Responding Vs. Reacting to Kid’s Emotions

How do you typically respond to your kids when they’re upset? For some parents, their “go-to” is to respond with their left-brain and just focus on facts and solutions. Do these phrases sound familiar?

Don’t worry. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

It’s not a big deal that it broke. Just fix it.

There’s no reason to cry. Losing is part of the game.

Homework is your job. Just get it done.

If you focus, you’ll be finished sooner.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with offering a logic-based response—except that it rarely works when a child is upset. Left-brain logic is almost never effective when a child is in the middle of a right-brain meltdown.

Does that ring true with your own kids? Other parents may react from the right brain. The good news in this instance is that it provides the chance for emotional connection. The danger, though, is that by responding entirely from an emotional place ourselves, we risk flooding our child with more chaos and are unable to offer the sort of attuned response he needs to safely experience his own emotions.

The key is to integrate the two sides of the brain, allowing them to work together as a team. We don’t want to be working from only a left-brained perspective—which would result in an emotional desert—or solely from a right-brained perspective—which can produce an emotional tsunami. Neither one by itself for long periods of time is good. But when both sides work together, and we approach our children from a Whole-Brain perspective, then we can much more fully meet their needs and help guide them back into calm.

This approach is backed by extensive research, and the goal is how to connect with your child so that you can begin to redirect his behavior after he has come out of his lizard brain and back into the part of its brain that processes information.

Step 1:

Connecting logically with your child when they are upset often won’t work until we’ve responded to their emotional needs.

This is accomplished through acknowledging their feelings in a nonjudgmental way, using physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, and a nurturing tone of voice. By starting with this act of attunement, you allow your child to “feel felt” before you begin trying to solve problems or address the situation.

Step 2:

Redirect once you sense that your child has settled enough that they can handle a logical approach. You can then begin problem-solving with your child or making suggestions on what he can do now that he’s feeling calmer and more in control of himself. Give him a chance to come up with a solution himself, and if he struggles, ask him if he would like a few suggestions. Then let him choose one of two or three you provide. If he is able to choose a solution himself, it becomes his and empowers him to continue to move in that direction in the future.

Repetition is key. What I like to do in my family is practice by role-playing before a situation occurs. I will have my son pretend to push my daughter and give her the words to tell him in roleplay so that when it actually happens she can recall from memory what might be a good choice to make in that moment.


Where this method most often goes awry is when parents become triggered by their child’s tone of voice or “irrational” demands, so the parents are less able to connect with real attunement. Being aware of how are children trigger us is half the battle in our interaction with him. Remember, our response is our responsibility.

As a result, our words might sound like we’re connecting, but the overall response doesn’t feel warm and nurturing. For example, do you ever hear yourself saying, “I can tell you’re really mad right now,” but you say it with tone of irritation or like a robot instead of warmth? Or have you caught yourself frowning, hands on hips, as you say, “I know you’re mad at me, but I told you to hurry three times!”

Connection requires more than just kind words or an acknowledgement of an emotion. The overall feel of the interaction needs to be full of warmth and affection for connection to occur. Our goal is for him to “feel felt” and experience that we “get” what he’s feeling. This is Anthony, and it is not only vital in your relationship with your child, it is powerful as well.

It’s important to remember that often, in those difficult moments, our child is not simply giving us a hard time – rather, she is having a hard time and needs our help to re-integrate her brain.

This post adapted from The Whole Brain Child Workbook, Daniel Siegel, M.D. (reproduced with permission)


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