Question #1:

“My young daughter gets so angry and screams at the top of her lungs. She escalates easily and angrily. It’s usually when she is hungry but refuses to eat and ignores her internal hunger cues.”

Helping children learn to manage their big emotions is one of our primary tasks as parents. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Children commonly have a difficult time managing their emotions. It’s not because they are “bad” children. It’s simply because the parts of their brain that help manage emotions are not yet mature. They can have big feelings about things, but they do not yet have the skills to put the “brakes” on those emotions and not let them overtake them. Similarly, young children still understand how to interpret their bodies’ signals. The signals we so easily recognize as hunger, anger, disappointment, or sadness might confuse children’s minds. This explains why they sometimes lash out with screaming or tantrums⏤they know something is not quite right but maybe haven’t figured out how to communicate that yet.

Although often we are tempted to immediately punish children when they get angry and scream, this approach does not address the root cause of the behavior. A skill-building approach can be more helpful in the long run. Children need models of how to handle big emotions like anger in more appropriate, healthy ways (than screaming or having a tantrum). One way to approach this is to practice coping skills with your child when emotions are not running high. These could be things like deep breathing, exercising, hitting a pillow, going to a quiet corner for a few minutes, or even just listening to music. Discuss with children how these activities can help calm their emotions before they do something like a scream or hit. 

In addition to helping children learn coping strategies, you can also work with them on being able to identify underlying needs that might be provoking their emotions. These could be needs like hunger, sleep, affection, or quiet. As mentioned in the parent’s question, sometimes children miss these cues, resulting in a tantrum or breakdown. Discuss with children how to listen to their bodies’ needs⏤is their stomach rumbling (hunger need), do they feel irritated or tired (sleep need), do they feel sad or lonely (affection need), or do their ears hurt (overstimulated or need for quiet). As with emotional skills, it takes children time to learn how to “tune in” to what their body is telling them before it becomes an overwhelming need.

As you attempt to help your child learn about managing their emotions and needs, be patient with them and with yourself. These skills take years to develop fully, and children need repeated practice. Remember, each day you are helping your child develop skills that will serve them well for a lifetime.

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