This week’s question is from Elizabeth,
“My son, who is 7 is still bursting into tears, yelling, stomping, and throwing things when he makes a mistake or doesn’t get his way. It’s hard for him to self-regulate when he has reached his red zone.”
In today’s Q&A, I’ll be talking about strategies that can help your child learn to regulate their emotions as they go through developmental phases that can be overwhelming and challenging. We are going to cover a lot of ground; some specific parenting strategies you can try in the moment, some longer-term strategies that are critical to success, and some big picture things to be thinking about in terms of the underlying cause.
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Tantrums are common for children when big feelings occur
- Tantrums are a common issue that parents deal with, especially if you have a child who struggles with attention issues, anxiety issues, mood, behavior, learning kinds of challenges
- Remember, all feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not
- As the parent, or the adult in this situation, it is your job to put some firm limits on what behavior comes out of your child’s feelings
- During the developmental stage, kids are still learning how to understand and handle their big uncomfortable feelings that they have like frustration, disappointment, shame, etc.
- With practice, we get better at tolerating uncomfortable feelings throughout our lives (hopefully!)
How to respond in the moment: think of empathy with firm limits and boundaries
- Step 1 – Stay calm to deescalate the situation
- Keep yourself calmer, more regulated, more in your thinking brain, and focused on the task at hand, as opposed to letting your mind and feelings run away with the kid and the situation
- Step 2: Use empathy
- Verbally acknowledge their feelings
- Tune in to what we think is really going on underneath this big reaction that they’re having and hone in on helping to bring their attention to what is really probably going on, i.e. the underlying feeling
- Step 3: Set firm boundaries around behavior
- Set a boundary around what you can control, such as “if you are going to yell, I will take you to another room. In reality, you cannot “control” what comes out of their mouth
- Don’t try and get into a yelling match
- Step 4: Stay present with the child
- Stay with or near the child, letting them continue to work through their dysregulation and upset
- If they get physical, create physical boundaries if needed, or give them space
Address behavior well after the outburst
- Typically, it is not helpful to rehash the outburst and teach lessons immediately after as their nervous systems are still in a very vulnerable space. Doing this often will result in sending them right back into dysregulation
- Instead, once the child has settled down, move on to whatever was supposed to be next
- If rehashing is necessary (sometimes it’s better just to move on), address in a time when you are both regulated
- Talk about what happened, what you noticed, and see if they have any ideas why the outburst happened
- Possibly review problem-solving skills or ask the child what would be helpful in those situations for them
Long term parenting strategies for addressing outbursts
- Children need practice outside of intensely emotional dysregulated moments on how to handle big emotions in order to be able to eventually use those tools in the heat of the moment
- “Preview and Review” ahead of time
- Previewing kids’ feelings can help inoculate them against it. It can help make them less thrown off by it in the moment
- If you know frustrated in specific situations, try to preview the situation with them ahead of time as if it actually is happening
- Reviewing to solidify what went well and talk about what could be done better afterwards
- If tantrums happen after a mistake is made, practice intentionally making mistakes
- Ex. Have them spell a word wrong, miss the basketball hoop, etc.
- This helps inoculate kids against these big feelings around making mistakes
- Safer way for them to practice with mistakes and feel okay about it
- Teach calming and regulatory strategies such as breathing, using a squeeze ball or some other physical stress-reliever, mindfulness activities and tools, or doing yoga together
Possible physiological issues triggering the tantrums
- Are they getting enough (quality) sleep?
- Is their blood sugar stabilized and are they getting a nutrient-dense diet?
- How is their digestion? Are they constipated?
- Do they have any physical pain or headaches?
- Are they dehydrated or just not drinking enough water?
- Are they having sensitivities or allergies or reactions to foods that they’re eating?
- What is their overall stress level?
- Any family, school, peer stressors?
- Is there enough physical movement?
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:59
Addressing Tantrums … 00:02:20
Responding in the Moment … 00:05:29
Addressing the Behavior … 00:11:52
Longer-Term Strategies … 00:14:21
Possible Physiological Issues … 00:20:14
Episode Wrap up … 00:23:13
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from a listener. I get lots of questions each week, and this gives me a great way to provide answers that many of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, just email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question. This question comes from Elizabeth, who writes: “My son, who is 7 is still bursting into tears, yelling, stomping, and throwing things when he makes a mistake or doesn’t get his way. It’s hard for him to self-regulate when he has reached his red zone.”
