We’ve all been there. Your kid is spiraling over having to leave the park, having to clean up their toys, or not getting that stuffie they wanted from the grocery store. (And the good times don’t end with littles—elementary-aged and tween kids have plenty of meltdown moments, too.) You become the immediate target, and they lash out with, “You’re the WORST MOM EVER!” or “I’m just going to run away to Nana’s house!” Instinctively, we want to snap back, argue with them, or put them in time-out for speaking to us so disrespectfully. It’s especially challenging when your kid is reacting this way in public because you don’t want to look like a pushover.

But parenting expert Dr. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta suggests you try something different to de-escalate the situation when your kid loses it on you—something that’ll work out better for everyone. “I want you to tend to what matters: What matters when your child is super upset is their upset, their regulation. The provocative words are a symptom of the dysregulation.”


Replying to @Laura

♬ original sound – Dr. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta

Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Hauge-Zavaleta to recast the situation and respond to your child differently (in every case, saying less is key):

  • “Wow—that’s really hard.”
  • “You wish I was doing something different.”
  •  Or respond in a mono-syllabic or guttural manner with words like, “ugh,” “yikes,” or “ouch.”

Dr. Hauge-Zavaleta explains that what you are trying to avoid is layering more words on top of the provocative moment. “Your child is in a part of the brain that does not process language very effectively.” Your instinct is to take that moment to teach your child other ways to respond more appropriately, but this is not the time for that lesson. If you counter with more words, you’ll likely be on the receiving end of further anger and shouting. Dr. Hauge-Zavaleta suggests that you make a plan to discuss this with your child when the upset has passed and they are more receptive to advice.

“When adults casually remark that a child seems to be driven by their emotions, they are usually quite correct,” explains Signe Whitson, LSW, in Psychology Today. Emotions are controlled by the body’s limbic system—specifically, the amygdala. “When the amygdala perceives any kind of danger, it directs the body to either fight the threat (e.g., through yelling, physical aggression), flee the situation (e.g., by running away, withdrawal), or freeze up (e.g., shutting down emotionally). Fight, flight, and freeze reactions are all brain-directed, instinctual responses, rather than purposeful, willful, or intentionally defiant acts.”

Related: This One-Word Switch Prevents Kid Meltdowns

Kids reacting in these provocative ways tend to have less control over their behavior than parents think they do. Often, kids are acting out emotionally because they have not yet developed the language needed to talk about what is going on. While it might be difficult in the moment, parents should say less when their child’s emotions are running high and double back to discuss the interaction later.

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