This week’s question is from Carla,
“I have a student who gives up and runs away or cries if he doesn’t win a game, or if a task is too difficult for him. His parents separated a year ago, and he suppresses this experience with all of his might. How can I help him when he reacts like this?”
In this episode, I will address how teachers can handle emotional upset with their students. I will discuss what is happening internally with kids when they have emotional outbursts, and how homelife and stressors can greatly affect them even if they don’t talk about it. As always, I will provide you with in-the-moment strategies to diffuse the situation and long-term approaches to support more regulated emotions.
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Emotional outbursts and fleeing happen when kids are overwhelmed
- Kids are doing these kinds of things because they have reached their limit; their cup is full and they no longer feel like they can tolerate the discomfort or the challenging feelings
- Oftentimes we might refer to this as low frustration tolerance or avoidant behavior
- This is a very normal human reaction when uncomfortable
- Kids that flee when upset are literally trying to get away from the feelings that go along with the situation that they don’t know how to manage/cope
- Teachers and caregivers need to look at what’s going on that’s leading to this behavior because that’s really where we’re going to be able to address it
Major life changes greatly affect kids – kids know!
- Major changes in homelife such as divorce, additional siblings, etc. have a big impact on all kids, regardless of what their challenges or developmental level may be; kids truly do know/sense these things
- Just because kids don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting them
- It is also important for teachers and care workers to always leave room in thinking about home life stressors even if you are not made aware of any big changes or issues happening in the background
- How “full is their cup”? kids going through difficult transitions/situations at home are going to have less bandwidth for tolerating and managing additional uncomfortable feelings
- For some, their cup is already pretty full before they even get to school or before they start a hard math worksheet or new activity in the classroom
Managing student emotional upset with acknowledging and empathizing
- First, acknowledge the feelings that we think are there and empathize
- Sometimes kids can be very communicative and clear about how they’re feeling
- Other times we have to take our best guess about what’s going on with the feelings
- Second, focus on what’s underneath the behavior and how tough it may be for them to feel those things
- Don’t focus on the behavior itself, which is often where people go wrong
There is timing and art to talking about their emotional upset/outbursts
- Allow them time and space to have their nervous system calmed, get more regulated, and back into their thinking brain
- Remember, when kids go into this mode of being really overwhelmed by emotions, their cup is overflowing, they’re maxed out
- Do not try to talk about it, reason, give strategies, teach, etc at the moment or shortly thereafter; when a child’s nervous system is in overload like this, none of that logical information or communication is going in
- If it’s possible after they have calmed, you may want to talk briefly about what happened and offer some options, move into a problem-solving mode: Acknowledge their discomfort and offer “Let’s think about what we could do now…”
- Each kid is different, some kids need more time and space to process and it may be a few hours later or even the next day to address it
Try problem-solving not punishment or consequences after an outburst
- Punishments or consequences of their behavior is not helpful in developing their skills or your relationship with them
- The focus here is on problem-solving. What do we think happened there? How can we handle this differently? What can we do to move forward now?
- The goal here in the moment is to acknowledge the feelings, empathize, be a trusted partner in helping the nervous system calm and reducing overwhelm, and then problem-solve together after the fact if and when it is appropriate
Long-term emotion regulation support strategies
- Use “Preview and Review” strategies to build frustration tolerance, tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, and to develop skills for managing them in the moment
- Preview: when you have a predictable situation where upset typically ensues, preview, before:
- Talk about how that might go, different scenarios (ex: winning or losing a game), how it might feel with them, and how they could respond
- Anticipating with them sort of “innoculates” them ahead of time/helps reduce the acuteness of the sudden (potential) onslaught of the uncomfortable feelings
- Talk about how that might go, different scenarios (ex: winning or losing a game), how it might feel with them, and how they could respond
- Review: After the fact, reviewing how they actually felt. “Oh, this happened, how did that feel? What feelings did you actually have?”, and what strategies you or he used that maybe worked or helped or didn’t work.