Well, Elizabeth, I can have a lot of empathy for you around this, and I think lots of other parents can too. This is a common issue that parents deal with, especially if you have a child who struggles with attention issues, anxiety issues, mood, behavior, learning kinds of challenges. This issue of being able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and regulate your behavior appropriately, it’s a tough one. It’s tough in general for 7-year-old kids. Kids in that developmental stage are still learning how to understand their big feelings that they have, how to handle things like frustration, disappointment, shame, all of those sort of intense, really uncomfortable feelings. And most kids at this stage of development are still needing support and continued practice around this. So hopefully that puts your mind at ease a little bit. And even if you’re the parent of a much older child who is still struggling with this, that’s okay. All of these things that I’m going to talk about are going to be helpful for you as well. So what are some of the big picture things to think about here?
One of the first things that comes to my mind is the idea that all feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not. So, this is getting at the idea that how your son is feeling is completely fine. If he is feeling embarrassed, if he’s feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, worried, whatever it might be, those feelings are fine. But all behaviors are not fine, which means that you as the parent or the adult in this situation are going to put some firm limits on what behavior comes out of your child’s feelings. So we’ll talk about that more in a minute. One of the other big picture things that is coming up for me in this situation is the need to build tolerance for feeling uncomfortable feelings and also skills for being able to calm yourself and to engage in problem-solving, perhaps, depending on what the situation is. This development of tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, we get better at it throughout our lives, hopefully, with practice, but that’s a really important one because uncomfortable feelings are a part of life. So building this tolerance or raising our kids’ thresholds for being able to manage those uncomfortable feelings, also coupled with building skills for calming and for problem-solving. So it’s important to recognize that this isn’t just going to happen without support and guidance. Kids absolutely do need our support, our teaching, our guidance, our modeling for this. They really need to be able to do this first with us before they do it on their own. So let’s also think about the fact that kids who have very limited tolerance for distress, for making mistakes, for problems that come up, often have some underlying physiological things going on as well. Not 100% of the time, but I find very often, kids with really low frustration tolerance, kids who really, really struggle with managing any amount of uncomfortable feelings or distress, often what’s going on is they don’t have much room in their cup to handle increased stressors. And what I mean by that is their threshold is already pretty maxed out by other things, underlying things that are going on, including physiological things. So there isn’t a lot of extra tolerance. They don’t have a lot of extra space to sort of manage or work through these kinds of uncomfortable situations that come up. I’ll talk more about some specifics with that in a moment, but I think it’s important to recognize that kids who have issues like chronic constipation or chronic headaches or maybe are having allergies or not absorbing nutrients from food well, so they have issues with that — Any of those kinds of underlying physical things reduce the brain and the body’s threshold for managing other stuff. So I just think it’s important to recognize that. Okay, so those are the big picture things.
Now, let’s talk about some specific strategies. So in the moment, how is it helpful to respond? Well, a lot of the same things that I talk about when I answer lots of these kinds of questions, it’s going to be important to stay calm. Your first job as the parent or the adult in this situation is as the child’s behavior and reaction and emotions are escalating, you want to work on de-escalating yourself, on keeping yourself more calm, more regulated, more in your thinking brain and focused on the situation and the task at hand, as opposed to letting your mind and feelings run away with the kid and the situation. So keeping ourselves regulated and staying calm is always going to be step number one in these situations.
It’s also going to be important to empathize with his feelings and what you think is going on. So that could sound like, “Oh, that didn’t go how you wanted it to go”, or “You feel really frustrated that you made a mistake”, or “I think you might be really mad that I said you can’t have more screen time.” Those kinds of things. We are kind of tuning into what we think is really going on underneath this big reaction that they’re having and honing in on helping to bring their attention to what is really probably going on. The underlying feeling of that. So he might be throwing the Lego thing that didn’t come together right, or tearing up his paper or whatever. And what we want to do is instead of focusing on that, we want to focus on what we think is going on underneath that. “You’re so frustrated that you just can’t get that math problem right”, or whatever it might be. So that’s the empathy part. That’s the acknowledging, that’s the helping kids to recognize what’s really going on and helping them to see that we get that. We understand that there’s something going on, that they’re having a big feeling, that they’re uncomfortable.
