How to use emotional self-distancing to cope with strong emotions
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How to use emotional self-distancing to cope with strong emotions

When a stressful or upsetting event occurs, we get caught up in how we’re wronged or the limitations that are placed on us, and how that makes us feel. Do you remember the last time you had an argument, and how you got caught up in a continuous loop of reflection afterward? Thinking about — “then she said that,” “I felt this,” and perhaps “Next time, I will…”. 

Both adults and kids use this self-reflection to process what happened, and make sense of it. This sense-making can take the form of positive self-reflection (resulting in lower anxiety levels) or it can lead to worrying (making us feel worse). How can parents help kids pivot from getting caught up worrying, to self-regulation and “taking a step back”?

Psychologists recommend emotional self-distancing as the single most effective way to process and self-regulate strong emotions.

Studies with children and adolescents show that when they step back and view the event from a third-person perspective, they avoid the trap of recounting the distressing event repeatedly and are able to provide objective insight to obtain closure.

Follow these steps: 
  1. Visualize a third-party observer. Younger kids can ask themselves ‘What did Batman see? What would Batman do?” Older kids can visualize a trusted peer or mentor and ask the same questions.
  2. Avoid using “I”. Encourage your kid to step out of their own perspective by using pronouns like “her,” “they,” “him,” rather than “I”.
  3. Focus on their future self. Ask them how they would feel about this event one week or one year from now. This mental time travel directs their attention away from the immediate circumstance and assists with emotional recovery.
  4. Record your reflection. As parents, we can listen, ask genuine questions, and help our kids see their own logic and emotion in a situation. Have a reflection conversation by asking
    1. What do you want from this situation? 
    2. What emotions do you have?
    3. What behaviors are you exhibiting?
    4. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – what do you think their perspective is?
    5. What role can you play in getting to your desired outcome?
    6. Is there anything you need to do to make the relationship right?
Prepared author, and co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, Diane Tavenner, says we can ask reflective questions verbally, but we can also ask our kids to reflect in written form – which is particularly useful when helping to mediate a conflict between two people (kids).  “This captures the basic science behind relationship repair with questions prompting each party to put themselves in the shoes of the other, get in touch with their emotions, clearly articulate the facts, and to look for the role they can play in a solution.”

Be attentive to any signs of avoidance, which is merely side-stepping strong emotions or upsetting circumstances, not dealing with them.

You’ll notice that age and practice also play a role in emotional self-distancing. As kids approach adolescence, their prefrontal cortex – critical to self-reflection –  matures and this, with additional support provided by caretakers, helps them self regulate better.