How to ‘simmer down’ a boiling pot (of feelings!)

Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

Learning to deal with disappointment, frustration, and doing things when you don’t want to is a part of growing up … but it isn’t easy!

Let’s face it, it can be even hard for us grown ups to stay calm in the face of big emotions or drag ourselves to do chores when we are tired, sick or want to watch that latest Netflix episode after a busy day!

A simple framework for thinking about emotional ‘meltdowns’ and tantrums comes from Dan Siegel’s* idea of ‘Flipping Your Lid’.

Imagine feelings being like water in a pot on the stove.

When we are calm, the water is still. As we start to experience bigger feelings the water starts to heat up and simmer with small bubbles, unsettling the water and making it all a bit bumpy!

If the feelings continue to grow the heat turns up and the bubbles get bigger, churning everything around and essentially ‘getting out of control’.

If the heat really turns up and the water starts bubbling over, the lid of the pot can bang and bounce around until it finally flips off completely. In emotional terms we might describe a child whose lid has flipped off as a meltdown.

This is often distressing and stressful for us parents trying to work out what to do and how to support our child, as well as get the original problem resolved (ie., get your shoes on to go to school!).

So what’s the trick to helping kids get their lids back on their emotions so that you can have a rational conversation to problem solve the situation?!

This may come as a surprise to you, even contradict or confront your intuition about what to do – but the first step is to AGREE with whatever your child is finding hard. Even if you don’t really agree!

For example, your child over-reacts to having to get ready for school and throws themselves on the ground. You might be tempted to try and reason with them by explaining that you’re in a hurry and don’t have long, promise them an incentive if they hurry up and get in the car, tell them to stop being ridiculous, or flip your own lid and yell, issue threats, or even resort to smacking as a way of ‘forcing’ compliance despite their lid being off and big feelings bubbling all over the place… which is very messy and not teaching your child how to manage their feelings or the situation – it may even teach them to fear you or resent you, avoid you and cause relationship issues.

Step 1 – agree with your child’s ‘complaint’ – “I know it’s really hard to get ready for school when you want to keep playing babe…” This type of response is commonly known as good old simple EMPATHY! Agreeing with what your child is finding hard validates their experience and helps them feel that it is ok to have an emotional response…even if they need to learn how to control these emotions more as they develop, being able to feel that emotions are okay is part of the process.

You can even go further and join in with their wish “I really wish we could stay home too” – you’ll get bonus points for this one and speed up the process of getting that lid back on and the water to simmer down more quickly.

And to go even further you can apologise for having to ask them to do something (even though you’re not taking it back or backing off on your request) – for instance, “I’m so sorry sweetheart that we can’t just stay here all day and play, I would love that, but I really have to go to work ….”. This is a way of turning up the empathy dial. Another way is to match their intensity and volume – don’t be too quiet or calm when offering empathy or they won’t get the message (especially if they are screaming really loudly!). Imagine – the higher the heat, the more ‘cool’ energy you need to offer to balance it out and dampen it down. Think big emotions = big doses of empathy.

By now the lid should be back on the pot…. but tread carefully because if you become demanding or apply pressure now it will just fly off again! Causing more delays and frustration, and back to square one.

Step 2 – So once the lid is on and those emotions are bubbling back down a little, THEN engage them in chat – invite plans about what you can do when they can resume the fun don’t want to stop, make it sound even more fun than it is now. For instance if they are playing with playdough, ask them what colour playdough they’d like to have this afternoon.. which cookie cutters you could get out, what kind of pretend food you could make, or give them 2 options to choose from (“could we push your cars through them and make mud tracks or make cupcakes do you think?”). If it’s blocks they are playing with, you could point out details of what they are playing with and ask them to build on your observations…. “oh wow you have lots of blue ones there, how many are there?/ where are the red ones?”.. even “how about we hid them all in here until this afternoon?”. You get the idea!

Then gently suggest alternative fun they can have now once the requested task has been done – for instance, “oh I just remembered we haven’t listened to the Trolls music this week yet, what if we listen to your favourite song in the car, or play a favourite game on the way?”.

Again, offer more empathy, in big doses if needed. BUT, a cautionary note – you must sound genuine and avoid being condescending or they will call you out and the lid will fly off again. Being honest and predicting they won’t be happy goes a long way – “I know it’s not the same thing or as fun, but it might be ok, why don’t we give it a try?”

THEN

Step 3 – In order to solve the problem of noncompliance and get YOUR WAY (ie., your child get dressed) – you may need to offer some assistance or turn the chore into play.

Such as “those shoes can be tricky to get on can’t they, sorry babe I forgot… silly mum!” (even if that’s not entirely true – this is more EMPATHY! and appealing to them feeling understood). So don’t take over, just OFFER to help them to get started and provide LOADS of praise for any attempt to start or help as this is moulding them toward compliance. If they refuse assistance, apologise and offer more understanding “sorry I forgot you can do it all on your own now you are so big”.

OR if your child is more competitive and loves a game, or you are really running out of time, then you could challenge them to see how fast they can do the task or a part of the task; such as “‘I bet you can’t get your shoes on faster than me” (but let them win!), or “there’s no way you can do that before I get back from the bathroom”, “first one to the door gets to choose the music”… even hide their shoes nearby and tell them “I bet you can’t find them!!”.

Playfulness goes a long way to supporting your child to learn skills – after all, play is their language of learning.

Remember to also keep your own lid down on your boiling emotions… a parent with no lid on their emotions CANNOT support their child to put their own back on! Take a breath, walk away if needed, and calmly approach the problem. Imagine fighting a fire if you are on fire …. it won’t work! You need to ‘gear up’, use the right tools and equipment, and go in calmly.

Press the pause button on your own reaction first, then act mindfully J

It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3 (with practice… it takes lots of practice!).

If you need more individual support or feel that your child’s boiling over is happening too often or not settling over time, get in touch with our talented team of psychologists for professional and personal guidance with assured confidentiality. Check out www.thejacarandacentre.com.au or give us a call on 4954 8822.

Hope this helps ……be mindful .

Emma Langham, Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Jacaranda Centre, Cardiff

*Dan Siegel is an internationally recognised expert in Psychiatry and Interpersonal Neurobiology, the author of five parenting books and mindfulness expert to name but a few of his extraordinary list of contributions to our understanding of how young mind’s grow. He is one of Emma’s main mentors in understanding how to apply science in practical ways to support children’s healthy development.

Grab his latest book this Christmas holiday season to learn more about how to help your kids become more emotionally balanced, more resilient in the face of struggles, more insightful when it comes to understanding themselves, and more empathic and caring toward others – ‘The Yes Brain’

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