Okay, so that’s the first part. The second part though is to set firm boundaries around behavior, around what they’re actually doing. So yelling is fine, and yelling, you can’t do anything about because you can’t control what comes out of your child’s mouth, as much as you want to try to set limits and boundaries around that, you cannot control how loudly a child says things or what’s coming out of their mouth. A boundary is not saying “You need to quiet down, you can’t say those things, you need to stop yelling. That’s not a boundary, because you don’t have any control over it. The boundary would be “If you’re going to yell, I’m going to take you in the other room”, or you setting a boundary around what you can control. A boundary would be that you don’t respond to him when he’s yelling, you stay really calm and really quiet and don’t try to speak over him or get into a yelling match. So the boundary with things like yelling is what you can control, not trying to control what is coming out of the child’s mouth. Some other real appropriate boundaries in a situation like this could be moving him to a different area, maybe a quieter, less stimulating area. Maybe an area where siblings aren’t, especially if he has a tendency to maybe get physically aggressive or start saying awful things to the sibling or drag the sibling into it, or if you have another child who is easily distressed, a good boundary would be “I can see that you’re feeling really angry about this because I said no, I’m going to help you go to the other room so that we can work through this.” And with little kids, you can pick them up and move them if needed, with a 7-year-old, you may need to do a firm taking by the hand or sort of physically guiding. If a child is extremely aggressive, physically resistive or this is an older, much bigger child who is refusing to go to another space, you don’t want to get into a power struggle with that. You would then clear the general area, create some physical boundaries where you are, send other people to another space in the house or whatever, and you try to create an environment right there where you can better manage the situation. But in the case of a 7-year-old, typically, you say “I’m going to help you go into the other room where we can work through this.” Certainly, another boundary that you can set and control is removing items that could be damaged, so if there’s an item in the general area that you’re worried is going to get damaged or that he’s going to be aggressive towards moving that — so in general, setting these limits and enforcing these boundaries around what you can control in the environment to not allow this to continue to escalate, not allow him to get out of control and break things or harm people, those types of things.
Once you have that established, staying with him if that’s helpful, that can be a great approach here for kids that works. So maybe you bring them to their bedroom or to another space, and you stay in there, maybe just staying, sitting against the door, staying very quiet, very calm, letting him continue to work through his dysregulation and upset. If he’s becoming aggressive towards you, again, setting firm boundaries around that, “I won’t let you hurt me.” And that means holding onto his hands if needed, maybe even doing a firm hug with him facing away, so that he’s not able to kick or bite or those kinds of things. There are ways to create physical boundaries there, if needed. Another option for some kids, it’s best to give them a little bit of space to work through it. So you may wait on the other side of the door, and say “I’ll be right here. I’m going to give you some space”, if that’s what’s more helpful to your child, and let them work through it, and be right there and come in and out and check on them, or when they’re calm and able to handle somebody else’s presence again and feel okay about that, then you can go in. So you need to kind of know your child best in terms of what’s helpful, and sometimes you can try both ways and see. But again, the general idea here is it’s okay to feel angry, and I’m not going to allow you to break things or hurt me or whatever it might be. So this idea of empathy with firm limits and boundaries.
