Does your teen seem to massively overreact to the slightest thing? And when they get upset they get REALLY upset, like totally lose the plot, upset? Like wailing and gnashing of teeth or punching holes in the walls or just being upset for what seems like forever? Can they just not calm themselves down?
Do not worry, you are not alone. Find out what is going on in their heads and most importantly what you can do to help our wonderful but challenging teens.
All teens can ‘go off on one’, where they have disproportionate responses and seem to emotionally overreact. Their brains are undergoing massive change and it can cause big emotional misfires every now and again. But for some this is a more common and extreme occurrence and is actually one of the most under-reported and overlooked symptoms of ADHD (although you don’t have to have ADHD for this to happen). Some call it emotional dysregulation, some meltdowns, but I tend to use the term ‘emotional flooding’ because it describes the experience of the teen the best. They are overwhelmed and in that moment can mentally drown in a sea of their own emotion.
So whichever camp your teen falls into, lets find out what is physically going on in their heads, hear from an amazing teen who tells you what it feels like for them, and find out what we as parents or professionals can do to help prevent or limit the length and impact of these flooding events, however big or small, frequent or infrequent.
So what is actually going on in their heads?
When your teen is experiencing an emotional flood, the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala hijacks the brain and causes the rational ‘sensible’ thinking part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, to take a backseat. Most teen’s brains tend to be run more by the emotion centres rather than the rational centres anyway- it’s why teens can be so impulsive, so moody and their consequential thinking can be non-existent. It’s ALL about emotion and feelings. Thinking? Nah, not today, maybe tomorrow.
If you add ADHD or autism into this equation or circumstances like trauma or anxiety, then you can end up with a bliblical level of flooding- think Noah and his ark. All ability to control their emotions goes. Studies of ADHD brains show that there is a weak connection between the emotional and rational parts of the brain.
-Emotional reactions that are not in-sync with the cause
-A major struggle to calm down once the emotional flooding has occurred
-And a seeming insensitivity or lack of awareness of the emotions of others.
But don’t take it from me- let’s hear from Charlie…
What does it feel like when you are emotionally flooding?
It feels like you are feeling every emotion at once. Like everything’s happening, I feel completely out of control. One emotion I personally feel strongly is anger; even if I’m not angry about it, it’s just like letting out all that built-up rage you have in you over a tiny thing. All those things that have been wearing you down as you have been masking and trying to keep all your emotions in all day, and then yeah, like a flood, it just all comes out; all the emotions you have been covering up at school, with friends. You’re not there; it’s not you. You’re just a ball of emotions, but you’re still conscious you’re having a completely ridiculous reaction to such a small thing, and you can’t stop it, which makes it worse. Because you’re beating yourself up over it, and you’re just like, ‘uh, just stop!” and it just makes it worse, and it adds, and it adds, and it adds, and it ends once you have exhausted yourself.
What have you found helps you not get to the point where you have an emotional flood?
I don’t really know; that’s not something I’ve got yet. It’s not like you feel the flood coming. It’s just SNAP, and you’re gone. That’s something I need to work on; being aware of what my body is telling me. Mum and Dad can definitely tell when I’m brewing, but I don’t necessarily notice myself. Often if I have had bursts of anger or sadness throughout the day before I have a flood, that tends to be a common trend to look out for.
Practical strategies to help your teen during an emotional flood
Ok, so that’s the science and that’s Charlie’s actual experience.
So what do you do when your child or student is “off-on-one”. Can you hack the brain and bring them back, send out a lifeboat and rescue them from their flood?
Yes, with practice, patience, collaboration and compassion you can help prevent these floodings from occurring.
The most effective strategy I have used and my clients use is the Stop, Think, Act method from Dr Sharon Saline in her excellent book, ‘What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew’.
And this strategy works whether your kid is ADHD or not- it’s a great all round strategy for teens who tend to emotionally flood.
So the usual way it goes with emotional flooding is:
They Act– They blow up, get aggressive, physically or verbally, or get really sad and upset, catastrophizing- everything’s terrible, they might harm themselves or others, they might cry uncontrollably.
They Stop– after a seeming age they finally calm down and stop the behaviour
They then Think- reflecting to some level on their behaviour and they also then tend to beat themselves up about it and end up in a shame cycle where their inner dialogue puts them down and blames them, “Why I am so rubbish?”, Why can’t I keep it together, I’m such a freak”.
Problem is that this inner dialogue serves to add water into the flood the next time round an emotional flood occurs. When that next one happens they then have 2 sets of intense feelings to deal with- the emotion they feel at a particular circumstance or event, and the enormous archive of shame that they have been storing up. That is partly to blame for why their response to events can seem so completely over the top. What we see is the immediate circumstance, which often seems trivial, but we fail to see and appreciate the larger backstory at play- the archive. And so then round and round we go, unless we help our teens to reorder their response.
Reordering the response
So goal number one is to get the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain back online and in charge, and to do that we need to help them to stop, think then act.
Stop: We’ve got to slow things down!
It is very hard for them to hit the pause button when they are triggered. It is also hard for us to hit the pause button when we are triggered (by their seemingly totally unreasonable behaviour). What we all need to do is…
Notice that things are beginning to unravel and…
Give each other space to calm down. So don’t force them to stay and listen to your lecture (you are wasting your breath, they won’t hear it anyway). Give them permission to go to another room to calm down (which also buys you time to calm down). Inviting them to take some time alone is not punishment, it’s actually compassionate. Make that clear to them.
A special calm place can be very useful, where your teen feels comfortable and can work on distracting activities that can help the emotional centres of their brains to calm down. It might be a sensory room with relaxing lighting, a place with fidgets to distract them. The point is that if the space helps them to physically reconnect with their senses, the emotional flooding generally subsides.
