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In these trying times, it is not unusual for children to experience big emotions. Their routine has been disrupted, they are missing school – their friends and their teacher, and the novelty of staying at home with Mom and Dad has worn off. They may become angry, sad, fearful or even have temper tantrums. When children experience big emotions, it is helpful to understand what is happening so that you can help them to regulate themselves again.


Let’s set the scene with some basic neuroscience


A child’s brain forms in three different stages. Firstly, the Survival or Reptilian Brain develops which consists of the brainstem. The brainstem contains the autonomic nervous system and the central nervous system which is responsible for automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate and temperature control. The Emotional Brain or the Limbic system comes online between the ages of 1 and 2.  We see this in the ‘terrible twos’ when kids start to tantrum and their emotions get really big.  Finally the Thinking Brain or the PreFrontal Cortex begins to develop from between 5 and 7 years of age, in some children it can be as late as 9 years of age. This is where logical thought, reasoning, executive function, and decision making begins to develop. Very young children, for example, only really have a brainstem and a limbic system so there is very little rational thought to work with. This changes slowly as they get older as the Thinking Brain comes online. It does, therefore, make sense for us to learn to connect with the Emotional Brain and learn to speak their language.

‘Flipping your Lid’


Daniel Siegel, in his book Mindsight, uses the hand model of the brain to describe what happens when a child becomes overwhelmed with big feelings.

The forearm is the spinal cord and the palm of the hand is the brain. Your thumb is the limbic system (the Emotional Brain) and your fingers, which wrap around the thumb, are the Prefrontal Cortex (the Thinking Brain).

As a child reacts to a fear or becomes angry, the information travels up the spinal cord and the brainstem which collects information through the nervous system. Their heart starts to beat faster. The information is sent to the limbic system (Emotional Brain) and they become overwhelmed with feelings and emotions, so they start throwing tantrums, fighting, hiding… They have flipped their lids… the PreFrontal Cortex, which was never particularly strong to start with, has gone offline.

Secondly, if we think in terms of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, children have a much stronger right hemisphere when they are younger. (This may change as they get older.) The right hemisphere, (the hippy part of the brain) uses creativity, imagination, art, and emotions. The left hemisphere, (the lawyer and scientist part of the brain) is where language, rational thinking, logic, organization, and detail sit.


When a child is upset, we tend to respond with our left brain. We are inclined to explain and ask questions such as “why are you so upset?” and “there is nothing to worry about. This makes the child feel frustrated and unheard and escalates the anxiety. With a left-brain logical, rational response, the child feels as if we do not understand and do not care about his or her feelings. A rational, logical approach doesn’t typically work until we have responded to the emotional needs of the right hemisphere of the brain. Remember, at this stage, the child is having a right brain, non-rational, flood of emotions. They have flipped their lid and their Thinking Brain has gone offline.

‘Connect to re-direct’


The right hemisphere of the brain needs to feel ‘felt’ by having the child’s feelings acknowledged and validated. It yearns to feel safe with physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, a quiet, nurturing tone of voice, and non-judgmental listening. In order to validate a child’s feelings, use words such as “you feel really upset right now”, “you really wanted to…” and “you didn’t feel like that was fair.” By connecting your right brain to the child’s right brain, the child feels heard and cared for. This meets the need for connection. The child begins to feel safe again and this allows for the Thinking Brain to come back online. Only now can logical explanations and consequences be discussed and explained.


So, the next time your child is having a tantrum… take a deep breath, do not join the chaos, and try to fight fire with fire. You essentially need to become your child’s ‘container,’ for the difficult emotions by becoming ultra-calm and showing them that you are not afraid of their big feelings. This conveys the message “I’ve got this… I can handle this, I am here with you.” Go to their level, talk quietly and gently, try to connect with light physical touch. Connect right brain to right brain by being empathetic and non-judgmental. Help your child to name the feelings… “you’re really scared,” “your heart is beating really fast” and “you can’t understand why you can’t have that toy.” You are connecting with the Emotional Brain and allowing your child to feel heard. Just wait for them to calm down before you start discussing better ways to react and consequences if need be. Like anything, this needs to be practiced. A child who is having an emotional meltdown can take more than 20 minutes to calm down. It is not a quick fix but with patience and consistency, it will begin to work, and they should start to calm down quicker.


(The above information is taken from a webinar by the Institute of Child Psychology: The Brain and Parenting, and a book: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 proven strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind by Dr. DJ Siegel and Dr. T Payne Bryson.)

Some Emotional Regulation Tools


When emotions start to run high in the family, try using a code word to prevent anyone from flipping their lids. The code word should be something funny and lighthearted like ‘choc chip cookies’ or ‘chocolate fudge ice-cream.’ The idea is for everyone to freeze and then a parent needs to lead the way with some Jumping Jacks or Running on the Spot. Exercise and laughter are great for changing the emotional energy in the room.


Then the parent can ask everyone to take some deep breaths…


Teach your child to do Finger Breathing – Take one hand and lay it flat with the palm facing up. Take the pointer finger of the other hand and place it on the wrist of your hand that is lying flat. This is your starting and your end point.

As you breathe in, slide your pointer finger toward your thumb on your flat hand. As you breathe out you slide it back to the starting point at the wrist. Repeat up and down all 5 fingers. This is a good tool to do with your child. (Taken from


Sensory Grounding Technique – If your child is feeling particularly anxious or if you need them to calm down, you can stop and do this technique:

What are 5 things you can see?

What are 4 things you can hear?

What are 3 things you can touch?

What are 2 things you like to smell?

What is 1 thing you like to taste?

Tracy Thomson


Cell: 083 324 8872



Should you have any questions or wish to make an appointment feel free to contact me on my cell: 083 324 8872 or to send an e-mail to


Tracy Thomson

Counselling Psychologist

HPCSA reg: PS 0143359

Practice reg: 999 086 002 0818208

Play Therapy International: 201902985

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You can contact Tracy directly to set up an appointment or if you have any enquiries at: