Dealing with intense feelings

11/19/2010  |  DR. BRIAN BROWN
communication model

There are times when each of us gets overwhelmed with our feelings, and as a result, we handle life situations less effectively. This can be particularly true when it comes to dealing with our own children. Because while we love them, they know all the right buttons to push to elicit emotional reactions from us. This issue is often pronounced within families where there are children with complex learning disabilities, ADHD issues, or other language-based difficulties. The complex learning issue can have a direct impact on all involved, especially when the child attempts to communicate feelings. There are a number of things families can do to help facilitate and navigate those moments when feelings are intense.

When someone is experiencing strong feelings, their ability to communicate clearly is often reduced. We have all walked away from an argument and later thought, “I should have said ... ” A child experiences the same thing, although that child’s ability to communicate feelings may be additionally impacted by a learning issue. As a result, our kids may act out their frustration, anger, hurt, or pain by raising their voice, using inappropriate language, slamming doors, name-calling, or a variety of other actions. This type of venting tends to be nonproductive and, of course, escalates the situation. Parents can help their children in these moments by redirecting them to use a specific communication model.

The use of the communication model: “I Feel...Because...I Want/Need...” can be particularly useful in providing a framework for both the child and the parent to follow. The process is simple but does a variety of sophisticated things to help kids and parents express their feelings. The model helps ground children temporarily or across a sequence of time. For example, “I am angry” is present tense, what I am feeling currently in the here and now. “Because she is talking about me behind my back” is past tense, identifying what has occurred previously that resulted in my current feelings. In the “Because” step, we look for communication to be specific to behaviors or circumstances. The child or parent should not use descriptive words such as; “He is being a butt” or “She was acting like a witch.” Rather, they should focus on the behaviors of the event.

The next step, “I want her to stop doing that and need someone to sit down and help me talk to her,” is future tense and focuses the individual on what must happen to move toward resolving the problem. The use of this model can open up more effective communication and provide a tool for parents and kids to fall back on in the heat of the moment.

The first step is to review the communication model with your child when things are going well and talk about using it to be heard when feelings are involved. As the parent, you need to utilize this communication process and model its use for your child. Practice by incorporating it in everyday situations with your child. For example: “Lisa, I’m getting frustrated because I have asked you three times to pick up your clothes in your room and bring them downstairs. I need you to stop your texting and go and pick up your clothes.” By doing this consistently, you demonstrate how to effectively use the process, even when the issues are routine. When your child’s emotions begin to escalate, prompt them to use the model by simply stating, “You feel...”, allow them to fill in the blank, and then prompt with, “Because...” Finally, prompt your child with “You want or need...” You will be surprised how this helps to structure your child’s communication and results in settling down the intensity of the feelings.

When your child uses the communication model, it’s important for you to paraphrase what you understood your child to have said. Paraphrasing is putting into your own words the meaning of what another has communicated. An example of paraphrasing may be: “So what I hear you saying, Michael, is that you are angry because your brother always gets to do what he wants to do first, and you want to have a chance to do something you want to do. Is that right?” Checking for accuracy in this way gives your child the opportunity to expand on his or her thoughts and feelings. It also allows your child to confirm that you understood. It can be very powerful for a child to know that they have been heard, and at times, this alone calms the intensity of the feelings in the moment.

While using the communication model takes some time and energy to master, the benefits received by all involved can be significant. Using the model in isolated instances will not produce the desired results, but integrating its use into the way the family communicates can lead to some wonderful changes. Parents need to tell their kids that it is normal to get frustrated, angry, hurt, or sad in life. But being able to share those feelings in a way that allows others to understand them is an important step in becoming an adult and, ultimately, in getting one’s needs met. 

Dr. Brian is the Associate Director of Brehm School in Carbondale, Illinois. Dr. Brown has 22 years of experience working with students who have complex learning diffi culties and other comorbid related issues. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D in Educational Psychology in Counseling, is a Licensed Social Worker, and holds a School Social Work Certifi cation.
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