Now our tendency as parents or adults, teachers, therapists, whatever is to, once the child calms, immediately launch into talking about what lesson they should take from it or what they should do differently, or trying to rehash it. That can work sometimes with kids, but in general, it is not helpful to launch right back into it and rehash it and try to teach lessons immediately after they’ve calmed. Their nervous system is still in a really vulnerable place. They maybe have just sort of been able to get those big feelings and those physical reactions down to a level that feels more manageable, where they are a bit more regulated, but they are vulnerable. So, if we launch into it right away, for a lot of kids, that has the tendency to throw them right back into a dysregulated, over-reactive cycle. So I prefer to, once the child has calmed and they’ve worked through it and we’ve helped them settle, we just move on. We don’t make a big deal out of it, we don’t harp on it, we don’t try to talk about it at that time. We just move on with whatever is next. If there is restitution that needs to be made, fine. Say “You know, I’m going to help you pick up all these pencils that you threw” or “We’re going to take these papers and throw them in the trash” or whatever. But otherwise, you just move on and do not try to rehash the situation in that moment. Later on, when your child has been in a nice, calm, regulated space for a good amount of time, maybe it’s later that day, maybe it’s even the next day, you can then, when you’re feeling regulated and ready to address it, and you feel like your child is, too, if needed, you can review the situation with them. Now, it is not always needed. We do not have to turn every single one of these situations and incidents with our kids into some sort of teaching, lesson, rehashing situation. We really don’t. But if you feel like there is something there that needs to be revisited, or something that you want to discuss, that would be the time to do it well after. Talk about what happened, what you noticed, see if they have any ideas about what was really going on for them and then maybe review some different ways to problem-solve that, or even asking them “What would be helpful for me to do in those situations for you? Or how could we do that differently next time?” So that’s how you handle those situations in the moment.
Now, there are also longer-term strategies that I think are really beneficial for kids who struggle with this. Again, recognizing that all kids, especially of this developmental stage we’re talking about, a 7-year-old right now, struggle with this at times. But if you notice that this is a chronic issue for your kid, this isn’t just a once in a while thing when they’re overtired or whatever, this is a chronic problem that comes up, or you have an older child who is still really struggling with this, there are some bigger picture, longer-term strategies that can be helpful. One that I like is preview and review. So if you know that your child has a tendency to get really frustrated in certain situations, or maybe to not handle disappointment well, or that there’s a likelihood that a certain situation may bring up some of these big feelings, and then these behavioral kinds of challenges as a result, preview it ahead of time. Talk before going into it about, “Let’s think about this. How do we want to handle this? What has worked before? What can we anticipate? What might you feel?” Just even previewing kids’ feelings can help inoculate them against it. It can help make them less thrown off by it in the moment. “Oh, let’s think about the last time you went over to Joey’s house, this happened, and you felt so hurt by that” or “You felt so embarrassed by that. What if that happens again? Let’s think about that. What if this thing happens? How will you feel? What might come up for you? What are some ways you can respond?” This is an opportunity to preview some of the strategies, coping strategies that may be helpful, things like taking a break, taking deep breaths, whatever. So you’re previewing the situation, and then you’re going through if the situation actually happens, then after the fact, you can review and say “Okay, what worked? What didn’t? How did you handle this? What came up for you? What could we do differently next time?” So for these chronic situations, which you know are likely to elicit these big reactions in your child, preview and review. Pre-thinking about it beforehand and then thinking about it afterwards to sort of solidify things that went well and talk about what you could do differently next time. That’s a great strategy that works in so many situations with our kids.
I think also it can be helpful to practice making mistakes intentionally. Elizabeth said that one of the things that’s a big trigger for her child, she’s asking this question around, is that when he makes mistakes, when something doesn’t go perfectly, he gets instantly really, really distressed and dysregulated. So a great longer term strategy is to practice making mistakes intentionally. Come up with all the ways we can miss when we’re throwing the basketball into the hoop, or “We’re going to write this word out, and we are going to make 5 mistakes as we write it” or whatever it might be. Now that may sound kind of silly, but what it does is it helps inoculate kids against these big feelings around making mistakes. It’s a safer way for them to practice with mistakes and feel okay about it, but it’s a good entry point to taking the emotional power out of making mistakes or expecting perfection. So finding all kinds of fun ways to practice making mistakes, spotlighting your own mistakes when they come up. Talking around the dinner table, “Ugh, I made this mistake at work today. Here is what happened, and here is how I felt, here is how I dealt with it.” Even with young kids, we can do that in a really age-appropriate kind of way. If they’re in the kitchen with us and maybe we’re working on making lunch and we spill something, and we say “Ugh, I messed up, I spilled that. Shoot. That’s so frustrating. Let me get some paper towels and clean it up. Mistakes happen.” That type of thing, just spotlighting it. Not intentionally teaching anything but just sharing what’s going on in your mind, your thoughts and your feelings when mistakes come up. Just putting those out there for your child to be aware of.
