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Are You Emotionally Overwhelming Your Kids?

Expressing extreme anger and frustration can be emotionally scarring to kids.

Key points

  • Children and adolescents are not fully developed emotionally and may not be equipped to handle a parent's outbursts.
  • To an adult, the difference between a genuine threat and blowing off steam may be clear. But to a child, they can seem like one and the same.
  • Children take what adults say seriously, and often literally, so it's important to moderate one's anger as a parent to not overwhelm them.

We all want to help our children grow up to lead their best lives. We want to teach them the lessons they need to know in order to be caring and competent adults. Often along the way, there are times we may lose our tempers and become emotionally upset while trying to communicate with our children.

Think about the last time you really “lost it” with your child. Perhaps something they did triggered you to become angry and start yelling at them. Perhaps in your frustration, you said things you didn’t mean. Perhaps you threatened to “ground them for life” or some other exaggeration that you soon took back.

Emotionally Losing It

The bottom line is there are times when we all become reactive while parenting. Disrespectful adolescents often trigger us with their defiance. Children who lie to our faces can also get under our skin. At these times, we may throw our very carefully constructed parenting choices out the window. These are the times when we lose our tempers and can express our anger toward our children.

The problem is, at those moments when we are emotionally overwhelmed, we may not be taking into account the person on the other end of our upset. Children and adolescents are not fully developed emotionally and may not be equipped to emotionally handle our outbursts. What to us may just be letting off steam after being disrespected, to a child it may be an overwhelming outburst that causes them a great deal of stress, fear, and anxiety.

The Consequences of Too Strong a Response

Think about your own childhood. Were there times when your parents became angry or started yelling at you? If so, remember how overwhelming that seemed? Perhaps it felt like your parents no longer loved you or cared about you. Perhaps you became really scared and worried that you weren’t going to be taken care of anymore. These types of overwhelming feelings are what happen when our “adult” responses are not moderated to consider who we’re directing our upset toward. Even when we’re emotionally activated, it’s important that as adults we don’t take our uncontrolled frustrations out on children who are often ill-equipped to handle them.

Moderating Our Responses

You wouldn’t expect a 10-year-old to be able to solve tough calculus problems. In that same vein, you can’t expect a 10-year-old to be able to handle an adult’s unchecked anger. Fourteen-year-olds may act like they know better than you. They may want you to believe they’re already adults. They’re not. And they are generally not capable of withstanding an emotional outburst from an adult who is frustrated and angry.

As adults, we may think children and teens ignore us. We may think they’re not listening to what we say, or worse, not caring about what we say. The truth is, they are. The way we talk with them, the way we explain things has to be age-appropriate. In the same way we can’t expect a child to understand calculus, we can’t expect children to understand the complexity of our emotions.

The difference for us between a genuine threat and blowing off steam may be clear. Unfortunately, to a child, they can seem like one and the same. Yelling at a child that they’re being “thrown out of the house” may just be venting frustration, but for a child, it may seem like they’re about to become homeless. It may trigger strong fear responses that can last for a long time.

It is important for adults to understand that children are listening to us. They are taking what we say seriously, and often literally. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to recognize that they are still children no matter how frustrated we become. The words we say matter. Our anger, no matter how righteous at the time, needs to be moderated to recognize the age and emotional developmental stage of the audience. In this way, we can help our children to grow and avoid overwhelming them with our frustrations.

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