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What an Upset Kid is Really Trying to Say

Difficult-to-diffuse meltdowns are a reality of the early years, and they’re a challenge for even the calmest, most rational and seasoned parents among us. Here, Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami share four steps that can go a long way in smoothing these situations for Mom, Dad, and (most importantly) the littles.

Tantrum Tactics: What to Do When Your Child Is Out of Control

It happens to every parent. You’re already stressed out and on your last nerve when your child decides to have an emotional meltdown, usually in a public place like a restaurant, supermarket, or department store. Trying to communicate with a child in the midst of a tantrum can try the patience of saints, even under the best of circumstances. While every scenario and child are different, your best bet for bringing calm to the situation lies in understanding how not to get drawn into the power play and what it takes to re-establish communication.

Rewards and Consequences

When a child is acting up or refusing to comply with a request, it’s easy for parents to resort to the time-honored countdown to consequences: “You’d better stop screaming and start putting your toys away by the time I count to three. One… Two…” It’s easy to pull rank on our children to get what we want because we’re bigger and stronger than they are. It certainly shuts the situation down, but can our children really respect us when our actions show them that what they want is irrelevant and their feelings don’t matter? Imagine how dehumanizing it would be if your boss gave you a three-count to do something at work. No questions allowed; just do it or else. If it’s not okay to treat adults this way, why do we do it with our children?

When we use fear-based tactics to control behavior, we teach children that love is conditional. We’ll love them after they do what we want. It also teaches them to equate love with approval, and that can be very dangerous to self-esteem as they grow up, especially for girls. Likewise, the “I’m Leaving You” drama, where parents pretend to walk out of a public place leaving their sobbing children behind, not only traumatizes children but violates their trust. After all, if children can’t expect their parents to remain by their side as their protectors and supporters in tough times, then who can they rely on?

When stress levels rise during a child’s tantrum, it’s very easy to resort to fear-based tactics to bring a quick end to the situation. It’s important to know, however, that our choices in these moments will have lasting effects that far outweigh our temporary need to get the child into the bathtub or off the playground. Personally, as the parents of two young children, we try to approach these situations from the perspective of loving our children rather than them fearing us. From this perspective, if our children are behaving badly, we know that while they may not be happy with the outcome, they won’t be afraid of us.

In contrast to fear-based tactics, some parents respond to children’s outbursts by rewarding them if they settle down and do what the parent asks: “If you stop crying right now so we can leave, Mommy will get you some ice cream on the way home.” Unfortunately, rewards in these situations teach children to disown their feelings or mute them with external distractions to feel better. It also teaches them to manipulate to get what they want.

Overly punitive and permissive approaches to tantrums do equal harm to children, and they don’t do parents any favors either. If a child is acting out in a rebellious or confrontational way, the best way to neutralize the behavior isn’t through fear or coercion, but by establishing a connection with them. Creating connections is all about communication. When we’re truly communicating with our children, we make learning part of the process.

Superiority vs. Authority

In order to communicate with an upset child, parents have to get rid of the idea that parent is synonymous with power. It’s an easy assumption to make because as parents, we think of ourselves as the homework-checker, chore-allocator, allowance-giver, disciplinarian, etc. These are all positions of power, but parenting is far more than just telling children what to do. To reconnect with an emotionally ungrounded child, we must treat his/her needs and feelings as equal and valid as our own. In order to do this, we can’t take a position of superiority over the child. Superiority gives orders from the ego. Authority, in contrast, provides guidance through wisdom. Superiority creates power struggles and competition, while authority creates a connection.

Owning our authority and not resorting to knee-jerk superiority during confrontations with our children keeps us from feeling our power has been threatened when they tell us “No!” It also helps us make more conscious choices as to how we respond to them. From this mindset, we understand that noncooperation isn’t a challenge to our authority. As with adults, behavior is communication. An upset child is trying to communicate through his behavior a deeper need that he can’t express verbally.

Honor Their Feelings

The most important aspect in re-establishing a connection with your upset child is to honor their feelings. Unfortunately, many parents respond in a dismissive way instead, by saying things like: “You can’t be hungry again. We just ate an hour ago.” Or, “We paid a lot of money for that dress and you’ll wear it for the family portrait whether you like it or not.” Denying the child’s feelings only escalates the situation. Think about it: How would you feel if your spouse or partner refused to acknowledge the feelings you were trying to communicate? When we honor anyone’s feelings, we’re telling him/her that how he/she feels about something is important to us and by association that he/she is important to us.