And it can also be really helpful to teach some calming and regulatory strategies, and this can range from everything like teaching some breathing techniques, or using a squeeze ball or some other physical stress-reliever to using some mindfulness activities and tools, or doing some yoga together. Anything that promotes building the brain connections that allow for more space between having a feeling and responding to it. So many options there. There are all kinds of books, activities and techniques and so many great things out there to use with kids now and it’s more than we can get into in answering this question, but I think this is a longer-term important strategy for kids who have chronic issues with regulating their behavior around big, uncomfortable feelings. They need to be taught some strategies for self-soothing, for helping themselves to get their nervous system back in a more regulated state. So that can be lots of different things, but important to practice and important to make those a part of daily and weekly routines so they’re practicing with those when they’re not really distressed, because they need a lot of practice on it when they’re feeling okay and feeling settled and regulated, before they will be able to use those tools like deep breathing, like mindfulness, like grabbing a squeeze ball or thinking to do some jumping jacks or a physical activity in the moment. They need practice outside of intensely emotional dysregulated moments, in order to be able to eventually use those tools in the heat of the moment. So hopefully that makes sense.
Some other big picture things to consider real quick, just in terms of the physiological things that could be going on. Things that lower a child’s threshold for being able to cope with uncomfortable feelings, disappointments, anger, those types of things. Sleep is a big one to look at. Kids who are not getting enough good quality sleep, often have very low coping threshold for this stuff and are much more reactive in these kinds of situations. So I want to be looking at if this is a chronic kind of issue that I’m dealing with my child. Are they getting enough sleep? Are there some things we need to work on there? I’d also be looking at things related to the diet. Is their blood sugar stabilized? Are these incidents happening on a regular basis because their blood sugar is crashing, because they are on a blood sugar rollercoaster of lots of simple carbs and sugars and then crashing quickly and being really moody and irritable and not having a threshold high enough to be able to deal with this? Are they getting a nutrient-dense diet? Are they dehydrated? Are they just not drinking enough water? Are they having sensitivities or allergies or reactions to foods that they’re eating? That can lead to a lot of this sort of irritable, low threshold, low ability to handle frustrations or uncomfortable feelings. Looking at the overall stress level. What’s going on for the child in their life? Have there been a lot of family stressors, school stressors, peer stressors? Those kinds of things, again, they fill a kid’s cup really quickly and leave very little space for them to handle these kinds of things that come up in life. Are they getting enough movement? Movement is such a regulating thing for kids. Are they being too sedentary, are they getting enough physical movement? And then again, as I alluded to at the start of my response to this question, making sure that you’re looking at physical issues. Things like constipation, digestive discomfort, headaches, pain, allergies — anything that might be lowering his overall threshold to tolerate things in the moment and it’s important to recognize that all of those physiological things absolutely have a direct impact on a child’s ability, emotionally and behaviorally to stay regulated and handle things. All you need to do is think about the last time you weren’t feeling well, maybe if you’ve had issues ever with constipation or if you’ve not had enough sleep for a period of time, or maybe you’ve had a headache or just had a cold or weren’t feeling well — whatever it might be, think about your experience of that, and automatically you know, “Oh yeah, my threshold for tolerating much of anything was much lower,” right? “My threshold for being able to keep myself regulated and manage challenges, problems, discomforts, things that came up was much lower.” So that’s the premise behind recognizing the role that these chronic physiological kinds of things play, and making sure that we’re addressing those for kids.
Alright. So we covered a lot of ground with that, some big picture things to be thinking about, some specific strategies in the moment, and then some longer term strategies and ideas of how to address this for kids who chronically struggle with handling big feelings in more regulated ways. So, I hope that this is helpful for Elizabeth and for any of you who are dealing with intense behavior when your child feels frustrated or makes a mistake. Remember, if you have a question you would like to have answered on a future show, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, that will help my team sort through that. Thank you, as always, for being here and for listening, and I will catch you back here next time.