De-Escalating: Helping Gifted Children Identify Their Emotions and Regain Control

by Sarah Young


It’s the week before winter break. Utter chaos reigns. Every day there is a condensed schedule, an assembly, or other interruptions that distress my anxious, perfectionist, or autistic gifted kids. In the 3.5 minutes before students come pouring into my classroom adorned in ugly sweaters and crazy hats, I receive an email that says: Matthew is crying on the floor uncontrollably because he didn’t make math competition. Help.

When I arrive, our behavior interventionist is sitting next to Matthew, trying to calm him but getting nowhere. Sometimes, what we say to a child in crisis harms our relationship with them and prevents them from processing their emotions. Here are some of the unhelpful things I heard:

What Not to Say Example Why Not to Say it
I know (exactly) how you feel. I was so upset when I didn’t make the math Olympiad team in fifth grade. Right now, the child needs you to help them sort through their own emotions. They don’t need you focused on yourself and how you feel. Instead, identify and communicate the child’s emotions, not your own. (Not to mention, you might not actually know what the child is feeling—their view of the situation might not match your own.)
At least… At least you made the team; some kids didn’t. You are trying to gloss over their problem. You are saying the child shouldn’t feel upset or frustrated because at least something good happened. Even if this is true, it’s not helpful.
How about you get up, and we’ll (reward you). Stop crying, and we’ll get you some tickets for being in control. Don’t reward the child for ignoring or pushing down their emotions. The emotions are still there, and they will probably rear up later. This doesn’t process any feelings or teach the student any coping strategies.

Okay, so what should I say to my student who is sobbing on the floor, unwilling to move or speak to anyone? Start with this:

What to Say Example Why to Say it
I bet you are feeling… I bet you are feeling really disappointed after not making the math club. This one seems counterintuitive, but helps to identify and communicate the child’s emotions. It is important to know what they are feeling and show that you are hearing them. They will tell you if you’ve misidentified their emotions.

Now, it’s time to implement what I call a “new thinking” strategy. Not every phrase works in every situation or with every child. You have to choose the phrase that fits based on what the child is feeling, be it disappointment, anxiety, nervousness, guilt, etc.

Phrases that Promote New Thinking Why I Love It Tips
What would you tell your best friend if they were in this situation or had this thought? We are most critical of ourselves. By asking what they would tell their best friend or sister or teammate, we allow them room for empathy and take away self-criticism. Get as specific as possible. Name their best friend or most loved family member. You may even change the situation to fit the person—“What if your sister didn’t make cheer competition?”
Will this bother you in an hour? What about tomorrow? What about next week? Sometimes, we blow things out of proportion and we can only focus on the present. By looking at the future, we can give students hope. If this won’t bother me in an hour, should I really be this distressed? If you see this one heightening their fear, back off and try a new strategy. This phrase is great, but only works for certain children.
What is the chance that this fear will come true? Usually, students are focused on the 0.05% chance, rather than the 99.95% chance. They are seeing the worst outcome, rather than the most likely. This helps shake that thinking. Example: Student gets a cut and is worried it will get infected.

I would ask:

– How many times have you gotten cuts?

– How many have been infected?

– Did you clean the cut?

– So, how likely is it that it will get infected?

What is the worst case scenario? What about the best? The most likely? This one seems counterintuitive as well, but often by naming our worst fear, we tame it. When I actually say my worst fear aloud, it’s no longer in my head, circling around, gaining momentum. May need to help the child reach the conclusion that the scenarios described are not catastrophic—e.g., “In the worst case, my friend will be upset with me.” “And then?” “Then they won’t talk to me for a while.” “And then?” “Well, we’ll probably be okay again.”

So, which phrase should I pick for my student? Well, the “worst case scenario” has kind of already happened for this child. He didn’t make the team. So, that eliminates the bottom two phrases, which help more with fear and anxiety. So, let’s try one of the top two phrases. Here goes.

Me: Matthew, why are you crying?
Matthew: I didn’t make math competition, and it was the only thing that I wanted this year. It was the only thing that was for me, not my parents.
Me: Wow, that sounds really frustrating. I bet you are really disappointed.
Matthew: Yes, I can’t believe it. I got 15th, and I needed to be top 8.
(Resist the urge to say: Holy moly! You got 15th out of 50 gifted students. That’s pretty amazing. You should be proud of that.)
Me: Gosh. I’m so sorry. What would you tell your best friend if this happened to them?
Matthew: I don’t know.
Me: Seriously, what would you tell Ben if this happened to him? Would you be frustrated with him?
Matthew: No. I don’t know. He could probably still go to practices and hang out. And there’s math team next year.
Me: Okay, so that’s great. You can still have all your math club friendships. What if we practice the problems you got wrong during your free choice time with me, so that you feel more confident next year?
Matthew: Yeah. That’d be good.

A few sentences later, and Matthew is okay. We go to the bathroom, get him cleaned up, and he returns to class in a good mood.

It’s not always this easy, but it is so important to hear our gifted kids, communicate their emotions, and then help them learn how to process those emotions and find healthier ways to deal with them. Eventually, students can internalize this process and need us less and less.

I have one student who still carries around a dingy, no-longer-sticky, post-it note with her “new thinking” phrases on it that help calm her anxiety. Her mom says she looks at it daily. What tools will you give your students to help them be healthier, happier, and learn to regulate their emotions?