In response to my last article about Emotional Flooding, a reader wrote in to pose this question:
“Hi, I learned a lot from the Flooding article. It’s real and both my kids have experienced it. The article addressed what I can do to help my teens, which is great, but often this happens to them when they’re away from home, at school or at a social event. What steps can they take to calm themselves when this happens and I’m not there to help them?”
I’m glad you learned from my previous article and found it helpful. To answer your question, here’s a brief review of what emotional flooding is, and some tools you can give your kids so they can self-regulate when you’re not there to help them.
What Is Emotional Flooding?
Sometimes what seems to us like an inconsequential event provokes an outsized reaction in our teens. Their heightened reaction may be due to something called “emotional flooding,” which is what happens when your teen perceives a threat, and that perception triggers their sensitive sympathetic nervous system to respond with fear and panic and the accompanying emotional and physiological reactions.
Proactive & Responsive Strategies
According to researcher John Gottman, the average person needs twenty minutes for the body to reset after becoming flooded with emotion. Twenty minutes is a long time to watch helplessly when our kids are afraid and panicking. Imagining them flooding with emotion when we’re not there to support them, is harder still.
The good news is, we can give our teens proactive coping strategies to help them minimize the chance of flooding their nervous system at the outset, and responsive strategies to help lessen the intensity of these episodes when they strike. We begin by explaining to our children what emotional flooding is, so they know what they’re going through and why it happens. Then, we offer self-calming and coping tools, so they’re prepared to lean into the experience successfully, even when we’re not around to help them through it.
Talk About It
Preparation starts with a conversation. It’s best to choose a time to talk when you and your teen typically relate well to each other. Open the dialogue by sharing your own experiences with fight-flight-freeze. Every person’s threshold for flooding is unique. Triggers and symptoms vary by person, too.
Ask questions like: When you’re overwhelmed by emotion…do you find it impossible to focus on expectations? Are you angry, frustrated, or embarrassed more than usual? Do you want to run away? Also talk about the physical sensations that accompany their experience. Let your teen know that sweaty palms, flushing in the face, difficulty breathing, tightening in the chest, or an upset stomach are all common.
Your teens will find episodes of flooding less frightening when they realize everyone experiences them and that the way their body responds to stress is normal.
Practice Breathing, Grounding, Leaning
We lose some of our capacity for rational thought when we’re experiencing an intense emotional response. Problem solving is near impossible. The good news is, the way back to calming our sympathetic nervous system involves three strategies your teen is already familiar with, all of which your teen can practice with or without you—before, during, and after flooding occurs.
The first strategy is to practice breathing. Breathing deeply is the single most effective way to restore a state of equilibrium in our bodies. Inhaling through the nose, holding our breath for a count of three, then slowly exhaling air allows higher order brain functions a chance to kick in so we can more accurately evaluate the perceived threat and what we might do to resolve it.
The second strategy involves learning how to ground. Have you ever noticed that when you’re dizzy your natural inclination is to sit down? Grounding, or the action of making bodily contact with safe objects in the environment, stabilizes our physiology at our deepest levels. Ask your teen to take a seat or stand with their back against the wall—these simple actions engage the senses, allowing the brain and the body to come back into balance. Calming activities like yoga, playing music, or making art can also ground your teen and decrease their stress over time.
A third strategy is teaching your teen to lean on trusted friends and family members. The ability to ask for support when needed, and knowing safe spaces, are critical life skills at any age. Your teen needs to know that coping with stress is always less overwhelming when done in connection with others—even if that trusted adult or safe space doesn’t include you.
Get Professional Help If You Need It
Without support, teens who experience toxic stress are more likely to rely on unhealthy measures to find relief. They may turn to using alcohol, drugs, or other substances to help them cope. Unfortunately, not all teens will be open to help and suggestions from parents. It’s also possible you may feel ill-equipped to support your teen in this way. In these situations, consider reaching out to a therapeutic professional who specializes in working with teens to build a repertoire of mindfulness techniques. Neither you, nor your teen, need to go it alone.