- Preview: when you have a predictable situation where upset typically ensues, preview, before:
- Proactive with regular decompression periods throughout the day to help reduce the overall level of overwhelm and distress
- This may be a quiet space for themselves or a fun activity that they thrive at with a trusted adult or peer
- Movement is extremely helpful
- Make sure there are proper supports in place: It’s not the school’s responsibility to provide all of the therapeutic and counseling support that kids may need, but when that stuff is showing up in various ways in the school setting; guidance counselors, social workers, and many schools have support groups, it helps a lot
- Common for kids to suppress difficult life situations, especially those with neurodevelopmental challenges
- Never force a child to talk about what’s going on
- If appropriate, acknowledge that you understand it can be tough handling difficult situations, etc.; this builds trust
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:50
Big Emotions Overwhelm Kids …00:01:30
Major Life Changes Affect Kids … 00:04:50
Emotional Upset at School …00:07:00
When & How to Talk About Their Upset … 00:10:05
Problem Solving Not Punishment … 00:12:10
Long-Term Emotion Regulation Strategies … 00:14:12
Episode Wrap up … 00:22:15
Dr Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. I get a lot of questions every week from professionals, as well as parents, and the responses are relevant to everyone. Today’s question comes from Carla, who works in a school setting, but I know that many of you who are parents and caregivers deal with this issue as well. Carla writes: “I have a student who gives up and runs away or cries if he doesn’t win a game, or if a task is too difficult for him. His parents separated a year ago, and he suppresses this experience with all of his might. How can I help him when he reacts like this?”
Such an important question. And I love that Carla framed it as, “How can I help him when he reacts like this?”, instead of “What kind of disciplines should I use?”, or “How can I manage this behavior?” We want the focus here in these situations to be on how we can help kids. How can we support them in these situations?
So as always, let’s start with the big picture of what’s probably going on here. This is a child who is very quickly getting overwhelmed by uncomfortable feelings. These feelings could be disappointment, frustration, sadness, maybe some embarrassment, especially if it’s a game type situation or a situation in the classroom, feeling embarrassed in front of other kids or staff members. These feelings are building up, and eventually kids cups start to run over, they just overflow. They can’t stand or handle the feelings anymore. And so in this case, what this child is doing is literally running away to get away from the situation, and the goal there is to get away from the feelings that go along with the situation. So in the big picture, when kids are doing these kinds of things, it’s because they have reached their limit. Their cup is full. They no longer feel like they can tolerate the discomfort, the challenging feelings that are coming up. Oftentimes we might refer to this as low frustration tolerance, or this might even be called avoidant behavior. We have all kinds of fancy technical behavioral terms that get used, especially in professional settings for these kinds of behaviors, but I think it’s important to think about it as a really normal human response. Any of us, when we have a buildup of uncomfortable feelings, whether it’s in a particular situation or buildup of uncomfortable feelings because of what’s going on in the bigger picture of our lives at that point in time, we don’t like that. It feels uncomfortable, we want to make those feelings go away. We want to help ourselves feel better. And so we all engage in what might be called avoidant behaviors, or another term we could use that’s a little more helpful is “coping strategies” to help manage those things. We all do it in various ways. And so I think it’s important to frame it that way, because often when kids are exhibiting these kinds of behaviors, the focus is on “This is an inappropriate or a maladaptive behavior. We need to make it stop.” Well, what we need to do is understand, first of all, that this is a very normal human thing, and second of all, look at what’s going on that’s leading to this behavior, because that’s really where we’re going to be able to address it. So our task in a situation like this, for the child that Carla’s describing and for any of you who have kids who are struggling with this, the task becomes: How do we stretch a child’s tolerance for uncomfortable feelings that come up? How do we stretch or expand their ability to sit with, and be okay with, and manage through disappointment, frustration, embarrassment, hurt, sadness, anger, whatever it might be. In this case, we’re talking about stretching tolerance for the feelings that come with losing a game, or not being able to do an assignment, or something along those lines.
