The Tot Q&A: How to manage your child’s big emotions

Tot Expert & Professional Counselor and Play Therapist Laura McLaughlin of Head First Dallas answers your most pressing questions

Teaching children how to manage their emotions is one of the biggest and most challenging tasks of parenthood. From tantrums to meltdowns to total anxiety and withdrawal, many parents have seen it all and struggle with knowing what to say or do to help de-escalate the situation and calm things as quickly as possible (especially when it happens out in public!). Luckily there are a few tips and techniques you can use to help your children learn the skills to manage their big emotions and respond in more appropriate ways.

Q: How do you stay consistent? Sometimes I think the tantrums are from tiredness. But sometimes they seem to be more intentionally disobedient.

A: Being consistent is often the hardest part! You are absolutely correct in the fact that tantrums usually occur when the toddler is tired, but also when parents are tired too (and your patience and empathy goes right out the window!). I often tell my parents about the acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). Any time a child is experiencing one of these, expectations for their behavior goes way down, and the focus should be on getting the immediate need met (i.e., put straight to bed, given a snack, given attention, soothe their anger by validating their feelings). To help with consistency, think of HALT first and get those needs met, and if that doesn’t work you can always fall back to removal from the situation if the child is being disobedient. DM me @headfirstdallas if you have more questions!

Q: My 15 month old grabs and bites other children when she’s having strong emotions (good or bad). She’s been doing it for 6 months… What’s the best way to handle this as she gets older?

A: This is a common struggle kids have with any big emotions – how to release them appropriately. I recommend going with a firm limit about safety: “People are not for hitting or biting.” I would say this as you physically stop her from hitting or biting others (if you can be close enough with supervision to intervene as she is about to do it or while she is doing it). If you only find out after the fact, state the firm limit “People are not for hitting or biting” and let her know that if she chooses to hit or bite others that she is choosing to leave wherever it is you are (the playground, daycare, playdate, etc) for the rest of the day. After the limit for safety is set and she is no longer in the active state of grabbing, hitting, or biting other children, then you can come up with ideas for how she can show she is excited, angry, mad, etc. Hope that helps! DM me at @headfirstdallas if you need more specifics!

Q: My 33 month old cries (sometimes real tears) when she doesn’t get what she wants. She’s our only child and gets a lot of attention ALL the time. I’m afraid of spoiling her, but love her beyond comprehension and have a hard time standing my ground. 

A: It’s so hard to see their tears, right?! Especially when you can sense that they are real and see how big her emotions are and how much she is hurting. The best thing to do in these moments is to validate and reflect her feelings (“you are really upset right now, I know how badly you wanted that, you are very sad that we have to leave, etc). Don’t try to fix things or solve it for her – just be with her in the emotion. When you are able to respond in an empathic but calm manner without escalating with her, you are acting as a co-regulator of her emotions and are effectively teaching her how to manage her emotions. I know it’s easy to give in and give her what she wants to stop the crying, but teaching her how to manage her sadness, disappointment, anger, or frustration will be a much better gift in the long run! On a positive note, once she gets closer to 36 months she will transition to a new developmental stage and will have better control over her emotions – so hang in there for now!

Q: My 2.5 year old has started throwing mini fits at home. They’re not that big a deal. I’m incline to ignore him and not validate his behavior. Should I be engaging and correcting him though?

A: Welcome to the “terrible twos”! This stage typically hits right at 2.5yrs, so he is right on target for his behavior. As hard as this stage is, it’s necessary for children to go through because it teaches them new skills and how to manage big emotions (which usually lead to the fits while he is still working on developing these skills). As contrary as it may seem, engaging and correcting is usually the best path at this stage, as children need to be taught how to manage emotions and control their behavior (it’s not something they just learn when they get to a certain developmental or chronological age). The best method for this age is to be a clear and concise as possible – try to set the limit on behavior in as few words as you can so your child can hold it in his mind. State the limit (toys are not for throwing, people are not for hitting, we do not scream inside, etc) and then offer choices (you can use this toy instead, you may ask me again without screaming, etc). If the behavior continues, remove him from the situation until the fit is over and then try again. Best of luck! DM me @headfirstdallas if you have more questions!

