Everybody smile and pretend like you’re having a good day!
How many times has this been said before a family picture, reunion, or even said as a quick reminder before running into a doctor’s office with kids and teenagers in tow? We want everyone to see the positive image of our families and replay again and again in their minds all the happy smiling faces surrounding us. This desire for positivity is healthy and having a positive, comfortable environment to raise children, teenagers, and then finally, your adult children in, is a great privilege and goal to have. But what about the days that aren’t so great? The days where it’s raining, and you’re frustrated because doctors are running late and dinner won’t be ready on time. This flux of positive emotions to negative emotions is a normal part of life, however often there is a disconnect when it comes to modeling this change in front of our children as they get older.
The Challenge of Negative Emotions
I work with adult clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and many times I have listened as clients would describe negative events happening that week. I would see their tense body language, pent up facial expressions and respond to them, in turn, saying
It sounds like your week has been challenging and you might be feeling a little angry right now.
Only to have them respond in a frightened, or angry tone of voice
I’m fine! I’m not having a bad day! That’s not ok!
This response may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me at first as I worked through what might be going on with their minds to lead to this dissimilarity between their body language and verbal statements.
We know that those with ASD are often rule-bound and operate from places of typically black and white thinking unless otherwise coached or taught. This type of thinking has its advantages, but one of the disadvantages is the simplistic thinking that positive emotions are good and negative emotions are bad, despite the fact that negative emotions are a normal part of human life.
What is being connected and what needs to be differentiated are these sad/angry emotions and problematic behaviors. Harmful actions that stem from these emotions are often the things we want to shape and change, but this comes across sometimes as teaching the emotions themselves are harmful and should not be present. This, in turn, leads to internal conflict and the child denying emotions they are told are “not ok” to experience.
What do we do with those bad days? We don’t want to allow harmful behavior because it’s how they “feel” like acting. The goal doesn’t always have to be the happy smiling faces we see on postcards either. What we need is to be able to help our young adults know what to do with the feelings they are experiencing, and assist them to recognize that their feelings are heard and allowed. That means we need to understand what do with those feelings of our own as well.
We can use the simple formula of:
Negative Emotions + Positive Strategy Tool = Neutral/Appropriate Behavior
When we catch ourselves feeling overwhelmed, stressed or angry, we need to be aware of our responses and the behaviors we are modeling in front of ever watching eyes. They won’t know that negative emotions are ok until they see it first being modeled by trusted adults around them. Remember, we are working with a learned habit, so it takes time to change.
Clients showed intense reactions when I started modeling and verbalizing what healthy responses to negative emotions looked like in adults. For the clients working on this skill, I would make sure we had a strong working relationship first, and also be in a safe place where they could express themselves.
If that client asked how my day was I would respond honestly and, if true, say something along the lines of
I’m not having the best day right now. But I’m glad to be with you, and it helps me to focus on what we are working on. I also know I’m going to (insert coping strategy here) later so things should turn out ok!
I was directly contradicting a long held habit and belief and they reacted how many of us do when our beliefs are challenged, with discomfort, demonstrated everywhere from surprise to extreme anger.
It took time and coaching, but one of the best moments I’ve experienced in my career so far was a client who had initially shown extreme reactions to this modeling at the beginning. They were struggling to follow through with a task we were working on, and I could see they were getting frustrated. Suddenly they stopped, took a deep breath and said
I’m just really not having a good day, but that’s ok.
This was the first time I had ever heard this client accepting and admitting their own negative feelings in a non-judgmental way.
They weren’t mentally beating themselves up like they would before, sometimes shown physically by pulling at their hair or banging on tables. They were now quietly and maturely accepting how they were feeling in a healthy way. Progress after that was remarkable, and we were able to tackle problems that previously we were unable to touch.
These advances are what we are focusing on obtaining, and it’s important we realize the things that may be limiting us and them to accomplishing that next step of success. Therefore, it’s important when your teenager or adult is going through a rough patch and expressing frustration to respect those feelings and respond in a healthy way.
Let Them Be Sad
• Let them express what they are feeling (establish limits if necessary, ex: “You can communicate how you feel but without yelling and name calling.”
• Validate that what they are experiencing is normal (ex: “That makes sense you’re having a bad day, that’s understandable.”)
• Help them figure out coping skills to know what to do with these feelings (ex: “I know you want to hide in your room all day, that makes sense, but since you’re angry why don’t you _______” )
Starting this process can be tough at first, just like establishing any new set of expectations or behaviors. It’s important though this problem is recognized, so we have adults who are comfortable with themselves and able to communicate in a healthy, mature way. An upcoming article will look at various coping strategies that can be used to handle difficult emotions during these times.
Alyssa R. Webb-McCune is a graduate student at Sam Houston State University in their Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program and works at Including Kids as a Focused Intervention Specialist. She has five years of experience working with students with disabilities and two years of experience working with adults with autism. She is active in research and focused on developing new ways to support clients in reaching their highest level of success.