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Big Emotions and Big Behaviours

How do I help my child with emotional regulation?

  • My son has a meltdown anytime I ask him to do his homework.
  • My daughter shuts down and freezes when she has to try anything new.
  • My son is lashing out when it’s time to get out for school.
  • My daughter gets so angry when she doesn’t get her way.

These are examples of some of the big emotions and big behaviours that parents have come to us for support. Their young person is finding it hard to manage their emotions and behavioural responses in the face of challenging situations. We are asked again and again – how do I help my child with emotional regulation? How do I help my child with their behaviour problems?

At ACT to Connect, when we see a young person exhibiting big emotions and big behaviours when faced with challenges, we don't see a child who is giving you a hard time, but a child who is having hard time. Our role is to help you, their parent, take a step back to figure out what’s going on - what’s the core problem for them underlying all those big behaviours and big emotions, what exactly is making it hard, what skills are they missing that could make it a little easier?

The journey to answering these questions will vary with every child so it would be impossible to give you an answer to this in one blog post. What we can do is give you a starting point, two steps you can take to gain a better understanding of why your child is exhibiting these behaviours and emotions. This can help point you in the right direction.

Step 1: “if your child could do well, he would do well”

This quote from Dr. Ross Greene (‘The Explosive Child’ and ‘Raising Human Beings’) is one of our guiding lights at ACT to Connect. By taking this perspective we can view that big behaviour or big emotion as an indication that something about the situation is making it difficult for your child to do well. Your child is not behaving or reacting in this way out of laziness, stubbornness or naughtiness, it is not happening because they want to, rather because in this moment they can’t do it in a more adaptive way. As a parent we can look in on the situation to see why they can’t and work with them to solve the problem.

For example, when Philip* is asked to get his homework out after school he often shouts, throws his schoolbag and items on the floor, hits out at his mum and refuses to start his work. After stepping back his mum realises that this happens most often when he has been given comprehension based homework. On further investigation she discovers that Philip finds it really difficult to read between the lines.

Check out Ross Greene’s books and the resources on his website for more information

Step 2: “what is happening right now is working for your child”

The behaviours and reactions we see happening often with our children are working to help them in some way right now. This may feel contradictive – in step 1 we’ve told you that your child is not behaving in this way because they want to, and now in step 2 we are telling you that they are behaving this way because it is working for them! The difference here is that it’s not a conscious decision. As we grow our brain and body learn to behave in ways that get us what we need. Those needs could be physiological (hunger, thirst), or related to safety or self-esteem among many other possibilities. If your child has been diagnosed with Autism or ADHD there will be another level of needs related to their neurodivergency. If our needs are being fulfilled, even if it’s through what could be labelled ‘challenging’ or ‘maladaptive’ means, if your child has no other more effective way of meeting that need, then that’s what they learn to do. By identifying those needs and supporting your child to meet them in other ways you can help them learn new ways to respond in those challenging situations.

For example, when Philip* is given comprehension homework (that he finds difficult) over time he has learnt that refusing to do his homework usually leads to either a delay in having to get started, or his mum giving up and telling him to forget about it so he doesn’t have to do it at all. He then heads to his bedroom to play. He avoids feelings of not being clever enough and gains feelings of relief. He avoids (or delays) having to do the difficult homework and gains access to a more preferred activity.

Philip has learnt that refusing to do his homework is an effective way to avoid uncomfortable situations in which he experiences failure or struggle. It’s not a conscious choice on his part – rather a connection that his brain has made over time that means it fires off the signals that this is the best course of action. His ‘fight/flight/freeze’ kicks into gear before he even has a chance to think. As yet, his brain hasn’t had a chance to learn an alternative course.

If you’d like to learn more we facilitate group training events that go into this information in more detail.  Our Big Behaviours – Big Emotions Discovery Session will provide you with a more in-depth explanation of the above steps and how you can use them to gather information about your own child. Our 6 week Enhanced Learning Session provides this, along with training on how to use the information you gather to develop strategies that will help your child overcome their problems.

If you would prefer individualised 1:1 support to help your child with their emotional regulation then please get in touch via our contact page or book a free initial consultation. You can read more about the services we offer here.

*  All examples provided are fictional  

Whether you're a parent, caregiver, teacher, or healthcare professional, the Act to Connect Blog is here for you. Share your experiences, perspectives, and feedback in the comments, and let's support each other on this journey.