Q: How do I handle it when my toddler doesn’t want to listen and drops down to the floor like a dead alligator crying? Typically I try and explain things then either walk away or tell her ‘I’m picking you up now’ and then try to comfort her. 

A: When a toddler is on the floor and crying, that’s usually a sign that she is dysregulated and not able to use the logical part of her brain. Any attempt at reasoning, explaining, or providing information isn’t useful when she is in this state, as she is primarily using the lower, more primitive and emotional part of her brain. When this happens, jump right to the comfort part! Non-verbal forms of comforting are the best – firm hugs, rocking, or using your facial expressions to validate her feelings of being upset. There may absolutely be times too when you do just need to pick her up and carry her away – if she is crying on the ground she is showing you that she cannot handle being in this particular environment right now, and needs to be removed to calm her body (which you will help her do through the non-verbal soothing methods). Try calming and soothing her physical body first, before any explaining or rationalizing. Let me know how it goes! DM me @headfirstdallas if you have more questions!

Q: My 2yr old cries big tears almost every morning when it’s time to drop him off in his classroom and on Sundays at church. We try to keep the routine the same every morning but what can I say to him that will encourage him to have a good day and that I will return to pick him up? I’m looking for something that would help me too. For example this morning my heart was crushed just hearing him cry and seeing his big tears. (And he is my second child, so I’ve been through this before.)

A: That is such a hard one! Those big tears are very real for him. I would recommend validating his feelings, and then doing some quick non-verbal comforting and soothing. Start by reflecting “I see how sad you are to be apart – I’m sad to leave you too!” Couple this with a big hug and comforting, positive touch (rubbing his back, rocking him gently, etc). After validating his sad feelings, set the limit that it is time to go to school or church now, and that you will be back to get him as soon as you can. In these moments, it’s more about the connection and validating his feelings then explaining when you will be back. The goal is to help him manage his sad feelings and learn to work through them, and validating will do just that!

Q: Is it worth it trying to reason with a 3 year old who cannot tell me why she’s crying or acting out? It’s been happening at night. She will cry, very upset, but cannot say why, just wants to be held. Is it worth it to reason with her when she acts out? Explaining why her behavior is not appropriate?

A: The short answer is no – trying to reason with a 3 yr old in general won’t get you very far. At this age, children do not have the brain development or insight to be able to articulate their feelings or the reasons behind those feelings on their own, and must learn these skills through parents identifying and validating their feelings for them. It’s very likely true that she does not understand why she is crying and asking her to do so is perhaps just above and beyond where she is developmentally. In these moments the best approach is to help her regulate her feelings and calm her body. Holding her, hugging her, rocking her, and reflecting her feelings (You are really sad/upset/scared/angry right now) is exactly what she needs! This will allow her to learn to manage these emotions and gain better control over them so they are not as overwhelming in the future. Focus on helping her calm her body and feel protected, safe, and loved. Let me know how it goes!

Q: My 21 month old will start acting out and being very disobedient as soon as I stop giving him ALL my attention. I stay home with him and we usually play, talk, he “helps” with house chores, but as soon as I start doing something he can’t be involved in (like cooking) he goes crazy trying to get my attention by doing the things he knows he shouldn’t do. How can I help him understand and stay “calm” for the time I need to be doing some of the chores that he’s not included in? We will welcome our second boy in August, so he gets jealous and starts crying when my husband and I are touching the growing belly. We also include him a lot in this practice, but sometimes we have spontaneous intimate moments just us “three” (for a few seconds actually, it’s very casual) and our oldest gets really upset and doesn’t even want us to hold him. What can we do?

