Note: I’m thrilled to feature fellow parenting writer and podcast host Jen Lumanlan as a guest writer for this post on something we all deal with on our parenting journey–what to do when your child has an emotional outburst. Like me, she values the role of child development research in making parenting decisions and I think you’ll find her work insightful.
Before I became a parent, I didn’t actually spend much time thinking about what it would be like to raise a child. I figured if we could make it through the first few months when she was so tiny and only able to eat, poop, and cry, then the rest would figure itself out.
Then when my daughter became a toddler, suddenly I was the one in the store with a child having an emotional outburst because they didn’t get the magical unicorn sparkle cereal. If you’ve never been in that situation, I have to wonder if you’ve ever taken your child to the store? Whether it’s at the park, preschool, the library, the airport, or the grocery store, the dreaded public tantrum is bound to happen.
The first step in supporting your child’s developing emotion regulation capabilities is to understand what most children are actually capable of doing. Next, we need to figure out what is actually happening when our child is having a tantrum or displaying unacceptable behavior. We need to analyze the cause—is the problem really that they can’t get their shoe on without help, or is it something else? Once we understand this, then we can figure out what to do about it. Sometimes this may just involve being more OK with crying. At other times, we can work with our child to solve the real problem.
Related reading: Research-Backed Ways to Thrive through the Toddler Years
What’s Developmentally Appropriate for Emotional Regulation?
Remember when your 4-month-old screamed wildly about how hungry they were while you were in the kitchen getting a bottle ready? No matter how many times you told them to hold on for just one more minute, they kept screaming.
Most of us realized even in the midst of the crying that telling our 4-month old that food was on the way was not going to put a stop to the noise. When our expectations don’t match our child’s emotional capabilities, they won’t be consistently met.
For example, if we tell our 2.5-year-old not to go in the street 20 times, we may expect them to remember that they are not allowed to go in the street the next day–and we would be disappointed. Impulse control develops over time as brain structures develop.
At 2.5, you might see a child start to go in the street and then “catch” themselves and correct their behavior (on a good day, when they aren’t Hungry, Angry, Tired, Lonely, or Tired), but they can’t resist impulses consistently – and yet a survey of 2,200 parents conducted by Zero to Three found that 56% thought this skill is one a child should have by age 2, and 18% thought a child should be able to do it by six months of age!
At 3 or 4 a child may be able to remember not to play in the street for longer than a few minutes, but their toy rolling into the street or the arrival of an ice cream truck will probably cause a strong enough reaction to make them completely forget the rule.
Before we tell our child off for something we’ve told them not to do a hundred times, we have to consider the level of control we are expecting. Expecting a 2.5-year-old to consistently stay out of the street when playing outside is about as likely as your 4-month-old waiting calmly because you told them their food was almost ready. We need to plan for the developmental ability of our child so we don’t feel frustrated when they physically aren’t capable of meeting our expectations.
What’s the Real Trigger for an Emotional Outburst?
When your child is kicking, screaming and having an emotional outburst about a problem that seems incredibly minor to you, it is entirely possible that the real problem has very little connection to the thing that seemed to cause the tears. A child may be inexplicably devastated or furious their sandwich is cut into triangles instead of rectangles. As their parent, you may feel embarrassed or angry about their reaction. What is going on? Being disappointed about a sandwich that is cut differently is perhaps understandable (maybe?), but this reaction is way over the top. If you can take a deep breath and get your own emotions back under control, it will help to consider the underlying causes of this outburst.
In the mental health field, the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, or tired) is used to remind adults to stop what they are doing before they feel too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, since these feelings can lead to poor decisions and difficulty managing our own emotions.
Every parent has seen how their child’s behavior changes when they are hungry or tired. Oftentimes, when a child is angry about one situation, they transfer that anger to other situations. We’ve also seen how children sometimes misbehave to get attention—this is one way children express that they are lonely.
Some children are very sensitive to changes. These children may have trouble managing their emotions when their routines are changed. Transitioning from one thing to another can also be difficult for these children. When their routine is off, or they are told they need to stop one activity and move to the next one these children feel out of control, making them more prone to an emotional outburst.
Related reading: Research-Backed Ways to Discipline Toddlers without Yelling
One other point that I think is important to note is sensory processing. This is often associated with autism or sensory processing disorder, but sensory issues can impact all of us. Lots of flashing lights, noises, irritating textures, or strong smells can throw a child off-balance. Sometimes children who are always moving feel compelled to do this to keep their proprioceptive or vestibular systems in balance. If a child who needs to move is in a situation where they are required to be still, it can make them feel out of balance and quicker to lose their temper and devolve into an emotional outburst.
When children feel uncertain about the future, they may have trouble regulating their emotions. A few weeks ago I wrote about 12 Signs of Anxiety—and What to Do About Them. Many of the signs of anxiety can look like misbehavior, so it’s important to consider your child’s behavior through this lens.
Is a Crying Child Always a Problem?
