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From tantrums to talking: A practical guide to processing difficult emotions

By Intermountain Healthcare

Jun 5, 2020

How to process difficult emotions

You don’t need to look far to see people dealing with difficult and tense emotions – even within our own homes. Stress and disruption to normal life can turn up the heat on emotions. Whether it’s temper tantrums, tense silences, or teenagers slamming their bedroom doors, we all could use a little help understanding and processing our feelings in a healthy way.

Emotional intelligence is a particularly important skill for parents. Not only do parents need to process their own feelings as people, but they need to be able to teach their children how to do the same. Here are some tools to help parents demonstrate positive emotional processing and have constructive conversations about emotions with their kids. 

What exactly does it mean to "process" a feeling?

While the phrase ‘processing feelings’ is common, it’s not very descriptive. According to Travis Mickelson, psychiatrist and associate medical director of mental health integration at Intermountain, processing emotions happens in four steps: 

  1. Naming the feeling
  2. Understanding what led to feeling that way
  3. Finding ways to tolerate or manage the feeling
  4. Being accountable for our behavior

Naming the feeling

“I tell the people I work with that once they name their feelings, that’s when the healing can begin,” says Monique Jackman, Intermountain chaplain. And Travis says not to try to start processing feelings while you’re in the heat of them: “Fear and anger trigger our fight or flight response, and when we’re in that state, we can’t use our front brain.” Once a feeling has passed and you can use the thinking part of your brain again, you can start having a conversation, either with yourself or with your child, about what that emotion was. 

Kids can often have an easier time than adults naming what they feel and working through it. “Kids are incredibly resilient. They adapt rather than try to get back to a place where they are in control like adults do,” says David Pascoe, former pastoral care coordinator at Primary Children’s Hospital. Adults can have a lot of barriers between themselves and what they’re feeling. “No one is perfect, but if we can own our feelings, we normalize it. It would be great if we could break down that stigma of shame and embarrassment,” says Travis. 

To start identifying emotions, Terresa Newport, Intermountain chaplain at Primary Children’s Wasatch Canyons Behavioral Health Campus, recommends breathing exercises to get us back into our bodies. Monique will use objects as a place to ‘store’ a feeling or will describe the feeling as a color. David recommends freewriting to articulate feelings. Many mental and emotional health professionals use the Emotion Wheel to help people find specific words. They recommend play or drawing for younger kids, and conversation, paired with active listening, for adolescents. Regardless of age or how we approach the conversation, we all need to feel like we’re safe from judgment, criticism, or retaliation to express what we feel. 

What caused the feeling?

Once the conversation about a strong emotion is going, it moves to identifying the feelings or situations that led to an outburst. When you’re talking to kids, “don’t be afraid of silences, don’t be afraid to go to the darkest corners of your kids’ fears,” says Terresa. “Shed some light on the heart of fear, get comfortable with fear, and keep looking. It’s a reminder of personal strength.” By understanding the emotions that might be hidden behind something overwhelming, we can take steps to calm ourselves early.

Tolerating the feeling

Learning how to live with, and even learn from, difficult emotions is one of the most important things adults teach children. “Children are developing their identity and sense of capability. What they need are adults who care about them and support them, but don’t solve the problem for them,” says Travis. Instead, adults can ask questions that lead children to reach their own conclusions about what makes them feel better. It can be throwing a stuffed animal, going for a run, taking ten deep breaths, whatever your child has found to be helpful in the past. It’s also good to help kids understand that emotions are passing and not a reflection of their character. “Don’t reinforce that they are their emotion. Instead of saying ‘you are angry,’ say ‘you’re feeling angry,’” says Travis. 

Being accountable for the behavior

Emotions get the best of everyone, and we can act in ways that may be hurtful or destructive. Emotions are part of being human, but how we choose to process them, learn from them, and take responsibility is what makes us who we are. It’s important for kids to see their parents not only have emotions so they know it’s OK to feel things strongly, but to then see parents process them, go back and talk about what happened, and see them apologize or ask for help next time. “Being vulnerable in that way isn’t a bad thing or a weakness,” says Travis, “I have the ability to shape my child in a positive way, to improve my child’s ability to manage emotions if they see me do it.”

An ongoing practice

Feelings can act as a compass, something that directs our choices and can help us grow. When going through a difficult, emotional time, Terresa asks, “What am I learning from this experience, how will it serve me, what is the purpose of this experience?” To navigate feelings, to transform them into a compass pointing toward the lives we want to lead, we must listen, and we must name. 

Checking in with feelings and talking about them as a family isn’t something that should happen only when there’s an outburst. Helping kids notice and name feelings that they observe in others, starting the day with a family meeting, or simply asking, “How are you feeling today?” can help develop emotional intelligence. “Kids want to talk about how they feel, let them steer the bus,” says Terresa. Parents should be ready to do more listening than talking, and to try and see things from their child’s perspective. If we make time and space for feelings, they can contribute positively to our lives.

It’s important to notice the good emotions, too, and when our kids have successfully navigated negative emotions. “As a kid, my identity is based on how people relate to me,” says Travis. “We should be ‘catching’ kids behaving positively five times as often as we catch them behaving negatively. Kids love their kindergarten teachers, and they’re so excited to go to school. It’s the amazing thing about kindergarten teachers— they spend most of their day noticing kids doing something well.”