Get them to Breathe… properly– encourage them to do some breathing exercises (that you have gone through with them in a calmer moment). This helps their bodies to stop panicking and gives the rational part of their brains a chance of coming back online.
Two favourites of my clients are box-breathing and flower/candle-breathing. (It is worth at least watching the video above for the demonstration of this. The demos start at 9:29)
This involves four basic steps, each lasting 4 seconds. In your head draw a square, and during each step you are moving along the side of the square to the next corner.
- Close your eyes and then breathe in through your nose while counting to four, slowly feeling the air enter into your lungs (box side 1)
- Hold your breath while counting slowly to four, try
- not to clamp your mouth or nose shut (box side 2)
- Slowly exhale for 4 seconds (box side 3)
- Hold your breath again (box side 4)
Then repeat the steps/ draw the box at least 3 times, ideally repeating for 4 minutes or until calm returns.
If this is seems a bit complicated, an easier method to grasp is the
The basic principle is, ‘sniff the flower, blow out the candle’.
- Extend your index finger and hold it about 15 cm from your face (about half a long ruler length).
- Take a deep breath as if you are smelling a flower.
- Exhale like you are blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.
- Repeat until calmness has returned.
Another thing that can help them to stop is to give them a
Hug Obviously your ability to do this will vary on what your relationship with the teen is and how they generally respond to physical contact. Also don’t do this if you are experiencing strong negative emotions as they will pick up on this. For some teens, the physical contact and the pressure of a hug again helps them to physically ground or re-connect with themselves. It also sends the message, on a physical level without use of words that everything is ok, they are safe and you care for them.
Right. So now you have got them to stop, you now need to get them to
Before I even say anything about thinking it is VERY important that you remember that there will be no thinking going on for your teen when they are emotionally flooding. None. Nadah. So there is absolutely no point in you trying to complete the ‘think’ part of the process until they have completed the previous step and stopped the emotional flood. Otherwise they will just be too overwhelmed by you asking them to use a part of their brain that they cannot actually get to work properly, which will only cause them to flood further.
So once they are calmer, get them thinking by both using your curiosity instead of judgement. Curiosity leads to thinking (what you are aiming for) wherease judgement leads to emotion (taking them right back to square one and their emotional flooding).
So instead of saying judgemental things like ,’What the hell got in to you?’ or ‘Finished now?’, ask questions like,
“What happened that got you so wound up?”.
Observe what you think you saw, “it seemed like you were upset about forgetting your PE kit and found that hard to deal with”.
Key point is that you are both investigating like detectives what went down and collecting the facts of their recent flood so that you can work out what to do next time, together. This is the ultimate act of care, of empathy and compassion. You are less on their case and more working with them…
So you can Ask them: What is your pattern when you have big feelings? What sets you off?
And you can Ask yourself: What happens to them when they experience emotional flooding? What sets you off about them?
Explain the amygdala hijack to them and how to prevent it or at least reduce its impact through the use of the Stop techniques like the breathing exercises and giving each other space.
Help them to explore the idea that the thing that they are upset about potentially has little to do with what they appeared to be upset about. In my experience 9 times out of 10 the thing they appear to be upset about is merely the straw that broke the camels back.
Like you ask them to remember to take the bins out and they blow up or dissolve into a puddle of tears. Who knew bins were such a source of emotion? Well actually, they aren’t. What we don’t necessarily see is that there is usually a whole back story, something that has often already happened that day, which can include a hormonal wobbler or simply getting out of bed the wrong side, a hurtful comment from someone earlier in the day, a bad test score, or a routine mess up. The common emotions attached to flooding are anger, anxiety and disappointment which are often linked to all the stuff that has gone before the straw (that broke the camels back).
While having these discussions, help your teen refrain from criticising themselves because of how they do or don’t manage their emotions. Their inner dialogue is generally very loud and very good at putting them down. This is often related to other difficulties and the shame associated. “Why can’t I organise myself?” “Crap I forgot that homework again and I got in trouble for it” “I can’t do anything right”.
Which leads us on to the next step,
This is all about brainstorming solutions together. What would help them? What
would help prevent situations from escalating? What would help them stop piling in with the self-criticism?
Teach them the Stop, Think, Act approach. Encourage them to use it as their mantra, so that when they feel themselves beginning to flood, they know what to do without having to think about it. So when they are flooding you can say to them, ‘Do you think we need to STA this?’. Just by repeating the words, the thinking process is kickstarted.
As time goes on and with support from you and practise they will learn to do this for themselves.
And remember to continually positively reinforce the use of STA. Comment on how much better it is than everything escalating wildly and how proud you are of the progress they are making, even if it is only initially very small improvements, even if they just tried the breathing exercises.
Reassure them that some days they will be able to do this more easily than others- that’s normal. And you know what, getting this process down pat will take you time too, so reassure yourself. Some days it will work a dream, other times it will be harder, but overall if you stick at it and keep practising it will become second nature to all of you and life will get easier. Don’t give up the first time you try it and it fails. It is a process for you both to learn, you’ve got to unlearn old bad habits and relearn this new better one, but it is SO worth it.
The Stop Think Act (STA) method really does work and I cannot recommend enough the book by Sharon Saline. Buy it now, you won’t regret it- the link is below. It’s geared towards ADHD kids, but quite frankly I think anyone living or working with more tricky teens could benefit from reading this absolute bible of knowledge and practical strategies. I use the techniques with all of my clients and their parents, ADHD or not.
So next time your teen is emotionally flooding, try the Stop Think Act approach. It can really make the world of difference.