One afternoon in my counseling office, I was working with two boys. I told them if they played quietly while I spoke with their mother, they would each be able to choose something from the treasure box at the end of the session. They were terrific. So, as promised, I invited each to choose a treasure.
“Pick carefully,” I told them. “You don’t get to change your mind later.”
A few minutes after the younger boy had chosen an item, he asked if he could trade it for something else.
“No,” I said. “Remember: I told you to pick carefully.” His tantrum was instant. He started to cry. “Tantrums don’t work,” I cautioned.
He stopped, stared and said in a firm voice, “Yes. They. Do.”
Upstairs Brain, Downstairs Brain
The decision to throw a tantrum or give an angry response is a manifestation of what we call the “upstairs brain.” This is the area that contains the cerebral cortex and its various parts, including the middle prefrontal cortex behind the forehead. It’s where intricate mental processes take place – thinking, imagining, planning. It’s also where things like self-control, self-understanding and empathy develop.
With an upstairs brain outburst, a child may seem out of control, but they are able to stop the behavior. Not so with “downstairs brain,” which includes the brain stem and limbic system. This area is responsible for basic functions – breathing, blinking, fight or flight, and so on. It develops first so that the person will have a sense of survival. This part of the brain is well-developed from birth.
Upstairs brain, on the other hand, isn’t fully mature until a person reaches their mid-twenties.
When the upstairs brain is functioning, it’s a good time to give reasonable options – for instance, “You can wear the blue shirt or the red one.” If the child says, “But I want to wear the green shirt,” you acknowledge the child’s feelings and set limits on the behavior: “I know you’re disappointed because you want to wear the green shirt, but it’s very dirty. We can wash the green shirt and so you can wear it tomorrow.”
Downstairs Brain Emotional Outbursts
A person’s brain works best when the upstairs and downstairs parts of the brain are working together. But what if downstairs brain takes charge?
Downstairs brain emotional outbursts feel different. The child is emotionally triggered. The lower brain – particularly the amygdala – has hijacked the upper and now runs the show. Clear thinking is hard until the body is back under control.
In such moments, it’s helpful to simply acknowledge what your child is experiencing. You might say something like, “Your body is really upset right now. Let’s find a place where you can settle down.” Fewer words work best. It is difficult for anyone to listen when their body is charged.
What to Do When Emotions Get Big
- Listen. It’s what we all want when we’re triggered.
- Acknowledge the feeling and tell the child you’re sorry they are feeling so bad. Keep in mind that it’s like when they’re sick: They don’t want to feel this way.
- Avoid giving advice. They don’t want advice. They want to be understood.
- Give them space and time.
- Help the child find a place where they can have the feelings. You can ask “Where can you go right now to let those feelings out?”
- Join your child in the emotion – for instance, saying something like, “I can run with you to get the feelings out.”
- Develop strategies for emotion with them in advance, when they are not upset. Post a list of these strategies somewhere in the house so they’re available when your child is upset.
- Name it to tame it. It really is helpful to start naming feelings for your child early on in their life, using statements like, “It looks like you’re sad,” or “Sometimes we get disappointed when we don’t get our way.” Speaking out loud about your own experience can also help – things like “I get frustrated when you don’t help with your room,” or “Mom and Dad get frustrated with their work sometimes, too.” The main thing is to develop a “feeling language” in your family and say out loud what YOU do to help manage those feelings.
4 Tools for Managing Strong Emotions
Developing and practicing tools for managing emotions is critical. If a child doesn’t practice them during periods of calm, they will not be able to access them when upset and needing those skills.
On a similar note, when small dilemmas arise, allow your child to struggle. Resist any temptation to rescue them. Those smaller conflicts provide even more opportunities to practice skills that will be necessary in larger conflicts. If they say, “I can’t,” let them work at the task for a while. Assure them, “I have confidence in you. Try. And if you still can’t get it, I will help.”
Practice ways to release stress from the body – things like dancing, running, swimming or playing a wild game. Even something silly like the “noodle whacking game” – hitting each other with soft sport noodles – can be a great stress reliever!
Practice taking slow deep breaths to calm the nervous system. Meals and bedtime are great opportunities for doing so. Model these practices with your child.
- Positive Self-Talk
Have the child find some words that help when feeling frustrated. (In Yoga Calm kid’s classes, for instance, we have kids say, “I am strong. I am in control. I can do it. I can be responsible,” or – if a child is really struggling, “I am not ready for that,” or “I have not learned that yet.”) Hang these words somewhere and practice saying them together. Tell stories about when you needed to use strong words.
- Develop a List of Tools
Have the child help develop a list of immediate strategies for dealing with strong feelings of sadness or anger when they arise. When the child is upset, you can point to the list of strategies and ask which one they think will work best in the moment. For instance:When I am feeling mad or sad I can…
- Run around outside.
- Go to my room and listen to music.
- Use the breathing ball.
- Write down my feelings and share them with you when I’m ready.
- Jump on the trampoline.
- Pet my dog/cat.