remaining calm during an emotional surge or swing

March 11, 2021

A reader asked:

As a parent, how do you remain calm and patient during an emotional surge or swing?


Good question.  Kids with mood disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, or severe anxiety are prone to outbursts of rage.  Rage attacks are not diagnostic of any particular disorder, but they are very difficult to live with as a parent.

First, try to anticipate when the child is "ramping up."  If you can catch the mood swing before it gets worse, you can often talk him or her down.  If you see her escalating, comment calmly: I can see you're getting upset, let's take a breath. What can you and I do to keep this from turning into an argument? Do some problem-solving - "what do you see as our options right now? Let's not just think of one thing."

Get the kid to talk about why they're upset, and tell yourself (privately) "this will pass ... I don't need to let her mood determine mine ... I need to take a breath myself."  Observing your own breathing and physical state (have a moment of meditation, in other words). Don't feel like you have to respond right away.  You can say "I want to think about this by myself for a moment.  We'll come back to this and talk about it in, say, half an hour."  If she continues to escalate, remove yourself from the situation.  If you have a spouse, ask him/her to intrveen at this point, calmly.

The key is not to let her mood be contagious and get you angry.  For kids who are highly oppositional, that's may be what they're after - they've won if you get upset. But other kids are angry because they're anxious- something has happened that has freaked them out, usually something they were counting on that is now going to be different. It can be infuriating as a parent to feel like you have to walk on eggshells, but remember there is a difference between being calm and collected and "giving in."

If your child is having frequent temper storms, and especially  if they also have signs of mood disturbance like insomnia, changes in energy levels, or rapid speech, consider getting her a psychiatric evaluation to see if medications are in order.

Finally, think about structure - there may be certain times of the day when kids are prone to rage - right before dinner, or right after school. Sometimes the answer is low blood sugar (i.e, being hungry). It may also be related to things happening the  next day (e.g., a test). Try to get the kid talking, when she's calm, about what was really bothering her.

I hope this is helpful.