Phone Calls from the Closet

What to do when you need help with your emotionally intense child

Times have changed since I was a child growing up in the Jewish neighborhood of West Hollywood. Misbehaving over-reactive children usually knew their place in the home, because when kids were extremely bad and out of control they might be sent to the closet to calm down. There was a sense of decorum about family life and how to talk to your parents. We were taught to respect our parents and our misbehavior was usually done out of mom and dad’s line of vision.

Now―some 40 years later―I have mothers calling me from their closets seeking advice on what to do with their screaming son or daughter. Why are these parents hiding in the closet? Are they ashamed of themselves? No, these moms and dads are afraid of their children’s emotional outbursts (which are not always limited to words). The parents want to know what they should do next. They know that I will not shrink from their child’s unhappiness and rage. My answer to their question,  “Should I give into the tantrum or just let the child wind down?” varies depending on the situation. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I know that once kids calm down you need to talk with them about what is upsetting them. A dialogue always helps prevent misunderstandings. Talking calmly is imperative.

Of course, not all phone calls from parents seeking advice about their gifted child come from the safety of the closet. Some calls come from cell phones after a difficult school evaluation or in frustration about emotional turmoil that seems over-reactive in degree to the task at hand―like getting along with a sister or doing homework or brushing their teeth or logging off the computer. Parents call me because they are trying to regain composure and make a plan to calm down their intense child, to get their child back to a good place where they can be reasonable and productive.

I believe that it is a sign of intelligence and caring when parents call distressed and unsure of themselves. It is certainly hard to know how to handle an out of control, intense, desperate child. More often than not the parent blames themselves because they don’t know how to deal with their sense of failure as a parent. “What did I do wrong?” is always in the first conversation. I tell parents that blaming themselves will not help. “How can I make my family life more reasonable?” comes next. Here are some steps to follow when you are at your wits’ end for whatever reason with your gifted and intense child or adolescent.

Step One
Figure out what triggered your entrance into the safety of your closet or what triggered your deep concern about your child’s behavior that led you to seek out help. When you are sure of your answer go to step two.

Step Two
Think about the best way to calm your child down without giving in. For example, you might say, “I can see how upset you are, let’s talk when you calm down.” Never get into your child’s anger and unhappiness when they are out of control. Use your detective skills much later when your child and you are calm. For example, you might feel like saying, “Your computer is going into the trunk of the car forever!!!” Don’t say this. Remain calm.

Step Three
As ridiculous as this may sound, try to normalize your child’s frustrating experience. Putting their issue into perspective will reduce their shame and calm them down even more. You could say, “Did you know that your brother had the same strong reaction as you when he had to sit still at school?”  Or, “I had the same problems as you had with my friends in first grade. I was bullied.”

Step Four
When your child or teenager is in a calm state of mind, talk with your them about what upset them and made them misbehave. If your child tries to pretend that it didn’t happen or that it was just “stuff” that was bothering him/her, you still need to work hard to find the root of the problem. Is your child’s problem his homework, friends, electronics, or you?
Step Five
Establish your authority in any way you can and set limits and consequences even when your know-it- all child does not stop arguing with you about how he didn’t mean to do it or won’t do it again. Check on your child’s progress with his/her issue. Talk about what is getting better and what needs work.

Step Six
Give your intervention time to take hold. If you feel stuck and unsuccessful, look for expert help.