Five steps to handling emotionally difficult situations

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, October 11, 2007

I was recently at a Somerset Patriots baseball game when I had one of those moments with my five-year-old son that gave me that warm, everything-is-alright feeling. And, frankly, it was as unexpected as getting hit on the head with a baseball.

My son was unhappy about being there and was crying, so we had left the stands and were sitting out by the vendors. After consoling, distracting, and doing anything else I could think of, I had finally given up. A calm came over me, and I just held him. As he cried on my shoulder telling me how I am not a nice person, believe it or not, my frustration gave way to treasuring the moment. My son eventually calmed down, and we returned to our seats.

 While I am pleased about how well this incident went, I also recognize how such everyday frustrations can be maddeningly difficult to manage. Despite our best intentions, we often battle our spouses, yell at our children, and throw verbal barbs at our friends. Conflicts get out of control and result in aggravation and unhappiness. There are, however, five steps you can take to improve your chances of responding well to emotionally difficult situations.

Step 1. Recognize and acknowledge your emotions. This is a big challenge for those who tend to avoid them. However, it can be deceivingly more difficult than it appears for the rest of us, too. We are often so caught up in our emotions that we act them out without consciously knowing what we are feeling.

In my particular circumstance at the baseball game, I was well aware of my steadily increasing frustration with my son (an all too common experience among parents).

Step 2. Take a mental step back to gain perspective. Do this by taking a deep breath or steadily focusing on your breathing. Consciously look at the situation as if you were outside of it. These techniques give you a chance to think about the situation, rather than acting reflexively.

For me, this step back came only after I had given up trying to make my son stop crying. Then was I able to think differently about the situation.

Step 3: Think through the situation.

Identify what is causing you to feel so emotional. It is very important to be aware of the different factors that are making you emotional. In my circumstance, there were two prominent factors. First, my son was crying, which was upsetting to me. The other factor was that I wanted him to be enjoying the game that Ibrought him to—and, dammit, here he was missing the whole thing!

Identify your behaviors or impulses in response to the situation. Remember to pay attention to what you really want to be doing as well as what you actually are doing. For instance, although I was trying to act in a helpful way, I really wanted to say, “Just stop your crying. I was nice enough to bring you here, so get back to your seat and have fun!”

Identify the consequences or likely consequences of your response. Be sure to evaluate how realistic your assessment is of what might happen. At the ballpark, I was thinking that if I preached the way I first wanted to, my son probably would have just cried more. That’s realistic. If, instead, I believed that he’d heed my words, immediately stop crying, and happily return to the game, I would have been ignoring all of my previous parenting experience.

Consider your presumption of how bad or good a possible consequence might be. In our example, while I wasn’t happy with his crying, we would both survive it just fine. I wanted him to see the game, but this truly wasn’t as important as it seemed to me at the time. So, if I responded to my son’s crying as though it were a crisis that needed to be stopped, I would have been overreacting—and I probably would have just agitated the situation more.

Because I had had a relatively stress-free day, I was able to think clearly through this incident. However, life is often not that kind. For instance, if my furnace had blown up that morning or my son had been having temper tantrums all day, I would have had more difficulty evaluating the situation and might have responded impulsively with anger. At such times when our emotions are running high, we would do better to physically step away from a situation and return after we are calm.

Step 4: Evaluate your emotions and thoughts. Sometimes our responses are more about the way we think than about the situation. People with a fear of anger tend to try to avoid it at all costs. People who feel depressed tend to expect that the worst will happen. People who need to feel in control tend to look for ways to make a situation proceed according to what they think is best. By being aware of your tendency to think a certain way, you can then begin to be aware of other possible perspectives, too.

In the circumstance with my son, I would have made the situation worse if I had seen it as my mission to make him stop crying. If he kept crying (as he did), I would have been limited to seeing myself as a failure or my son as a problem child. Neither scenario would have helped change the situation for the better. Instead, by accepting that I could not force him to be happy, I allowed for other possibilities. I could wait it out; or leave. Also, my mind opened up to the realization that I liked being able to comfort him (despite him saying that I was “not nice”).

Step 5: Move forward. Hopefully, these steps will help you come up with the best way you can respond to a situation—even if it’s not a perfect solution.

I was lucky that day at the ballpark. With no fight from me, my son finished crying in his own time, and then allowed himself to be distracted and find his way back to being happy. And, I realized that as he matured, he might not always allow me to comfort him like I did—a previously aggravating situation became a moment to treasure (flawed as it was).

While life is filled with emotionally laden conflicts, the above steps for getting through them are wonderful guides. Remember: Be aware. Step back. Evaluate. Move forward. These steps do not ensure a winning solution, but they will keep you in the game.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