In the big picture of this particular situation, we also have the additional component of a recent major change in this child’s life and all of the feelings that come along with parents separating or divorcing, and even for kids who maybe have more severe cognitive challenges neurodevelopmental issues, or young kids where people might say, “Oh well, they don’t really understand what’s going on”, kids know. All kids know. And divorce, separation, major changes in the family, those kinds of things have a big impact on all kids, regardless of what their challenges or developmental level may be. So in this case, Carla is saying that she’s aware of a very specific major emotional challenge and change that has come up in this child’s life. Sometimes, particularly for those of you who are working with kids in school or therapy or other kinds of settings, you may not always know what some of those big changes or issues happening in the background may be. And so I raised that only to say that it’s important to always leave room in our thinking about this stuff with kids, that there may be somethings going on in the background of their life that we aren’t aware of, that are contributing to them quickly getting overwhelmed by situations, having big emotional responses, those kinds of things. So in the case of this child, his cup is probably really close to full before anything in school even happens, because he’s got this big tangible and emotional change that he’s navigating in his life. And so his cup is going to be pretty filled up in terms of how much is already filling him up in terms of stressors and emotions and those kinds of things. His cup is already pretty full before he even sits down to start the game, or before he even sits down with the math worksheet that’s hard. So kids in these situations are going to have less bandwidth for tolerating and managing additional uncomfortable feelings. So those are the big picture things to keep in mind.
Now next, as always, we go to our in the moment strategy. So what can you do if you are Carla, or another professional, or staff member working with kids in an educational setting, or you are a parent or caregiver for kids having these challenges? First, we acknowledge the feelings that we think are there, and we empathize. Sometimes kids can be very communicative and clear about how they’re feeling, other times we have to take our best guess about what’s going on with the real feelings there. We want to acknowledge those and empathize with them. We don’t want to focus on the behavior itself, which is often where people go wrong right out of the gate in the moment with addressing these things. We want to focus on what’s underneath the behavior and how tough it is to feel those things. “Ah, I know it’s so frustrating or disappointing to lose a game, you really wanted to win. And you know? I think maybe you’re just feeling really sad about that. I get it, it’s sad when we want to win and we don’t win.” Now, that’s more words than you should use for a developmentally younger child or a child with processing challenges, that may be just the right number of words to use. You need to figure out based on your child, the child you’re working with, but that’s the gist of what we want to communicate there. Ugh, these feelings they’re tough. We wanted one thing to happen and it didn’t, and that doesn’t feel good, and I get it. Okay? Acknowledge and empathize. Second thing is to allow him time and space to have his nervous system calm, get more regulated and back into his thinking brain. Remember that when kids go into this mode of being really overwhelmed by emotions, their cup is overflowing, they’re maxed out, they’re in this sort of — we could even call it a fight or flight type of stage. They’re not in the rational brain, and their nervous system is in total fight or flight mode or freeze mode, and we need to give it some time to come back into the logical thinking brain. This is the second area where many people go wrong in terms of how they address these kinds of situations. They start to talk about it, try to reason, try to give other strategies, or whatever, in those moments and the reality is when a child’s nervous system is in overload like this, none of that logical information or communication is going in. They’re not able to think about it in that way. So we want to allow the time and space for the nervous system to settle down and get more regulated. We want to stay near or with the child. Sometimes it’s right there physically with them, sometimes the physical contact and soothing can be helpful, depending on the child. Sometimes just staying in the general area, but you want to be a quiet, calm, supportive, empathic presence. We’re helping the nervous system that got totally overwhelmed and ramped up settle down again. Quiet, calm, supportive presence.