If your child is crying, you’re likely to feel stressed out, especially if there are other people present or you are trying to complete a challenging task. You probably wonder why your child is flexible and cheerful when they are at school, but yells and cries frequently at home. Is it something you’re doing wrong?
If we value independence, self-fulfillment, and authentic expression of emotions based on autonomy, it doesn’t make sense to tell children to stop crying. When we do tell them to stop crying, the contradiction is confusing for children. We’re giving them mixed messages.
If instead we allow our children to feel sad and work through their emotions with our support, we’re helping them to develop the tools they need to succeed in our (Western) culture with its high value on autonomy. Learning this process of working through feelings forms the basis of emotional regulation in early childhood that will continue to mature into adulthood.
Although we may feel stressed by the ‘scene’ our child is creating, that doesn’t mean that the crying is a problem that needs to be stopped as quickly as possible.
If we tell our children, “you’re ok,” and discourage crying, we’re teaching them to suppress their feelings. It’s far better, in the long-run, to reappraise our feelings. We can teach our children to do this by treating them with empathy. At first this may actually lead to louder, harder crying. Our children are feeling understood and that gives them permission to feel even more deeply.
The crying may be making you, the adult, feel uncomfortable. It hurts to see your child in pain, but trying to force our child to stop crying we’re teaching them how to stuff their feelings down and ignore them because the people around them don’t want to see their negative emotions.
Keep in mind that (despite what our culture tells us), emotions are not inherently inferior to reason and logic. By focusing on the mental experience of emotions (strategies like ‘name it to tame it,’) we’re probably missing out on half the story.
The emotions we feel are often connected to physical sensations, and we need to pay attention to these signals our body is trying to convey. The more we stuff our emotions down, the more we’re disconnecting from our body, which means that many of us go through most of our lives completely unaware that our bodies are trying to give us information about our experiences. Our bodies may be feeling stress that we never know how to identify or resolve, which can lead to health problems down the road. We can save our children from these kinds of experiences by accepting all of their emotions today – even the ones we find uncomfortable.
How to Respond in the Midst of an Emotional Outburst
We can acknowledge that big feelings are acceptable and that it is ok to get upset, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy (for us!) to cope with an emotional outburst when it occurs.
How we respond is important. If you haven’t read Amy’s post about research-based ways to respond when toddlers have big emotions, I highly recommend it. Amy advises we resist the impulse to punish or minimize the problem. Yes, the problem is small in your mind. You’ve had many more life experiences to give you perspective. Your child’s experiences are far more limited, so the problem really seems monumental to them. You’ll want to implement strategies that will help comfort your child like creating a calm down spot and focusing on “time-in” (with you) rather than an isolating “time out.”
Related reading: Simple but Effective Calming Strategies Every Family Should Know
Even though the problem may seem insignificant, we must respond with empathy. This doesn’t mean we won’t set limits on behavior or that the child will always get what they want. We can show them that we understand how much they want to play with their brother’s new toy while still remaining firm that grabbing it out of his hands was unacceptable.
Strategies to Try during an Emotional Outburst
- Deep Breathing
If your child is worked-up to the point where conversation is impossible, try modeling deep breathing. You’ll eventually want to teach them deep breathing, and you may want to have visual cues encouraging it in the calm-down area, but simply making your own breathing deep and slightly audible will usually cause your child to mimic your breathing without any direct encouragement. I’ve used the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique with both adults and children – it works because it gets you out of your thoughts and reconnected with your sensory experience. My six-year-old will actually ask to do this exercise when she’s feeling dysregulated.
Once your child is calming down, you can use that time to reconnect with them. This is a good time to calmly remind them or reteach coping skills without judging them for not having used them already. Encourage your child to identify the physical part of their feeling – maybe their anger feels like racing thoughts, or their fear feels like a heavy ball in their stomach. This helps them connect with their body and pay attention to the signals it’s sending.
Don’t push the reconnection phase. Wait until they are ready to talk. Some children bounce back very quickly; others take much longer.
- Meet Physical Needs
If they are struggling, you could suggest some ways for them to calm down, which usually works best if it isn’t really presented as a suggestion. For example, drinking some cool water will usually help my daughter calm down, but if I say, “Do you want a drink of water?” She’ll usually refuse to respond or say “no.” If I just get a cup of water and set it down on a nearby table, she’ll usually get up and drink it.
If you know that music can help your child calm down, you can just turn on something they usually find calming rather than asking. If they really don’t want the music on, they’ll let you know and you can just turn it off.
- Physical Activity
Other things that may help include physical activity, petting your cat or dog, taking a bath, napping, or even alone time. It’s important that the alone time is not used as a punishment, it’s just a way to respect your child’s preference. My daughter has told me that when she’s upset, she specifically does not want me to follow her to her room – I am to wait until she comes to me. Whether your child prefers alone time, blowing bubbles, or taking deep breaths, these are all valuable strategies to calm ourselves when we’re ready – without needing to suppress our emotions.
You Aren’t Alone!
A child’s emotional outburst is tough for every parent. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, in fact, it can be a sign of good parenting.