Help to name emotions. If you go back to the brain/nervous system information that I referenced in #4, you’ll notice that I talked about how to help manage our kids when they are so upset that their good “wizard brains” are offline. In this step, we are going to practice how to help our kids get out of that “lizard brain” headspace and back towards functionality. And, at the risk of sounding like a click-bait article, all it takes is One Weird Trick. (groan).
To go a little deeper with the brain information, I want to talk about our body’s two regulatory systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is our body’s “fight or flight” system; it connects right to the “lizard brain.” When it feels a threat is near, it activates, taking energy away from the higher-level thinking patterns and into the basic skills of survival. Once the threat is passed, the body seeks to return to normalcy by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest.” This system begins to bring back online the verbal skill, creativity, and empathy that marks our gifted kids.
This hair-trigger system is super well-developed for keeping us alive and away from actual mortal danger. The problem is that it cannot tell the difference between the emotions that arise for “There is a swarm of Murder Hornets chasing me!” and “I don’t like that I was picked last for softball.” When emotion triggers the threat system, the sympathetic nervous system is going to “fight or flight” first and ask questions never.
Regardless of the threat, the parasympathetic nervous system will engage on its own and ultimately return the body to homeostasis. (For example, think about the last time that you were REALLY MAD. How long did that last? When you look back, I bet it wasn’t more than 10 minutes. It is really hard for the body to remain THAT MAD for a long time. It is exhausting to the system!). Use that knowledge to release some of your anxiety around managing your kids’ emotions. They will recover on their own, in time. I promise. Stop laughing!
We can help the process along, however, by activating the One Weird Trick. The parasympathetic nervous system will engage when it knows (specifically, when it hears) the emotion that triggered the threat response. It can’t hear it internally (though it doesn’t hurt). It has to hear it spoken externally, so it can be processed. What does this mean? It means that we need to help our kids name their emotions.
When we name our emotions, our parasympathetic nervous system jumps in, activating a specific protocol for emotional re-regulation based on that feeling. The neurobiology behind this process is fascinating, but this article is already long enough. Suffice it to say, that naming feelings just became a major tool in your parenting/behavior management arsenal. You can use it for your kids, your family, and even yourself. When your loved ones see you modeling this behavior (and get to experience the positive benefits), they will have more buy-in and willingness to try it themselves. Remember, no one WANTS to feel that upset/angry/afraid. It is uncomfortable and exhausting for the system! This technique will help empower your kids to get out of their own emotional way and return to what they were doing faster.
As an example of the power of this technique, I was working with a client once who was having a really rough day. He had ended up in my office and he was distraught: screaming, crying, cursing, and even flipping chairs. I watched him for a while, letting some of that “fight or flight” energy dissipate, then I casually mentioned that he looked really upset. “WELL DUH!!!” he screamed back at me. “Duh, what?” I responded, keeping my cool. “I’m PISSED OFF!” he screamed. OK, so I had tripped the return to normalcy switch. Now, the effects don’t happen right away (it certainly didn’t in this kid), but within a minute I could see him start to regain control. He looked around and really saw me for the first time since he had come into my room. I looked it him and he looked at me. I said, “OK, so you’re pissed off, eh? Let’s talk about it.” And we did. And he got back to class way sooner than I would have guessed.
Trust me on this one, folks. It works.