This one shift can expand your response to big feelings and behaviour.

We all do or say things sometimes that wouldn’t happen if we felt calmer, more seen, more heard, more regulated, less stressed. Kids too. How many times have you yelled or responded in ways that weren’t your finest (‘That’s it! Christmas is CANCELLED!) when the young person in front of you was behaving in ways that were about a universe away from ‘adorable’.  Ugh. Too many times. Me too. This doesn’t happen because we’re terrible people, or because we’re no good at this parenting thing we’re all trying to get better at, or because we’re confused about how to self-regulate, or because we truly believe that the best way to put at end to tricky behaviour from this day on is best achieved through the cancellation of Christmas. 

A different way to think about big behaviour.

Big behaviour happens because in that moment, your child doesn’t have the resources or skills to deal with the situation or meet an important need in a more polished way.

Big behaviour doesn’t come from ‘bad’. It comes from ‘unskilled’ (an unskilled attempt to meet a need, to regulate, to be seen) and/or ‘under-resourced’ (given the demands of the moment, and that the rational, calming, clear thinking part of the brain won’t be fully developed until their 20s). 

When a young person’s behaviour is out of control, it’s ‘out of their control’. They don’t have the emotional or physiological resources to deal with the situation in more polished ways. Big behaviour is like an emergency beacon. Think of it as your child sending out a message to let you know, ‘I can’t deal with this right now! I need your help!’ (And yes, the message will often shouty, spicy, full-force, ‘undelicate’, and uncomplicated. It will rarely involve the banning of Christmas.)

Big behaviour is a sign that the thinking part of the brain at the front has shut down and handed over control of the brain to the impulsive, instinctive back of the brain. The back of the brain will get the job done – it will give your young one (or you – we’ve all been there!) the energy and the ‘I don’t care what happens next’ to let everyone know things aren’t okay right now – but geez it can be messy. The back of the brain doesn’t care about niceties. It just wants what it wants, and it doesn’t care about the consequences.

But they know not to do that!

Of course your child or teen knows spicy words aren’t okay. Of course they know big behaviour isn’t okay. This isn’t about not knowing what to do (which is why reminding them in the moment that they shouldn’t hit/ yell/ swear often falls short). It also isn’t about being a bad kid. It’s about the demands of the situation, in the moment, outstripping the skills or emotional or physiological resources they need to deal with the situation with finesse. 

The lack of skills or resources doesn’t make the behaviour okay. Part of the job of growing up is learning how to handle big feelings and situations in ways that don’t cause breakage. This will take time though. In the meantime, we need to recognise that when a child is out of control, their behaviour is ‘out of their  control’. They are being driven by the impulsive, instinctive part of the brain that just wants a result, and doesn’t care how bumpy things get along the way.

Ok. So what’s the shift?

When young people are in the midst of an emotional storm, we need to shift focus away from what we need them to do (manage their behaviour), and on to what we can do to keep everyone safe and bring the situation back to calm. We don’t have an option, because at that moment they don’t have the capacity or the skills to steer the ship back to shore, so we’ll need to take the lead.

This means shifting the focus from their behaviour (what we want them to do), to our behaviour (what we can do to take charge of the situation). The problem with focusing on their behaviour is that we’re putting them in charge of leading themselves out of the situation. They can’t, so we need to manage the situation to bring their nervous systems back to calm and felt safety.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, which, in the moment, they can’t control and neither can we, we need to take the lead. This means focusing on what we can control – our behaviour, our capacity to bring them back to calm and felt safety, and our capacity to lead, guide, teach (which can only be done when they are calm).

What if they’re hurting someone, or me?

Whenever big behaviour is ‘bigging’, the priority is to keep everybody safe. This is going to fall to the adult in the room. Rather than asking your young person to do something they don’t have the skills or resources to do right now (such as ‘don’t hit’), we need to take over.

This might sound like, ‘No. I’m not going to let you hurt their body’. Then, we move the child who is hitting, or the child who is being hit, away. We then quickly turn our attention to preserving the connection. ‘I’m right here. We’ll get through this together.’ 

When the storm passes, separate them from their behavior, and make space for repair. ‘You are such a great kid. I know you know it isn’t okay to hit. How can we put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

The questions to ask ourselves to guide the ship to shore.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves are along the lines of:

  • ‘How can I keep everyone safe right now?
  • ‘What does this child need from me to feel safer, more seen, more cared for right now?’
  • ‘How can I respond so this child doesn’t feel threatened, or as though I’m about to disconnect from them, or that they’re about to get into trouble?’ 

When we shift our lens, we widen our capacity to respond.

The key is to recognise that this is not a bad child, but a child whose nervous system isn’t feeling ‘safe’ and calm right now. Everything they are doing is to bring themselves back to regulated. The shouting to be heard, the defiance to assert independence, the tantrum because they aren’t ready to stop playing – these are all valid needs and unskilled, under-resourced attempts to meet them.

The skills and resources (including strong neural ‘self-regulation’ pathways) will come over many years of co-regulation and conversation. Co-regulation builds the neural pathways for self-regulation. The conversation opens up options and choices they can take – eventually.

None of this is about permissive parenting. Absolutely not. It’s about steering the situation through the storm and waiting until you’re on solid, safe ground to teach and talk about different choices and repair.



Fantastic article that we could all learn some tips from, and which could lead to better growth and relationships for all concerned. Thank you


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Honestly isn’t this the way it is for all of us though?♥️

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Big feelings can be so beautiful. And so tricky. 

We want our kids to know that all feelings are okay, and we also want to support them to handle those feelings in positive ways. This is going to take time. We were all born with feelings, but none of us were born able to regulate those feelings. That will come with time and lots (lots!) of experience. 

In the meantime, the way we respond to their big feelings and the not-so-adorable behaviour it can drive, can be key in nurturing their social and emotional growth. So let’s talk about how.

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We have to change the way we think about school. When we prioritise academics, it's like building the walls - because that's what we see - before fortifying the foundations.

So many teachers know this, but with the increased focus on reporting and academics, they aren't being given the time and opportunity to build the relationships that will ensure those foundations are strong and steady.

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First though, we need to value relationships and the way kids feel at school, even more than how they do at school. All kids are capable of their own versions of greatness, but unless they feel safe and cared for at school, we just won't see what they are capable of, and neither will they.❤️
We also need to make sure our teachers feel seen, safe, cared for, valued. Our kids can’t be the best they can be without them.♥️
Separation can be tough! Not just for our kiddos but also for the adults who love them. 

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