Behavior & Environment

How to Effectively Handle a Child’s Big Emotions

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Temper tantrums are one of the most common and most frustrating challenging behaviors to handle. They’re not just restricted to the toddler set, they can happen with kids of all ages. Tantrums happen when a child is overwhelmed by a big emotion they’re not developmentally able to manage or they don’t have the skills to manage. Their brain is flooded with stress hormones and they go into fight, flight or freeze mode. So what’s the solution?

1. First, it’s essential that you help your child move out of the fight, flight or freeze mode. The part of the brain that is in control at that moment, named the downstairs brain by Dan Siegel, doesn’t have the ability to reason or make different choices. You have to get the upstairs brain, the part of the brain that’s in charge of reason and decision making, back in charge. You do this through connection: eye contact, physical contact like a hug or rubbing the child’s back, being present but not touching or talking, or whatever works best for that child.

2. Once you’ve made the connection, acknowledge what the child is feeling related to the situation. “It looks like you’re upset that Sam won’t let you play with his car,” or “it sounds like you’re disappointed you didn’t get invited to the birthday party this weekend.” Naming the emotion and acknowledging the feeling and experience of the child helps soothe their mind and get them back in their upstairs brain.

3. If needed, the next step is the problem solving. You can brainstorm with your child ways they can manage their emotions and their behaviors differently the next time. With a plan of action in hand, they can learn how to avoid being overwhelmed by big emotions and find better ways of handling things that come up for them.