Four Questions to Ask When Emotions Spike | Deborah Farmer Kris | 5 Min Read

Saturday was a gorgeous spring day, so I took my seven-year-old to the zoo — along with hundreds of other parents who were also on the hunt for a safe, outdoor activity. 

About 30 minutes before closing time, as we meandered toward the exit, a familiar sound joined the chorus of birds and gibbons: crying children. The wails of lots and lots of crying children.

Just because the day ended in tears doesn’t mean these kids didn’t have a good time overall. They had simply reached that point where they were overtired, overstimulated, and in need of a snack and a nap.

Emotions are great data. As psychologist Susan David likes to say, “Emotions are data, not directives.” Feeling distressed gives us a signal that something inside us needs attention — but it doesn’t tell us what to do about it. 

That’s why it can be helpful for kids and teens to learn mnemonics — or memory devices — that help them apply the best principles In moments of stress. That was the reasoning behind the 3L Reset.  Here’s another memory device you and your kids can use when emotions are spiking: Turn Down the FireHOSE.

Here’s how I explain it to kids and teens: 

Stress can feel like taking a firehose to the face. When you feel your emotions spike, take a deep breath and ask yourself these four questions that may help turn down the H.O.S.E. 

H: Am I hungry

O: Am I overstimulated

S: Do I need more sleep

E. Do I need exercise

If your child is too young to ask these questions themselves, they are still a good way for us to get curious about their meltdown: Does my three-year-old need a snack? Is she on sensory overload and needs some quiet cuddle time to recalibrate? Is he just overtired? Does she need to move her body and get her wiggles out? 

And as your children grow older, they can learn some of the science behind each question.

H: Am I hungry?

Hunger affects mood. When we haven’t eaten for a while, our blood sugar dips, and this triggers the release of hormones to “raise and rebalance” blood sugar levels. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline — the same ones that are released during a stress response. 

According to Dr. Christine Lee of the Cleveland Clinic, “The release of cortisol can cause aggression in some people. Also, low blood sugar may interfere with higher brain functions, such as those that help us control impulses and regulate our primitive drives and behavior.” 

So if you find that your emotional regulation wanes at predictable times of day — like the mid-afternoon — experiment with eating a healthy snack and making time for a mindful check-in with your body.

O: Am I overstimulated?

There is only so much stimulus we can take in at once. And while we all can benefit from quiet time to recharge, introverts can be particularly sensitive to external stimuli. Mental downtime helps the brain recharge process the events of the day.

A word of caution: often we turn to electronics for downtime, but sometimes this is just another form of stimulation. So if you feel yourself on “overload,” ask yourself if you can take 10 minutes to step away . . . and to jog around the block, take a warm shower, meditate, engage in focused breathing, drink a cup of tea, snuggle with a pet, or sit in nature. 

S: Do I need to sleep?

“Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together,” says Dr. Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist. Sleep keeps the amygdala working properly — that’s the part of the brain that helps control our emotional response. When we are sleep-deprived, we are less emotionally resilient. 

When I asked middle school students how they finished the sentence “When I don’t get enough sleep…” here were some of their responses:

  • It’s hard to focus in class; I can’t concentrate; I can’t think clearly.
  • My body starts to feel heavy; I get headaches; I feel clumsy.
  • I get so grumpy; my head spins with negative thoughts; I yell or cry for no reason; I am more sensitive; I’m impatient; my emotions are just out of whack.

Or, as one girl, summarized, “When I don’t get enough sleep, everything is harder.” 

So when you feel anger or frustration rising, one question worth asking yourself is, “Did I get enough sleep last night? If not, could that be affecting how I see this situation?” 

Even if you can’t take a nap on the spot, this awareness might be enough to prompt you to take a few deep breaths and find other ways to settle the stress response.  

E: Do I need to exercise?

We often talk about exercise as something that is good for physical fitness. But neuropsychologist Wendy Suzuki argues that exercise is the most transformational thing you can do for your brain because exercise boosts mood, focus, and cognition. 

As she shared with me in this interview:

“When [kids] run around, their brains are getting a bubble bath of good neurochemicals, neurotransmitters and endorphins . . . Adults need this, too. Even though it takes time from your workday, it will give you back time. You will be more productive if you take that time off.  Even if it’s just a walk up and down the stairs or a walk around the block. That is a surefire way to make your work more productive. It’s how humans were built. We were not built to sit in front of a screen all day long. Our bodies and brains work better with regular movement. It’s better than coffee.”

These four quick “check-in” questions can help parents and kids mindfully manage their emotional reactions (instead of letting them manage us).

Obviously, these questions do not minimize the very real responsibilities, worries, and stresses that we face in our lives. Rather they help us notice our feelings — without getting stuck in them — and then make choices that help us move forward.

Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris a writer, teacher, and parent educator. A child development expert, Deborah writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology.Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at dfkris@gmail.com, or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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