Now, once the child has come back to a more regulated, calm state, you can tell, body-wise, they’re sending the signals that they’re more calm. Their body has settled, their pace of breathing is slower again, their pupils aren’t wide open and dilated, they’re talking in a more normal voice. These are the signs that say okay, we’re back in a more regulated space. If it’s possible at that point, you may want to talk briefly about what happened and offer some options, move into a problem-solving mode. “Okay. Yeah. That didn’t feel good. Oh, you were feeling so frustrated about that”, or “It felt so unfair to you. I get it. Let’s think about what we could do now.” That could be things like maybe there’s still time to return and help clean up, maybe he decides he wants to congratulate the winner because he really does feel happy for him, but in the moment he just couldn’t process that, and was all caught up in his own disappointment. If it’s an assignment, maybe he can return to the assignment, and you can talk about some accommodations to support him. “Let’s go back, what do you think? Do you think you could do the first one, and I could help you with the others? What if you do the reading and I do the writing?”, whatever it is, that you problem solve together, but you’re focusing on the specific issue at hand, not the big picture of “Remember, these are the five things that you’re supposed to do when you get upset.” Nope, we’re focusing on the specific issue at hand. “Okay. You’re back in your more logical brain, you’ve calmed down again. Now let’s look at how we reintegrate into this. Let’s look at how we move on from this. Let’s problem solve this particular moment in time and what’s happening. And sometimes the way that you problem solve that might be that the game’s long done and over with, or the assignments long done and over with, and you just say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing next,” and you move back into the flow of whatever’s happening, that’s fine too.
Important here that we’re not punishing or giving consequences for the behavior that happened. That is not going to be effective or helpful. So giving a punishment or a consequence for, “You ran away because you were upset” or “You cried”, or “You yelled”, or whatever. That doesn’t — that’s not going to do anything. Not for the child, not for you, not for improving their skills. The focus here is on problem-solving. What do we think happened there? How can we handle this differently? What can we do to move forward now? The caveat to this is if you’re working with a child, or have a child where talking about the issue soon after it’s happened is likely to send them back into a spiral of overwhelm, then don’t do that. Just calmly move on to whatever’s next on the agenda. Don’t harp on the situation, don’t try to teach a lesson, don’t force them to finish the previous task, don’t even focus on collaborative problem-solving. Just move on, and then you focus on opportunities to do that problem-solving at a later time. Some kids are really sensitive to having those issues brought up and problem-solving those right after they’ve happened. Their nervous system just needs more time and more space away from it for them to be able to really think and talk about it. And so sometimes that might be a few hours later, sometimes it might be the next day, but you get to know the child and how much space and time they need before being able to engage in that sort of problem-solving thinking, so just want to mention that there. And again, the goal here in the moment is to acknowledge the feelings, empathize, be a trusted partner in helping the nervous system calm, in reducing overwhelm, and then problem solve together after the fact. That’s what we’re aiming for here. Those are the steps to the process.
Now let’s talk about our longer-term strategies. How do we incorporate some things into this child’s life that are going to help, over the longer term, build frustration tolerance, build tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, develop some skills for managing those in the moment? So here’s our longer-term strategies: I like to use preview and review. You’ve heard me talk about this if you’ve listened to previous episodes. Preview and review is an important strategy and sort of teaching tool, especially when you have predictable situations like a child who consistently struggles with losing a game, runs away, throws the pieces on the floor, whatever. A child who you can anticipate, boy, they really do have a hard time with this type of assignment or whatever it is. You want to preview, before the thing even happens, how that might go and how it might feel. Previewing before the game even starts, before anybody even gets the game out. “We’re going to play a game in a little while. Let’s think about what feelings might come up. How might that feel? What might comfortable feelings be, what uncomfortable feelings might come up? What if you win? How will that feel? If you lose, how will that feel?” And you’re previewing these feelings, and how you and they can address and support them. What this previewing does is it helps kids to anticipate, which reduces the suddenness of them in the moment. It’s like, “Oh right. I knew that this might be coming.” We can anticipate things. It reduces the acuteness, the suddenness, the uncertainty of it. Sort of inoculates us and them against the sudden onslaught of having these feelings. So previewing can be so good from an emotional standpoint, but also from a strategy standpoint. Then when they’re in the moment, we’ve recently reviewed, “Here’s what I can do if I’m feeling this way.” So that’s the previewing, and you can do that before a lot of activities and things that you might do with your child or with your students.
