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Why is my child struggling to manage their emotions?

Have you ever been in the situation where your child has an over-the -top reaction to something that to you seems quite trivial? Knowing how the brain works can help you understand what is going on and how to handle these tricky times.

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

Have you seen your child scream and shout, run off, ignore what you are saying including your pleas to “calm down” or tell you “what’s wrong?”. Are they being rude, acting very differently to their usual self?

Last week, my own child experienced such a moment when another child accused him of cheating at sports day. In his mind this was an injustice and his response lead to him refusing to join in, shouting, screaming, refusing to listen to and follow the teacher’s instructions and running off from them as they approached. This is very different to his usual behaviour and I think the teacher was taken aback. Consequently we were asked to collect him from school.

So how does understanding how the brain works help us? In very simple terms, our mind contains three brain areas, each with different functions:

  • The brain stem – not a lot of thought happens here, this part of the brain regulates our heart rate, breathing and temperature.

  • The emotional brain – responsible for behavioural and emotional responses in general and for those that are linked to our survival.

  • The thinking, rational brain – responsible for thoughts, reasoning, planning and logic.

The body’s alert system is located in the emotional brain. It is designed to recognise danger and respond to keep us safe. When the alert system is triggered, it gets the body ready to run off (flight), if that is not possible it prepares us to fight and if that is not possible to play dead (freeze). When the alert system is triggered the thinking, rational brain is in effect turned off. The human mind considers tasks like logic and planning non-essential to survival in a moment of crisis. This is really helpful if you are facing a real life-threatening danger, but this can be problematic if your child is triggered into fight, flight or freeze mode when there is actually no significant present danger, like my son during sports day.

What fight mode can look like:

  • Arguing or being defiant

  • Verbal aggression – swearing, name calling, threatening others

  • Physical aggression –hitting, kicking, punching, throwing things

  • Talking back

What flight mode can look like:

  • Fidgeting

  • Avoiding contact with others

  • Running away

What freeze mode can look like:

  • Holding breath

  • Not speaking

  • Refusal to do anything

  • Refusal to make eye contact

These survival responses can be triggered by seemingly small external events or by internal thoughts such as “other children don’t like me”. Remember if you child is in a fight, flight or freeze state, their logical thinking brain is in effect offline. All they will be aware of is the physical responses of heart racing, palms sweating, feeling tense, maybe trembling and a sense of panic. Therefore, in any of these states they will not be able to make use of your requests to stop and think, to reflect on what they are doing and why and to make choices to behave differently. This can look like your child is being deliberately naughty or rude.

So what can you to do help your child in these moments?

When you see significant reaction, ask yourself could this be a flight, fight or freeze response? If you think that might be the case, the aim is to help your child regain a sense of safety, to calm their emotional brain so their thinking brain can come back online and gain more control over the survival response. You can do this by taking the following steps:

  1. Let them know they are okay and you will stay with them. Remember the thinking brain is not available in these moments so use simple words, don’t tell them to stop or they will have a consequence, or they need to think about their behaviour. They will not able to make use of these requests and so it won’t have the effect you desire. This can leave you concluding, wrongly, that you child is making the wrong choices and are somehow being naughty.

  2. Regulating breathing can help. In particular, breathing out a little longer than breathing in sends a calming signal to the body. I like to help children imagine a cupcake with a candle on top. You imagine breathing in the smell of the of cupcake (for me freshly baked vanilla, with vanilla icing, yum) for a count of 1…2…3 and then blow out the candle for a count of 1…2…3…4. If you practice this with your child at a calm time you will be ready to prompt your child to do “cupcake breathing” when they are moved into a flight, flight or freeze state.

  3. Ask them to do physical movements which involve both sides of the brain to encourage the thinking brain to come back online. This can include:

    • star jumps

    • gentle walking

    • drumming

    • Throwing, catching a ball

    • Clapping alternative hands with another (playing pat-a-cake)

4. Some of these strategies will work better for some children and situations than others. It is worth giving them a try and noticing how they work for your child. You can then develop a smaller list of the strategies that you work well for your child.

5. After the incident has passed completely and your child is no longer being triggered, you can start a gentle conversation about what lead to the fight, flight, or freeze response, what they felt in their body just before it happened, and what techniques worked for calming them quickly and what they can do in the future if this happens.

Remember all emotions are legitimate and valid and if triggered into fight, flight or freeze your child is not being deliberately naughty, they are simply in survival mode. When they regain a sense of safety and calm it is possible to have positive conversations about this and overtime help them to understand and manage these responses themselves.

Children's abilities to manage these survival responses develop naturally as they grow older from frequent toddler tantrums to less frequently seen "melt downs". As parents we can support and guide our children to foster their emotional regulation skills. They are such valuable skills to have and I think we all know some adults who continue to struggle to understand and manage their emotional responses.

In my next blog I will be expand on the ways you can develop you child’s ability to understand and manage their survival responses.

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