Rethinking Emotional Explosions

“Your turn!” one of my kids shouted to the other. I looked over to the kitchen table to see that they were engaged in one one of the many card games they had picked up at school. Buoyed by the warm glow of sibling cooperation, I turned to go upstairs. 

It turns out that the warm glow cooled quickly. Before I even reached the third stair I could hear the sound of a deck of cards hitting the floor and an indignant sibling wail echoing through the entire house. 

“That didn’t last long” I thought to myself. To be honest, if I had had a deck of cards I might have tossed them to the floor in frustration as well. “Where did that come from?”

Child centered in a warm brown background expressing anger.

From Zero to One Hundred?

It isn’t uncommon for parents to report that big, explosive feelings can “come out of nowhere.” In other words, it can seem like kids go from zero to one hundred with little or no warning. It is true that the part of the brain that helps kids handle big feelings like anger and frustration are under construction throughout childhood and adolescence. This means that big feelings are more likely to take over quickly as our kids learn how to manage them. It’s also true that some children have more explosive reactions based on their wiring or because of their experiences.

But the idea that feelings come out of nowhere is not only generally inaccurate, it also communicates a certain kind of inevitability that robs children (and adults, for that matter) of much-needed agency. The idea that explosions “just happen” doesn’t feel very good to the person experiencing them or to anyone around them.

That’s why I recently wrote a post about the value in predicting emotional storms. Identifying the situations (transitions, deadlines, departures, bedtime, etc…) that predictably trigger big feelings allows us to make a plan for what to do when they are most likely to show up. 

In addition to identifying those external patterns, it is equally helpful to pay attention to the internal signals that indicate that we are heading towards a big storm. The good news is that, most of the time, there is a window of time between a trigger and our response. As we learn to identify the signals of escalation in that window, we can create even more time and space within it to consider our next actions.

If big explosions are common in your household (for kids or adults), here’s a mental model that can help us start to manage them:

The cliff

When we lose control of our emotional responses and get past a point of no return we call this “the cliff.” The cliff symbolizes the moment when our feelings hijack our thinking brain and it becomes more difficult to bring our behaviors in line with our goals or values. Going off the cliff is an “out of control” feeling. It’s also when we are more likely to engage in yelling, hitting, raging, stonewalling, shaming, or name calling. Alternatively, it’s also when we are more likely to quit, walk away, wall off, or shut down.

To be clear, the goal isn’t to avoid the feelings that send us towards the cliff. The goal isn’t to return to an artificial calm or to ignore the emotions or issues that set us careening towards the edge. We all feel angry, rageful, upset, mad, embarrassed and overwhelmed sometimes (and often rightly so). The goal is to avoid going off the cliff so that we don’t create more harm and pain for ourselves or others when we experience them. 

Heading towards the cliff

Rather than referring to explosions as experiences that “just happen,” we can visualize the cliff. We can talk about the idea that, “When we get really upset it is as if our brain falls off a cliff and we can feel out of control. Can you think of times when you’ve felt this way?”

We can acknowledge that, “Sometimes it can feel like we fall off the cliff without warning! But if we practice paying attention to our bodies, we can usually figure out when we start speeding towards the edge. Our bodies give us warnings when we are heading toward the cliff.”

These might include:

  • Tension in our backs, fists, necks, or bellies
  • Slamming or rigid hands or feet
  • Staring, reddened face, frowning
  • Muttering
  • Holding breath or fast paced breathing
  • Racing thoughts
  • Globalizing thinking, “Always and nevers”
  • Clenched fists, stony silence, or, “I can’t handle this!”

We can also model noticing these signs when we are heading towards the cliff ourselves. For example, “I can tell that I am getting really agitated because my thoughts and words are speeding up and my face is warm.”

The power of slowing down

Just because kids can start to identify these signals when they are calm, doesn’t mean that they are always able to catch them in real time. Skills of self awareness and self management are works-in-progress. This is an advanced skill set even for adults. Remembering this protects against the corrosive belief that our kids are exploding on purpose even though they “know better.” 

That’s why it is our job to pay attention to these emotional signals as well so we can help de-escalate when possible and debrief once we are back to calm. For example, when we see our kids heading towards the cliff we can try to slow it down by:

  • Taking a short break
  • Acknowledging their desires or feelings. “You wish we didn’t have to go.” or “You wish you didn’t have this big term paper to write.”
  • Switching activities briefly if possible
  • Giving positive choices for next steps
  • Getting a drink of water
  • Reminding them of their tools like breathing or tapping

Again, we can model these tools. For example, “I am going to take a short break and take some breaths so I can find my best words for what is happening.”

What if we go off the edge anyway?

Despite our best efforts, going off the cliff happens. It is just part of growing up. That’s when it’s easy for us to catapult off the edge with them. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t make for a smoother landing. That said, this isn’t a good time for talking, problem-solving or reflecting either. Remember, when we are over the cliff the thinking brain is not in charge.

Instead, the goal at this point is just to get back to solid ground together. Try taking a beat and offering a simple and reassuring phrase like, “I’m right here. We can calm our bodies together.”

Later, with our emotional feet on land, we can debrief what happened and ask for reflections or offer observations. 

Learning to create more solid ground

Going from zero to one hundred is an overwhelming experience, especially when it ends off an emotional cliff. This is true for adults, teens, and kids alike. That’s why it is so useful to get to know what it feels like when we are heading in that direction so that we can create more space between ourselves and the precipice. 

When we do tumble off of it, rather than writing it off as something wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable, we can look back towards the path that brought us there with self compassion and curiosity. What do we notice now? What did we miss? What did we need that we didn’t get? What might we do differently next time?