I had a chance to interview Laurie Hollman, a psychoanalyst and author of Busy Parent’s Guides for children and teens with anxiety or anger issues. Her books describe how these emotions manifest, and how parents can respond through her method of Parental Intelligence, to help their children master their emotions.
How does the 5-step Parental Intelligence Way help in handling children’s episodes of anger and anxiety?
The Parental Intelligence Way helps in handling children’s episodes of anger and anxiety by giving a structured, organized way of responding to puzzling and often unexpected reactions by children. Because it focuses on finding the meaning behind the feeling or behavior, the parent discovers subtle triggers for the episodes. An anxious child may be trembling because she was left out from a game at recess, but her hurt feelings aren’t apparent at first.
They may manifest in crying, perspiring, nervous gestures or outbursts. Through the process of understanding the meaning behind these gestures, the parent learns that the child is in despair and afraid she’ll never have any friends. At first look, it seems like an overreaction, but with the process of Parental Intelligence, the seriousness becomes apparent and is now open for exploration.
The parent can find out if the daughter is indeed alienating other children in some way. Or, maybe she is too self-conscious to get into the fray and is holding back quietly in a corner. Maybe the teacher can offer some input to her socialization. In this way, her initial bout of anxiety leads to a more full discovery that the parent can address.
What’s the importance of step #1, Stepping Back?
Stepping back is the first essential step in the process of using Parental Intelligence because the parent pauses in order to consider what’s happening. Without this pause from whatever incident is taking place, parents may rashly respond before knowing the actual problem. It helps both the parent and the child or teen to calm down by slowing the pace of the reaction. Thinking before acting is key.
Why is step #2, Self-reflection, an important step?
After stepping back, parents have time to stay in the moment and reflect upon their own feelings toward the situation. Parents’ reactions may indeed be a clue to what’s going on. The child’s outburst may trigger past feelings from their own history. Understanding this, parents learn not to overreact to the child’s behavior based on their own past experiences. If, for example, the child’s anger invokes old feelings of when someone significant in their own lives was angry at them, they may inadvertently react to the child as if it was that significant other. Taking the time to self-reflect prevents an out-of-place reaction. It allows the parent to think of their child solely in the present circumstance.
With step #3, Understanding Your Child’s Mind, what clues can parents use?
In step three, the parent views the child’s behavior as an invitation to understanding. After steps 1 and 2, the parent is prepared to recognize whether there’s a pattern to the child’s reaction. Clues would be seeing an anxious child becoming unable to focus on homework, or unusual anger at small things. In other words, out-of-proportion reactions are the clue to something more important going on.
Then is the time to ask your child in an open-ended, nonjudgmental manner, “What’s wrong? What’s the matter? Can I help?” Showing empathy in this way allows the child to talk about what’s wrong. Once parents learn what’s on the child’s mind, they can begin to sort out the child’s complex emotional response.
How does step #4, Understanding Your Child’s Development, change how parents respond?
Being aware of your child’s developmental stage helps you know what to expect. For example, if the child is showing separation anxiety at age 3, it’s appropriate and parents can reassure the child that they’re just in the other room or will be right back. But if the child is older, parents know this is a more significant problem. Developmentally, older children shouldn’t struggle with this issue. The child’s stage of development steers the parent toward having expectations that reflect the child or teen’s developmental, not chronological, age.
What’s an example of step #5, Problem Solving, for resolving an episode of anger?
Imagine a 15-year-old teen who comes home and drops his backpack on the kitchen floor, goes upstairs and slams the door. He’s angry. His mother isn’t used to seeing him this way. After stepping back and self-reflecting, feeling worried and truthfully a bit annoyed herself at his attitude, she decides to calmly knock on his door. She’s surprised to hear him crying. His rage has turned into despair. He lets her enter and she comments on how upset he is and how she wants to listen to what it’s about. He feels relieved that she’s empathic and he spills out that his girlfriend of 4 months ditched him in a text — not even in person.
Telling his mother what happened helps relieve the weight of his feelings, but doesn’t change the loss. She shares with him that he’s grieving, which gives him an insight he didn’t have. Together they discuss how he’s now dealing with emotions he hasn’t experienced before. The mother says that she will help him come to understand that the girl’s message doesn’t make him any less of a person. This kind of conversation is in itself problem solving. The mother doesn’t interfere. She doesn’t give advice about how to get the girlfriend back. She empathizes with his experience and feelings so that he feels less alone. This is her way of understanding his mind, recognizing his vulnerable developmental stage and problem solving.