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When Your Kid Emotionally Throws Up on You

How can we work to clean things upthem, notthem? Here are some ways to help our kids without taking their woes so literally and personally that we worry ourselves sick.
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USA, New Jersey, Angry girl (12-13) in bedroom
USA, New Jersey, Angry girl (12-13) in bedroom

It was the worst day of my life. I literally have no friends. Everything sucks.

The rant is long and punctuated. High drama. Tangential. What's been bottled up in the company of others spews out in raw, messy form. You have just been officially, emotionally thrown-up on.

Long after, you still feel incredibly sick. Your parental instincts are on full alert. You love your child. You worry. You hurt with them. Anyone that messes with them messes with you. You can't help but take on their anxiety as your own.

You try and take it with a grain of salt, but you can't help but mill over what to do next. You don't want to minimize their plight or overlook anything serious. But you also don't want to reinforce potentially faulty perceptions, known as cognitive distortions, born out of peak anxiety moments.

How can we work to clean things up with them, not for them? Here are some ways to help our kids without taking their woes so literally and personally that we worry ourselves sick:

1. Know the difference between raw and pervasive emotions. Raw emotions are unfiltered and unmitigated. They don't generally provide an accurate pulse on emotional health. They are automatic reactions that first bubble over. With some time and effort, raw emotions can be revisited and reconstructed. Pervasive emotions are lasting states that persist over time and circumstance. They don't go down without a fight, and require attention and finesse. Find a second opinion-enlist trusted teachers and counselors to help understand potential root causes and appropriate measures to take. Pervasive patterns in behavior, thinking and emotions often require extra resources and interventions, and should not be minimized or ignored.

2. Get good at giving reality checks. Mastering the art of the reality check is a must. Throwing up is more of a relief for the child than the parent. We replay the conversation long after they've moved on. Later, you hear from a teacher, or you see them living it up on social media. They are fine. But you're still feeling woozy and whipped up. Challenge your urge to take on their experience as your own. If we succumb to owning their raw emotions as our reality, we'll be less apt to bring needed clarity and comfort. Our kids need us to model this and help them develop their own reality checking skills to prevent raw emotions from becoming pervasive.

3. Be glad they threw up on you. It's likely they got a lot of relief from it. It's also a sign they trust you and are confident in your ability to help them. Their verbal vomit allowed them to work beyond their peak anxiety reactions. Burying difficult thoughts and emotions doesn't serve anyone well. It's best they rid themselves of emotional toxins to begin the process of sense making and reconstructing raw emotions. Venting helps. If you have a kid who is open with what's going on, consider yourself fortunate.

4. Believe in their resilience. We are wired for resilience, the ability to withstand hardship and bounce back. This bouncing back doesn't happen magically, but we can cultivate it. According to the Search Institute, the presence of even one caring adult serves as a protective factor. Even when the chips are down, kids can learn a tremendous amount from the challenges they face, equipping them with greater empathy, mental agility and problem solving skills that will serve them well over a lifetime.

The clean up is never pretty, but it is necessary. When we understand the difference between raw and pervasive emotions, we can sort through our own instinctual nausea and provide our kids with the blend of support and reality checks they need to cultivate resilience.

Kristen Lee Costa, EdD, LICSW, known as "Dr. Kris", is an award-winning behavioral therapist, professor, and the author of Reset: Make the Most of Your Stress, named Motivational Book of 2015. She speaks to audiences across the globe on navigating stress and anxiety, and advocating for improved individual and collective mental health. #onlywe