The Tendency Towards Intensity

There are times even the best parenting advice and guidance does not work. As parents, we need to learn how to stay ourselves with our children even when things go wrong and it seems our best strategies are not working. Thankfully, love covers a multitude of sins.

My seven-year-old Matthew has a tendency towards intensity. Ever since he was born, Matthew is intensely joyful and, when upset, intensely upset. We have worked with him over the years to improve his ability to quiet as well as return to joy from upsetting emotions. These have been crucial tools for his relational tool belt. You see, some children need more practice with one skill and less of another skill. In Matthew’s case, he needs more help quieting and recovering.

Most of the time, my son can quiet and return to joy when things go wrong, but there are times he does not. I have noticed his reactions are intensified when he feels tired, hungry or sick. His emotional capacity is much lower under these conditions which leads to a bigger meltdown.

We recently had a seismic meltdown in the car driving home from a trip. Matthew was tired from disrupted sleep and was obviously feeling crispy. He missed some school for this trip, so his teacher sent along make-up work. We completed most of it, but that morning he opted to save the last page of his math homework for the car so he could play a little extra at the hotel.

One of the luxuries the boys enjoy when we travel is watching movies in the car on a portable DVD player. My husband and I do not allow much screen time at home, so this is a big deal while on long drives. When my son climbed into the car, I reminded him he needed to finish his last page of homework before he could watch a movie. Earlier in the day he agreed to our plan, however now he no longer liked this plan. His brother could watch a movie, but Matthew was not allowed to just yet. Upon this reminder, he declared he was NOT going to do his homework. Instead, he wanted to watch a movie. I acknowledged that he really wanted to watch a movie, and hopefully he could soon. However, it was time to finish his homework.

The explosion erupted. Matthew’s upset increased with crying, yelling and coughing fits. I tried validating his feelings along with some comfort, but it was clear his emotional brain was disrupted. He was feeling some big anger because he was not getting his way. Despite my best attempts to synchronize, validate and comfort, he headed straight for a full-blown MELTDOWN.

This particular outburst was beyond anything I have seen from him before. I watched the clock, and he screamed and cried for a full 50 minutes. WOW, talk about intense! I felt myself struggling to stay connected with him. I wanted to escape this intensity as my relational brain fought to stay connected. (Catch a 30-second glimpse here if you want a taste of this lengthy outburst.)

As parents, it is crucial we keep our emotional and relational oxygen masks on before we can fully help our children. This means we stay calm, grounded and relational during high levels of distress. I feel thankful my husband and I practice these skills because I needed every ounce of training to stay securely connected to my son in this episode.

Matthew was in the middle of a major tantrum and was beyond the point of interaction, so this gave me some time to work on grounding myself. I took some deep breaths and started to think of things I appreciate. I asked God to be with me, and give me His peace. While I did not hear any specific thoughts in response, I did feel an increase in peace.

As Matthew’s tantrum wound down, I was in a more grounded place and ready to help him recover. We took some deep breaths together and, after he calmed, we worked together to finish his homework.

At the end of the day, children need to learn how to manage their emotions while staying relationally connected. In Matthew’s case, he was distressed because he couldn’t have what he wanted. We want him to learn the world will not give him what he wants and things will go wrong, but he must learn how to recover when life throws curve balls. In order to help our children learn this, we need to hone our own skills so we have them available to help us stay consistent, loving and attuned when things get difficult.

Today, notice how your body is feeling. Are you tense? Take some time to practice quieting yourself. Breathe deeply and work to calm your thoughts. Take a few moments to think of some things that make you smile. Notice how your body feels after you have taken some time for quiet and appreciation. This useful sequence will recharge your emotional battery pack.

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6 comments

  1. Lisa Hamel says:

    This is awesome! I will be sharing with many moms! And can I just say that our sons are VERY similar. God bless!
    Lisa

  2. Boggs Amelia says:

    Jen, I love this post and how you model this important tool! This type of example is rare as you know. Thank you for your willingness to be transparent!

  3. Hee-Choon Sam Lee says:

    I have found myself in less intense situations where I failed to strap on the “oxygen mask” myself first 🙁 Hopefully I will get better with practice.

    • Jen Coursey says:

      Practice definitely helps, but even with practice we will still sometimes forget. I know I also have forgotten in less intense situations myself!

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