So, how do we honor our child’s feelings? Follow these four steps:

  1. Listen attentively: Don’t be planning your comeback in your head while your child is expressing his upset. Really LISTEN to what he’s trying to express beneath the talking, whining, or screaming. Every person has the right to their full emotional process, even if that means you remove the child from the restaurant and drive him around the block so he can fully discharge all his pent-up, stressed-out, negative energy. Unfortunately, thanks to either the dismissiveness or punishment of our caregivers, we’ve learned as adults to repress our emotions and suffered the emotional and physical health consequences for it. We don’t want to do the same to our own children. Keep in mind that this isn’t an opportunity for your child to disrespect you. If your child calls you a name or says he hates you, you might respond with, “I didn’t like what you just said to me. Can you express that in another way?”

    This isn’t easy, but do your best to listen without judgment. Much of the time, people who are upset aren’t nearly as interested in being “right” as they are in just being heard. Oftentimes giving someone his/her full say without interjecting can be enough to de-escalate the situation. You’ll hear the tonal shift in your child’s voice when this happens. That’s when it’s time to move to the next step.

  2. Validate their feelings: The child has spoken, but now is not the time for lecturing or giving advice. Now it’s time to show him you’ve understood. Don’t say you understand; show him by repeating back what he’s shared with you in your own words: “You didn’t want to leave the store because you were having so much fun with the big blue ball and the dump truck, which you told me is so much better than the three you already have. It doesn’t have any rust or dents. That’s why you wanted me to buy it.”

    Validating your child’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with what’s been said. You’re simply validating that his view of the situation is legitimate.

  3. Name their feelings: Labeling the child’s feelings lends even more validation and comfort. You might say, “You seem pretty sad that you couldn’t stay in the swimming pool longer. That would have been nice.” This kind of additive empathic response recognizes the hurt that underlies the angry outburst and admits that what the child wanted would indeed have been nice, had it been possible. In contrast, a subtractive empathic response carries a judgmental tone by implying that someone shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling. An example might be: “You don’t need to be sad, because it was going to rain, and it’s unsafe to swim when it’s raining anyway.”

    Don’t worry about identifying your child’s feelings exactly. Just do your best. Children know how they’re feeling and if you’re wrong, they’ll tell you. They’ll be glad that at least you’re making the effort to understand them.

  4. Ask questions: Now that the child has de-escalated and been validated, he’s out of fight-or-flight mode. His thought processes have left his reptilian hindbrain and moved forward into his frontal cortex where reasoning and negotiating are possible. Now is the time to ask, “What would you like me to do?” At this point, the child has to stop and think, which gets the mind functioning in a completely different way. Most of the time, what a child wants and needs are different things and by listening attentively, a parent can discover the underlying need of a tantrum and use it to neutralize the drama. For example, maybe the upset isn’t really about staying longer in the toy store. Maybe the child just doesn’t want to stop having fun. In that case, maybe playing his favorite songs and having a sing-along in the car on the way to the next errand can satisfy the needs of both parent and child.

A Universal Approach

Much of the time, this intervention with children works very well. Too often, however, parents make the mistake of taking a punitive, superior stance and addressing the situation from a purely logical point of view while completely ignoring the child’s feelings. Anyone would respond negatively under those circumstances and yet we’re surprised when children become even more upset.

Every situation is unique and when this kind of intervention doesn’t work, don’t worry. Even though your child is still upset, he knows you’ve listened to his concerns and validated his feelings. That’s the victory, and that you’ve done it without using fear is even better. In the end, it’s essential to let the child know how much you love him and why you’ve made the decision you did.

You might be surprised to know that these four simple steps for honoring feelings work quite well with any angry person, not just children. It sounds silly, but if you view an angry adult as a child in your mind and follow these steps, you’ll be surprised by how effectively you’ll be able to diffuse an adult tantrum at home or work.

For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit to sign up for the monthly newsletter, as well as his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow Dr. Sadeghi on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.

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