A: Children love attention from parents more than anything, so it often creates a problem when parents have to give their attention to other tasks, and especially when a new baby comes. This will likely be a very difficult transition for your son, so working on helping him adapt before as much as possible will be beneficial (like you have been trying to do!). One trick that can help with his need for your attention is a skill called the 30 Second Burst of Attention. To do this, get down on the child’s level by squatting down, and excitedly ask them to show/tell you what they are excited about and give your full and undivided attention for 30 seconds. After the 30 seconds, set the limit that “I have to get back to making dinner/cooking/cleaning, etc” and let the child know they can check back in with you in 10 minutes (use a timer for this if needed depending on the age). Stand up and return to your other task. If your child continues to demand your attention, redirect them back to the timer/clock and re-state the limit that they can come back to show you when the timer is over. Hopefully this will help him manage his emotions when he is not able to get all the attention and time from you he wants. Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Q: My 38 month old lashes out as a reflex when angry e.g just for saying no to her she will hit and kick. When she is calm, we talk about it and she even says that she won’t hit anymore but it really is like a reflex when she gets angry?

A: Good insight! It very much so is like a reflex, as your daughter does not yet have the brainpower to control her impulses and articulate her feelings, so instead they come out through hitting and kicking. To help her learn how to identify and state how she’s feeling as opposed to just solely acting on it, verbalize and communicate her feelings with her in the moment. When she is told ‘no’ and begins to hit or kick, state “You are mad because you wanted _____.” This will help her label her internal feeling of being angry. Once she is able to label and identify it, she will be able to control her responses better. This skill takes lots of time to practice, so keep at it and eventually she will be able to control the impulse to hit or kick when she is mad. Keep up the great work of talking to her when she is calm – this will help reinforce the positive behavior that you want her to model when she is mad.

Q: My 2.5 yo old is very into throwing things, hitting and kicking. We read the book Hands are not for hitting and he knows it hurts. We have tried timeout but that does not seem to work on him. Open to any tips. Thanks so much.

A: Stick with it! 2.5 is a difficult age and is the start of the terrible twos, so these behaviors are common for this age and it takes practice for kids to learn how to control their emotions and behaviors. Books are great, so continue to read those, but have realistic expectations surrounding how much they can help. Children typically don’t develop empathy until they are about 3.5 years, so the book is more of a reminder of the rules rather than expecting him to learn how his hitting affects and hurts others. In terms of discipline, rather than Time Outs (which you are correct in that they don’t usually work), my recommendation is to remove him from the situation when he does any inappropriate or unsafe behavior and go with him to a calm down area. With you being present with him, use non-verbal calming and comforting techniques (hugging, holding, rocking, etc) to help him regulate his physical body and impulses. Once he is calm, then you can reflect his feelings and set the limit around his behavior (things are not for throwing, people are not for hitting). Focus first on calming and validating his feelings, then redirect the behavior. DM me @headfirstdallas if you need more specifics!

Q: My almost three year old will wince when playing at the playground if another child runs by and has anxiety about many social settings. She will throw tantrums and wants to be held/coddled but I don’t want to give in to her behavior because I don’t want to encourage it. Is this the right move?

A: This is another tough one. While we do want her to develop resiliency, it’s definitely important that she also feels soothed, comforted, and safe when her anxiety is high. I would recommend continuing with the comforting and safe hugging and holding when she is upset, as this will help calm her the quickest and reduce her anxiety. While you are holding her during these upset times, validate and acknowledge her feelings as well. Articulate to her what made her so upset – ‘you get scared when there are a lot of people around’, ‘that frightened you when the other kid brushed up against you’, etc. Labeling her anxiety and fears will help make them less overwhelming and all consuming, and will begin to help her learn how to manage and control her feelings. Through doing this, you may notice that she is able to be calmed much quicker and will need to run to you less and less as she develops the internal ability to regulate her emotions – but she must first learn this skill with your help and patience. Good luck! DM me @headfirstdallas if you have more questions.

