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Don't take the bait

Let’s set the scene: your child is really upset, you’re working really hard to keep your cool and trying different strategies you’ve learned, nothing seems to work and your child is still really upset. Then, they start yelling “You don’t love me! No one loves me!”.

Or, your teenager is really upset with you and yells “I hate you so much!”.

Here is my advice: don’t take the bait

When a child or teenager is really upset, they say things. Lots of things. Often, they say things that are mean, illogical, or even completely untrue. And still, don’t take the bait.

When someone - because this is true of adults too - is very upset, or dysregulated, they say and do things that they don’t mean, that are out of character, or that break house rules, because it’s coming from a place of emotional dysregulation. Lots of times these words come out because they are trying to convey the intensity of the feeling they have, and sometimes words just come out seemingly without any reason at all. Maybe you’ve had that experience where you say something and then think “why did I even say that? It’s not true at all.” It can be hard to find the words to express how you’re feeling when you are really upset, and the words that do come out can be provocative, attention grabbing or hurtful.

Again, don’t take the bait.

Taking the bait would be trying to prove that those words are not true - “you don’t mean that”, or “of course we love you”, or “no one hates you”, or trying to set limits on what they are saying - “we don’t use the word hate in this family”. But, this often escalates the intensity of the feelings and in general it’s really unhelpful (and really hard) to try to convince someone out of their feelings. They feel the way they feel. Plus, the emotion part of their brain is fully engaged, leaving no room for logic or learning or listening. So, if you say “of course we love you, we love you so much.” You’re likely to get a “NO!” back, plus even more emotion, plus even more minutes in what seems like an already unpleasant meltdown.

What to do instead? I’m glad you asked. The answer is to do less than you think. The goal is to help everyone calm down and for the child or teenager to feel validated in their emotions. So, first, you need to stay calm. It’s better to not say anything than to respond from your own place of dysregulation. Second, you want the child or teenager to feel validated and understood. When you’re ready, you may say “You’re really upset and sad right now. That’s okay. I’m going to sit right over here with you.”

There’s a good chance that it will be very hard to be the present, regulated adult and not defend yourself by saying “of course I don’t hate you!”. If it feels like that, you can always say “those are big, big words. I’m just going to take a few deep breaths.” If you need to step out and come back, just let them know that you’re leaving for a minute to take a break and then coming back. You can say “I just need to take some deep breaths and then I’ll be back.”

Now, if there is a little nagging voice in the back of your mind that says “but what if they really think or feel that?” Or, maybe you feel like you want to revisit some of the words that they use in those moments. That’s fine, you can always come back and talk about it when everyone (including you), is calm.

Thanks, as always, for reading -

Dr. Kate

p.s., the September newsletter will be early this year because it’s all about back to school.

That way, you’ll have plenty of time to incorporate those strategies!

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