Emotional Flooding In Kids And Teens — How To Spot It And What To Do About It
My daughter June is a Scorpio in every sense of the word. She wears her heart on her sleeve, takes huge risks, and never hesitates to barrel into me unannounced with her speed-of-light hugs. I’ve been lucky enough to witness her fiery magic for just over six years now, but it wasn’t until her fourth birthday that I honestly felt like I was equipped to handle it all. Much like Bruni the fire-spirit-turned-salamander in “Frozen 2,” June has the potential to be set off like a rocket when she’s wound up with all the feels. But give her some gentle love and the space to emote, and she will transform back into an adorable little mush-ball.
In other words, my child feels emotions with every inch of her tiny body. And learning how to navigate her high highs and low lows has been quite the adventure.
It’s one thing to care for a child or teen who encounters sweeping reactions to life, and quite another to be experiencing them yourself at the same time. This was my story with June for several years, until therapy and meds helped me learn how to regulate the storm that continually brewed inside. My spirited daughter used to trigger the hell out of me with her no-holds-barred behavior and by asserting herself in every possible way a toddler can. And this spicy AF combo left me in a pretty consistent state of fright-or-flight.
After a year of counseling, I finally learned exactly what was going on with me and why my daughter’s behavior overwhelmed me so much. The truth was, I had been experiencing a hefty amount of emotional flooding due to a traumatic past, and it was having a detrimental effect on my mental and physical health. Understanding this and healing from it has saved my life in a lot of ways, especially during the hot mess parenting days of COVID-19.
If you’ve never heard of the term before, emotional flooding is what happens when our internal systems becomes so inundated with emotions that our body begins operating exclusively in “survival” mode. It’s basically a one-way express trip from the island of rational thinking to emotional brain land, and whatever is going on at the moment feels like a direct threat to our existence. Pesky stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol usually run high during this time, which makes processing information in a regulated manner very difficult. We are, quite literally, flooded by our feelings — and as a result, our brains think there is imminent danger ahead and cannot reasonably operate.
Biologically, emotional flooding helped us long ago when a saber-tooth tiger was approaching or a woolly mammoth was stampeding our way. Signals would get sent to our bodies to either fight the immediate danger, freeze up, or escape. As human beings, we still have this internal hardwiring, and it can first manifest with our breath getting shallow, our pulse quickening, or even our muscles tightening. But unlike the cave dwellers of old, flooding usually occurs in present day because of the imprint that previous hardships have left on our nervous systems.
Now, pretend that you’re a kid juggling the sheer chaos that has been this past year and a half, along with the mounting tension of watching your parents stressed to the max trying to deal with the fallout of it. Not only are our children going to be feeling a lot, but they might be expressing these emotions in unexpectedly explosive ways — and when this happens, they aren’t doing it on purpose. I can say this from direct experience, having once been a young kid experiencing so much deep inside with zero adults helping me regulate it all, much less know how to do it for themselves.
It took me a long-ass time to understand why emotional flooding was a daily part of my parenting life. That is, until I finally began to talk about it, shed the shame game, and work through the panic-stricken emotions that accompanied my abusive and dysfunctional home environment. Let’s just say I’ve got a whole lot of repressed emotions from childhood, and birthing my kids became the perfect storm for unexpectedly releasing a bunch of them at a time.
“The reality is that it is not easy to hold back from acting out when we are completely enraged or feeling utterly devastated,” writes Stephanie Manes for The Gottman Institute. “However, if you accept the idea that your perception is unreliable during flooding, you at least have a fighting chance of pulling yourself back. Some part of you will have registered the notion that you shouldn’t be quick to move into a blaming narrative or catastrophic rendering.”
Obviously, this explanation makes a bunch of sense to us parents. But what about a young child or teen who finds themselves getting caught in the riptide of compounding emotions? It’s a lot harder to help a kid through something that feels like the end of times when they don’t have the ability to always communicate what’s going on inside of them. Hell, I barely know what’s going on inside of me when emotional flooding happens, and I’m in my late thirties.
According to my kick-ass therapist, the best things we can do for our children (and ourselves) is to help them learn how to slow down their internal systems to ensure that they feel safe again. We can do this with our direct words and actions, and we can also model it for them if we too are overrun by our emotions.
Whenever we notice our littles balling up their fists, turning red in the face, and looking like they might potentially erupt, we can do stuff like lower the volume of our voice, breathe deeply in front of them, get physically down to their level, and speak less. Keep them from hurting themselves, you, or someone else, of course — but follow through with as much gentleness and composure as you can muster. The primary goal is to be a safe source of support for our children during these tough moments and to never punish or scold them for being totally overwhelmed in the first place. Taking a break from the conversation can also help create a buffer between these big feels and being able to rationally understand why a child might be feeling them.
Powering down from emotional flooding can take up to twenty minutes, which means that we’ll most likely need to slow down our reaction time as parents. It’s only natural to get ruffled by the loud cries and messy tears of an involuntary feelings frenzy, but our kiddos need us to steer them towards emotional safety as steadily and confidently as we can. Mostly, we need to let go of taking anything they’re doing or saying personally — even if the words “You’re stupid and I hate you!” fly out of their mouth. Emotional flooding is a natural occurrence for folks of all ages, and the sooner we can embrace this fact, the more adeptly we can navigate these challenges and learn from them.
It definitely helps to verbally acknowledge whatever feelings arise in your child so they can learn how to identify their emotions. But sometimes, they don’t always have access the most direct words to describe their experience in the moment it’s happening. So it also helps to remember the highly beneficial long game of co-regulating our children, which simply means to stay energetically in tune with whatever they are going though, and approach it all with patience, understanding, and empathy. If adults are not capable of reasonable thinking or producing thoughtful communication at a time like this, then we can’t possibly expect our kids and teens to be.
I’ve learned the hard way that my daughter gets royally annoyed when I remind her to breathe deep while in the throws of her upset, so I’ll usually talk to her post-eruption about the benefits of inhaling and exhaling with focus. She also sees me regularly using a cold pack on my forehead to decompress when my physical PTSD symptoms flare up and I’m hit with a tsunami of feels — doing this can initiate the ever helpful diving reflex.
If you’re going through emotional flooding, please keep going. Know that this temporary phenomenon is universally experienced by all. Nothing about capsizing in a sea of feelings is easy or fun to move through, but it is so worth it to help guide our kids — and ourselves — to the ultimate path of self-compassion and emotional resilience.
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