Q: We have a 3 year old daughter, middle child who we feel is whining all day long, about everything! Everything is an issue with her and if she hears the word ‘no’ she instantly starts to cry or yell. It’s exhausting for the whole family. We really feel at our wits end with her behavior. I am worried I am not giving her enough of what she needs in some way… Any advice would be helpful!

A: What a tough situation! 3 yr olds can be very difficult due to the developmental stage they are in, and on top of that she is having to manage sharing your attention and love with both older and younger siblings. My first go-to is to focus on positive connection and attention with her. The more love and affection she feels from you the better overall she will feel. The better children feel on the inside, the better their outward behaviors are. By focusing on positive connection and spending positive time with her, she will be able to hold these moments in her mind and it will make it more bearable the rest of the time when you have to be elsewhere or when she is told ‘no’. Sometimes children just need to feel a little more love and connection to gain better control over their emotions. The main thing we want to avoid is for her to internalize being a bad kid or being the problem child. Focusing on positive connection with her will prevent this and help her build herself up from the inside, out.

Q: My 17 month old fights diaper changes and putting on clothes and will slap me in the face while I try to do these things. She has also started slapping herself in the face. It seems like she is trying to get a reaction out of me. She does this anytime she gets frustrated. I don’t know if I should ignore it or try to tell her to be gentle. If I tell her to stop, she does it more and will start hitting anything around her. She also hits herself in the face after she falls down or gets hurt in some other way. She can be very sweet other times and likes to kiss and hug a lot. I’m at a loss.

A: I understand your concern with this one, as it’s scary to see your child hitting herself. We definitely don’t want her to develop this as one of her coping strategies, so rather than ignoring it, I would intervene and set limits around the behavior for safety. Setting the general limit of “People are not for hitting” communicates not only appropriate social behavior of not hitting others, but also communicates that she is important too, and that she is not for hitting or hurting – even if she is doing it to herself. When she hits, gently grab her hand and prevent her from doing it while stating the limit that people are not for hitting. Adding in a verbalization of her feelings during these times can be helpful too. When changing diapers and it happens, reflect how much she does not want her diaper changed right now and how mad she is that you are holding her down, but then calmly state that she is not for hurting and hold her hand for as long as it takes for her to soften her body and stop hitting herself or others. As she gets older she will be more able to verbalize and identify her feelings, but for now it seems that she is releasing it in a physical way by hitting herself. Keep helping her to be safe, and with growth and maturity she will be able to use her words more than her actions. Let me know if this helps, and DM me @headfirstdallas with any additional questions!

Q: How about older kids — ages 6 to 8? Ignores family rules (For example, no reading until after breakfast and ready for school), then melts down when we enforce them.

A: Hang in there! Kids need complete consistency when it comes to enforcing rules. They need to be able to predict exactly what will happen, with consistency, when they break rules. The one time you give in will come back to haunt you! Keep enforcing those rules – eventually they will learn that the meltdown doesn’t change the outcome or get them what they want and they will abandon the fight. Try to be as empathic as possible while setting the limits by validating their wish or desire (“I know you love reading that book, but books are not for reading until after you are ready for school) and enforce the rules and consequence after the connection and validation has been stated first. Stick with it and have 100% consistency! It will save you in the long run.

Q: My 23 mo old refuses to go to sleep. She cries, kicks, bites. We tried keeping her up until she was tired but found her going to sleep at 9:30-10pm and still she was mad when we put her down in her crib. Now we have her in her room at 7:30pm to start winding down – but she’ll throw a fit before finally passing out. We always give her a bath before bed, rock her to sleep, read her (many) books and sing her a song. But she doesn’t want the party to end…what are we doing wrong? We want bedtime to be peaceful not painful. Thank you for your help.

