in mind that I don’t want to teach my kids to blame their actions on their physical needs. We can teach them how to take better care of themselves to set themselves up for easier success. However, I believe kids can, with lots of teaching and patience and over time, learn to respond appropriately to whatever they face. For example, I could blame my menstrual cycle and be completely obnoxious once a month, or I can choose self control. It’s easy to blame my period, but the fact is that I can have self control over those emotions with other people and yet be snappy at my family. When it comes down to it, it is a choice. So, while there might be very real underlying factors, we need to teach our kids how to respond well.
- Help Them Learn Self Control – We don’t want our emotionally intense child to dictate the atmosphere in our home. It is not fair to everyone else. While it is really important to teach and have empathy, it is also very important to teach self control. You can visit my post about how we stop the whining and crying in our kids. It is important to note that we don’t want them to shove their emotions, but rather they need to learn to get control of their actions so that we can explore their emotions in a healthy way. We need to show them that their drama is not acceptable in real life and won’t get the attention and control they want in our home.
- Speak Truth When You are NOT in the Moment – I have found that when we are in “the moment,” our child will be no where near thinking logically. I have found the most success in waiting until they are calm and under control to be able to process a conversation in a reasonable way. In the moment, there is no convincing my child of the truth. Trust me. I have tried. What she has built up in her head out-weighs anything I have to say at that time. It often takes me waiting an hour or two – maybe even the next day – to really sit down and have a conversation with my child that can be productive.
- Give them Tools – Often times kids can learn to identify, in their own body, when an emotional outburst is about to occur. They might feel anxiety in their stomach, a racing heart, a face that starts to get red or tense muscles in arms or legs. Help them learn to identify what they feel before the moment so they can catch themselves before they explode. (Thank you, Pritchards, for this advice). We recently had a talk with my daughter about how she could appropriately handle the feelings exploding insider her in a way that isn’t destructive to others. Here are 10 ways to deal with anger and her are 10 more! Make a plan to help them achieve success. We even decided on a secret hand signal if I see things starting to get out of control. We have also established a communication journal with our daughter to help her get her feelings on paper.
- Show Empathy – I know there have been times in my life where I have felt emotions to the extreme. I think of my teenage years where I often felt intense emotions that were dictated more by personality and hormones rather than truth. I want to take you back to a moment in June that inspired this post (I know. It’s a long time coming, right?). It was the day after a major emotional meltdown. My daughter was claiming statements like, “Nobody likes me,” “I’m stupid,” and “I hate you.” None of these things were true, and the next day we could explore all of them in a logical way. We were laying in the grass and looking up at the bright blue sky and puffy clouds talking about the statements she made the day before. She was able to see through her own dark clouds and even laugh at how outrageous and untrue these statements were. There is often a sweetness to our conversations about her emotions when we are not in the moment. What I said to her was, “You know what I think? I think Satan is whispering to you some of the same lies he used to tell me when I was younger. He used to tell me, ‘Nobody likes you,’ when that was far from the truth. I chose to believe him. I don’t want you to have to believe his lies, so we need to learn to recognize them as lies and claim the truth.” Then, I did the next bullet point.
- Help them Claim the Truth – While in my empathy I helped my daughter recognize the lie, I needed to next teach her to claim the truth. The ultimate truth is that she was made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:27) He knit her together (Psalm 139:15). God loves her. (Romans 8:35-39). He wants the best for her. (Jeremiah 29:11). I explained to my daughter that I can often go down a dark path, focusing on the bad. I can let it cloud reality. I said that my life verse that I try to claim when I am going to a negative place is, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8. I asked her if she wanted to memorize it with me. I made a free printable of Philippians 4:8, and it has been hanging on my refrigerator for months. I remind her to claim that verse when she is going down the negative path. The goal is to re-wire her brain to listen to truth rather than the lies.
I hope this post has been helpful as you head down the road of trying to parent an emotionally intense child. It’s challenging. I am still walking through it and trying to learn, adapt and share as I go. Another mom that is walking alongside an emotional child is another blogger who has become a friend, Dayna at Lemon Lime Adventures. She just wrote a post titled, “How to Stay Sane & Happily Married When Parenting an Angry Child,” which also might help if you are struggling with one of your children right now.