A couple of weeks ago my phone silently vibrated. I glanced at the caller ID to see P’s school flashing. Once again my silent prayer popped into my heart, “Dear Lord, please let it be the nurse.” Unfortunately, it was the principal informing me that P was involved in an altercation and due to this misconduct he would be received three days of out of school suspension. I asked all the usual questions, 1) Is everyone involved OK? 2) Where did the incident take place? 3) Who witnessed the incident? 4) Where is P now? In all honesty, I was a mixture of anger, frustration, annoyance. Who was walking with him to the assembly? Why didn’t they see the signs that P was feeling stressed? Where was the staff person? The school was well aware that unstructured times in a large group pose the most significant stress to P’s social-emotional regulation. Then I realized I was shifting blame not wanting to own up to the fact that my child initiated the physical altercation with another kid. I needed to be honest and say my kid lost his cool big time by fighting and interrupting the learning of his fellow classmates.
Social-emotional health and regulation is one topic that is ongoing in our home. I like to think of it like we can adapt behavior when engaged in situations that might provoke, stress, anxiety, annoyance or frustration. A person with strong emotional regulation skills may
- Notice when they are feeling emotionally charged.
- They will consider the consequences of their response to a specific situation.
- This person will engage in activities that help them prevent those negative emotions.
In contrast, a person who lacks emotional regulation skills may
- Overreact to situations compared to the same age peers.
- Experience negative emotions for a more extended amount of time compared to same age peers
- Experience mood swings
- Have a short temper and engage in emotional outbursts
P does overreact, he struggles with letting go of those negative feelings, he definitely experiences mood swings, and we see the emotional outbursts frequently. So, you can see why the social-emotional regulation is one topic that is constant in our home. We are looking for new coping strategies to integrate into our house. P talks about identifying emotions in certain situations. He knows what can trigger him to get angry. We’ve made some progress in developing the overall social-emotional health for P.
But where we struggle is putting the talk into action. I might say to P, “Tell me what you would do in this situation. You are in class when another student sitting next you starts humming and tapping their pencil.” And hopefully, P would say something like, “I would ask them to please stop or do it quieter. Or I could ask the teacher if I could move.” Those are great coping strategies; however, in reality, P said to me he probably would have grabbed their pencil away from the student. We know that in middle school that would not go over well at all.
Other coping strategies that we have work on with P to stop the emotional outbursts
- Deep breathing by filling up our bellies and slowly letting it out. That action gives us something to focus on besides the negative emotions.
- Count to 20 giving the body time to calm down.
- Ask an adult for help. That way the little problem doesn’t have to turn into a big problem.
- Walk away to calm down.
A mental health counselor gave us this analogy to use. Ask P, “How big is your balloon?” The thinking behind that is the bigger the balloon gets, the easier it will be to pop. Our emotions are like the balloon that they can get bigger and bigger until POP! The emotional outburst happens and then there are consequences to that outburst. The counselor suggested letting P blow up the balloon to see the balloon getting bigger and bigger. (Bonus for the deep breathing work to blow up the balloon!) Suggest ways to let the air out of the balloon (let the balloon go and see it fly or slowly let the air out). Ask are those are ways to remain in control or out of control with of our emotions?
The emotional outbursts will continue to happen, but with the ongoing education and practice, I hope that the frequency will dwindle. The phone calls are never fun to receive saying that your child is in trouble once again. P learned a valuable lesson with his out of school suspension–being told you can’t come to school is no fun. The experiences and stories will continue as we develop stronger social-emotional regulation skills.
All my best to you,