And then the review part is after the fact. We’re reviewing how he actually felt. “Oh, this happened, how did that feel? What feelings did you actually have?”, and what strategies you or he used that maybe worked or helped or didn’t work. So it’s sort of like, “Oh, here’s what actually happened. Here’s how I actually felt. Here’s what we did, what would we do the same next time? What might we change?” Okay, so these bookends on these challenging situations, of previewing and reviewing, a very powerful long-term strategy for developing better emotional regulation, better behavioral regulation, teaching the skills that are needed for managing these things.
Another longer-term strategy is to make sure with a child like this that you’re providing decompression periods proactively throughout the day, to help reduce the overall level of overwhelm and distress. So that could look like some sensory activities that are regulating for the child, might look like giving him some quiet space to himself, a place that he can go to sort of get away from stimulation and regroup during the day. Maybe it’s some fun activities with a trusted adult or peer, incorporating plenty of movement activities — whatever it is, it can look lots of different ways, but making sure for a child whose cup overflows pretty quickly, who pretty quickly gets to a level of overwhelm with the feelings and the things that are happening, especially if it’s a child who you know is going through some personal struggles, some family struggles, things like that that you know, are in the background of everything else that’s happening for them. Be proactive in providing these decompression periods throughout the day to help give more buffer space, give more opportunities to reduce that level in their cups so that they’re not overflowing so much.
Another longer-term strategy is to make sure that the child, this particular one that we’re talking about, has support in the school setting to work through the issues that are going on in the family life. It’s not the school’s responsibility to provide all of the therapeutic support and counseling support and all of that, that kids may need, but when that stuff is showing up in various ways in the school setting, absolutely, there are a variety of professionals in school environments who can help support that: Guidance counselors, social workers, many schools have support groups, different kinds of things that can support kids who are going through big, difficult life transitions, whether that is separation or divorce of parents, whether it is being removed from the family home, maybe it’s a death in the family, things like that. Make sure that you’re looking at: Do we have supports in place in the school setting to help work on those bigger picture issues? The other piece here around that is to remember that kids don’t need to verbally communicate how they’re feeling about these bigger situations in their life, in this case, a separation or divorce for us as the adults to recognize that it’s a factor and acknowledge it. So Carla mentioned in her question that this boy suppresses all of the feelings and doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on with his parents’ separation. That’s actually pretty common for a lot of kids, particularly kids with neurodevelopmental challenges, mental health and behavioral kinds of issues. So it’s important to know that they don’t have to want to talk about it, or they don’t have to be initiating bringing it up for us to recognize that it’s a factor and acknowledge that. Certainly, we do not ever want to force a child to talk about what’s going on with those things, but we can say things like, “Oh, I know there have been a lot of changes at home, and I bet that feels really hard right now.” We can acknowledge what is very likely going on for them. We can acknowledge that those things are happening. We can let them know that we know that those are a big deal for them, and that those things are impacting how they show up and function in the school setting, in the therapy setting, whatever it might be. And that’s important because that builds trust with these kids, and they need to be able to trust us before they’re going to open up or engage with us around these really vulnerable, difficult things they’re dealing with. Other things you can say: “I understand how you’re feeling more frustrated or sad. I get it. You’ve got a lot going on. We don’t need to talk about all that, but I want you to know that I understand how hard that must be, and I recognize that it’s not just about this math assignment, or it’s not just about you getting frustrated with losing the game.” Letting them know that we recognize the impact, and that we want to be a trusted, safe person for them, whether or not they choose to open up to us about that, that we get it and we’re there for them and we see the bigger picture. I think that’s really key. So bottom line, this is a child — or kids who experienced this, these are kids who need support with tolerating uncomfortable feelings, managing overwhelm, stretching their window of tolerance for discomfort, and particularly emotional discomfort. So you want to focus on that, not the behaviors themselves, and you will see progress if you implement the things that I shared with you today.
So I hope this is helpful for Carla and all the rest of you dealing with kids who exhibit low frustration tolerance, difficulty handling emotional feelings, and tend to flee situations that feel complicated or overwhelming to them. Remember, if you have a question you’d like answered on a future show, feel free to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, and I will continue to answer these as we go along, and get to as many as we can. So, thank you as always for listening and I look forward to catching you back here next time.