Don’t Ride the Wave

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I stood in the ocean five feet away from shore, looking over my shoulder at the approaching wave.

Anticipation.

Without effort, I am lifted high on the crest of the wave.

Exhilaration.

Until…wham!  I waited too long to swim away and crashed directly onto the ocean floor.

Riding the wave of your child’s, spouse’s, or even your own emotions, can be similar.  Like the ocean, feelings are sometimes vast, deep and can churn up in a hurry.   If you are gifted your spectrum is likely wider than average.

For some reason, we treat intense feelings like moths treat flames.  We are drawn to them.  They hypnotize us.  What would happen if that tiny moth turned around and flew the other way?  What if we chose not to ride the wave all the way to the crest?

Giftedness is clothed in intensity.  It touches upon everything in a gifted person’s life.  However gifted people experience the world, they experience it BIG.  Our highs are high and our lows can be pretty darn low.  So how do we temper this intensity?  Can we recognize it and get off the wave before it crests and crashes?

The first step is recognition, when am I entering the danger zone?  Until my husband and I realized that intensity in our home had to do with five gifted people (of varying degrees and types) living under the same roof, the cycle began in the morning and perpetuated throughout the day.  Everyone was hopping on to each other’s waves – it was like being in one of those wave pools at amusement parks – we knew another wave was coming, it was just a matter of time.  It isn’t necessarily that everyone had big feelings at the same time, but if someone started the trajectory we all hopped on!

Once we understood this fact, we were better equipped to temper our reactions and impulses in response to everyone’s emotional waves.  It became clear that stepping out of the way when one person was particularly struggling with intensity could break the cycle of acceleration.

Recognition and control require a mature, self aware and nuanced approach.  Validating other people’s feelings goes a long way in calming intensity, and deflecting its trajectory.  With understanding comes calm.  You understand their natural proclivity toward intensity and suddenly it’s not about their not doing what you want them to do.  It’s about their being unable to do what you want them to do.

Most importantly we must understand that our intense child probably wants to do exactly what we want them to do, but they physically can’t at the moment.  With this epiphany, they feel understood, validated, not judged and we suddenly have the ability to walk away without feeling like we are letting them “get away with something.”

Controlling our own feelings is difficult.  In the case of parent and child, if both the parent and the child are emotionally charged, often times the child doesn’t have enough control to reign in.  The adult may feel that his feelings are more legitimate than the child’s.  With a spouse there may be baggage weighing us down prohibiting us from stepping back.  In all cases we need a strategy to get off the wave in time before it crashes.

There are strategies to use in the moment and strategies to employ ahead of time.  When it is all over, it is imperative to name what happened and let your loved one know how much you still love them.  If you can plan ahead for your response, strategies in the moment are usually more effective.  Someone is out of control, but they recognize the plan from discussions ahead of time, and have a better chance of success.

During a calm time (low tide), sit down, with a snack (one your child loves), and tell her your observations.  Be sure to wrap your talk in a blanket of reassuring declarations of your love.  Couch your language in terms of protecting and understanding her, not in judging her.

You might say, “I notice that sometimes your feelings get really big.  You know, that happens to me too and it’s really a weird feeling.  My whole body feels different and I don’t feel in control.”  Then give an example:  “The other day when you yelled and slammed the door, I really felt you were very angry at me and it made me feel sad because I love you so much.”

If you rode the wave and reacted in this situation, name it and apologize.  “My reaction wasn’t a very good one, was it?  I yelled and screamed too, and I gave you a consequence for something I know you couldn’t really control.  I wasn’t able to control my feelings when you weren’t able to control yours.  I am really sorry about that.”

If the behavior accelerated and affected siblings or others in a negative or physical way, then a consequence may have been necessary but now you are focusing on avoiding that scenario in the future.  Besides naming what happened (teaching self awareness) you just role-modeled empathy – the importance of considering someone else’s feelings and apologizing after the fact.

Next give her options, but get her opinion.  Getting the other person’s buy-in is imperative for strategies to work.  “I am trying to figure out a way for me to temper my feelings in those situations and wonder if you have any ideas for how to temper yours?”

You may come up with a list:  For the child riding the wave, consider picking a place in the house to stash pillows for a safe, soft landing place during her rush of intense emotions; buy a punching bag and put it somewhere your child can punch and yell all she wants; agree on a five minute intense work out ahead of time – jump rope, pogo stick, jumping jacks, trampoline or sprinting up and down the street; get in the car and let her scream her head off – label it as a safe place to express her feelings, whatever they are and without comment or judgment; teach her deep breathing and find some calming music you can play with the lights dim; create a special box containing play dough or art supplies – stashed in a special place just for this situation.

Strategies for the parent should include self-talk to remind yourself that your child is reacting according to her intensities and that she is not in control at the moment.  We do not have to endorse her feelings, but right now is definitely not the time to engage in a conversation about them.  Then try to ignore, walk away, get in the shower, work out, sit outside and especially if there are siblings in the house, go somewhere with them away from the cresting wave.

If we can help our children name and recognize their feelings, role model our own struggles with intensities, and have a plan – maybe even a code word – for when we are trying to avoid the crest, we may diffuse the situation and we and our children can feel relief and respect for ourselves and each other.    

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About Author

Julie F. Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC. She supports parents of gifted and distractible children through education, strategies and advocacy.

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