A: This one may be better suited for a sleep consultant but I will help how I can! My best recommendation would be to try to hit bedtime before she is overly tired, as this exacerbates everything – 7:30 sounds much better, but you may even need to move it up more. Have as many positive, peaceful activities around bedtime as you can, such as the rocking, singing songs, and reading books. Don’t go too lenient with these though. I would not recommend unlimited books or songs, but rather set a limit to 3 and stick with it. With consistency, she will learn to love the routine and predictability of 3 books and 3 songs then bedtime. Once you set the limit of it being time to go to bed, stick with it as much as possible and don’t give in to another book or song. If you do, you have just reinforced her to push back and try to negotiate or use negative tactics to get what she wants (crying, biting, kicking). I would also try to articulate her underlying motivation of wanting to spend more time with you. Try something along the lines of “I know how much you love our special time together at night, and wish it would never end!” Sometimes just having their desire or intention acknowledged and verbalized for their own understanding helps tremendously in terms of getting their buy in to then follow the limit of it being bedtime and fun time is over. Good luck!

Q: My 33 month old hurts her younger sister but not out of anger. When she gets over excited or to get a reaction out of me. I try to stay calm and tell her that’s not playing safely and she hurts Nora when she hits, pushes, tackles, etc. but she just keeps doing it over and over and over again. Then she will have a meltdown if I set a limit and she breaks it for example, ‘if you push your sister again you will have to leave the playroom’. She will then immediately push her sister then get hysterical when I remove her from the playroom. I am expecting baby #3 in two months and need some tools to help cope with this behavior.

A: This is a tough one! She is still in the disequilibrium phase that lasts from about 2.5yrs-3yrs, so you should naturally see some relief when she matures around the age of 36 months. In the meantime, keep doing what you are doing! Set the limit that if she pushes again she will have to be removed, and then continue to remove her and stay with her in a separate area while she calms her body. Positive reinforcement of good behavior can help with this too. Be sure to give her lots of attention when she is doing what you want. If her underlying need is attention from you, make the focus on her positive rather than negative attention. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, don’t ignore the negative behavior. She needs help working on self control and correcting her behavior, and needs your help to learn how to do so by being removed and regaining control of her impulses.

Q: My almost 3 yo cries big tears about everything (mostly from frustration, like not being able to get a dress on over her head…). I will tell her to stop crying and that now has resulted in her saying, “Mommy I don’t cry”, when she is in nervous situations I.e school drop off, new places/ new people etc. How do I teach her it’s ok to cry and be nervous in some situations but not to have big crying outburst about small frustrations?

A: The best approach in these situations is to acknowledge and validate her feelings. This will teach her that it’s ok to feel whatever she is feeling, but sets limits that certain behaviors may not always be ok. As a rule of thumb, crying is a natural way children express emotions and should not be shamed or asked to stop. Once she feels comforted and validated by you understanding her emotions and communicating them to her, she should be able to stop crying on her own. Try something along the lines of “I see how upset that made you,” or “You were really trying to get that over your head and it didn’t work.” Use a very calm, accepting, and empathic tone while saying this to communicate acceptance and understanding of her feelings. To kids, all frustrations seem like huge things, and it’s difficult for them to separate small things from big things, so we have to respond on their level as if everything is big. Try it out and see if she is more quickly able to be soothed and does not get overwhelmed or as upset.

Q: How do I give orders without threats to my toddler so he will do what he is supposed to, I’m getting out of resources on how to make him eat, bath, dress, etc

A: When they are given as orders, it sets you up to be the big, bad parent that always bosses him around and tells him what to do. Instead, try stating them as family rules. This way they are common rules and everyone has the same expectations surrounding eating, bathing, and dressing. Rules such as in this family we all eat dinner together at the table, or a bath is to be taken every night before bed, can be consistently enforced with all family members to increase buy in and willingness from children. Also, rather than threats, try choices. If it’s time for a bath and he is refusing, instead of threatening him, give the choice of bubbles or no bubbles, bath first or brush teeth first, etc. The more control he feels he has by being offered two appropriate choices the less it will feel as if he is always being ordered around.