Humans feel a wide range of emotions: sad, happy, mad, excited, scared, lonely, frustrated, bored, angry, and more. Children’s behavior (and misbehavior) is guided by their emotions and their brain states. Even for adults, these emotions can be overwhelming and can leave us muddled and confused about how we feel. For a child, this is even more confusing. Kids feel emotions very intensely, their brains are developing rapidly and the surges of emotions can be really hard for them to handle sometimes.

Emotions don’t come out of anywhere. They happen for a reason, and they help guide us through situations. Loneliness is telling us that we need to connect. Fear is telling us that we need to get back to safety. Frustration is telling us that we don’t know how to do something.

The child who refuses to turn off the TV might be feeling lonely and desperate for connection. The child who runs away and hides might be feeling scared and trying to keep themselves safe from the unknown. And the child who throws their toys across the room might be feeling frustrated because the pieces didn’t fit together.

These behaviors might be frustrating to deal with, but if we can understand why they are happening, and what the behavior is trying to tell us, we can navigate the situation in a healthy and productive manner.

Brain States and Emotions Dictate Behavior

All of the emotions we feel are powerful and guide us through every situation. It is easier for children to handle their emotions if they know what is happening and why. Knowledge is power, and for a child, the knowledge that what they are feeling has a name and a reason gives them the power to figure out how to handle it.

When we understand how our brain works, and where misbehavior stems from, we can identify why they are acting a certain way. With this information, we can and navigate the situation quickly and effectively.

The Color Spectrum of Emotions describes how our 3 brain states relate to how we experience emotions. In summary, green is the rational state, yellow is the emotional state, and red is the survival state.

Misbehavior only happens when a child is in red or yellow.

We can only learn while we are using the rational part of our (green) brains. When a child is in their emotional or survival state of yellow or red they can’t learn or communicate clearly.

This means that if a child is misbehaving, we must bring them back into green so we can teach them what to do instead of misbehaving.

By using this knowledge and the 4 Steps, you can turn a tense and stressful situation with your child into a learning opportunity. The child who throws a puzzle piece across the room needs to learn how to deal with feelings of frustration so they can overcome the challenge and solve the puzzle, instead of giving up and throwing pieces.

The 4 Steps

Step 1: Identify

The first step is to identify the emotion they are feeling and the brain state they are in. This step gives you a starting point for how to handle the situation. If a child is angry, you would handle the situation differently than if they were lonely. Give your child the name of the emotion they are feeling.

“You look like you’re feeling frustrated.”

Follow their lead, if they seem frustrated, but really they are sad, they will tell you. It takes a bit of guessing sometimes, but once you hit the nail on the head, they will let you know.

Identifying the emotion brings a child from red to yellow.

Step 2: Validate

Once you’ve identified the emotion, let them know that they are feeling it for a reason. They aren’t crazy, their emotions are valid. To validate, all you have to do is name the emotion, and explain to your child the reason they are feeling that way.

“You felt frustrated because the piece didn’t fit in the puzzle, so you got mad and threw it across the room.”

It feels really good to be validated. Have you ever had an annoying co-worker, and you vented to a friend and they agreed with you? Then they shared their experience and you bonded over that moment? The validation you get from a trusted friend or parent is a huge weight off your shoulders and helps you think more clearly. You don’t feel crazy anymore, you have the clarity to a situation and now you can figure out how to navigate.

The same thing happens for a child when you validate that they are feeling frustrated because a circle doesn’t fit into a square. It is frustrating when the world doesn’t work the way you want it to. For a kid, they don’t know how the world works yet, so their moments of frustration are going to happen more often and are going to be really intense sometimes.

Validating brings a child from yellow back down to green.

Step 3: Breathe

Your child needs to get oxygen to their brain and be reminded that they are loved and safe. No matter what they are feeling or how they express those big feelings, they must be reminded that they are unconditionally loved. They need to know this and feel it each time they get into red, so they can strengthen the connection between their brain states. This allows them to come back to green easier each time.

If a child is safe to feel their big emotions when they are little, then they won’t need to figure it out when they are adults, when their actions could cause real damage.

Breathe with your child during these moments. Sometimes if a child is still in yellow or red, they have a hard time breathing. Especially if a child is having a temper tantrum and is on the floor screaming. During these stressful moments, it helps them calm down if you take some deep breaths. Their mirror neurons will help them take a breath and they will feed off of your calm energy. You will feel a shift. It might take a minute, all you do is sit with them calmly, take deep breaths, and let your child’s emotions do their thing.

They need to get through the surge of hormones that are rushing through their body when they get into the red, and you are there to provide safety once the hormones have run their course.

The 2 prior steps (identify and validate) prepare a child to be able to breathe, and this deep breathing step ensures they are safe and secured in green. This step is important to get them fully back in green, to turn on their rational brain, and put the emotional and survival states to bed. Those other brain states aren’t needed anymore. They’ve done their job. Now it’s time to problem solve and figure out how to handle the situation and learn something new.

                                                             – Deep breathing secures your child in green.

Step 4: Problem Solve

This brings us to the 4th and final step, Problem-solving. Problem-solving means how do you want to handle the situation so that it can be resolved.

How do you want to resolve the upset? Do you want to teach a new skill? End the activity? Get your child to cooperate or listen? What do you want your child to do, now that they are able to learn? You can work together with your child to figure out solutions to problems.

If you don’t know what would be helpful, always ask your kid what would help them. They know themselves better than anyone and can answer this for you if you give them the space to have a voice.

“What is stopping you from putting your shoes on?”

“Do you need help with the puzzle?”

“What do you think needs to happen so you can succeed?”

“You were frustrated so you threw the puzzle piece. Next time, you can ask for help, or take a break and get a snack, but you may not throw the puzzle piece”

“Did something happen that made you feel mad?”

If you want to solve the issue, make sure your intentions are coming from a place of love. Be consistent and stick to your word. If you need to implement consequences, explain to them why there are consequences so they understand and can learn, instead of just being put in time out and feeling bad. Natural consequences are more effective in helping a child learn instead of implementing consequences that don’t make sense.

Instead of “Go sit in time out for hitting your brother.” You could say something like:

“I told you to stop hitting your brother, or I would ask you to go to your room to keep you and your brother safe. You felt angry and you chose to hit him again. Now, you must go to your room so you can have some space to calm down so you can keep each other safe. Would you like to go alone, or do you want me to come with you to help you calm down?”

Shift Your Focus

Using this method requires a shift in your intention and your own thoughts about your child’s misbehavior.

Shift your thoughts from “my child is going to be in trouble if they keep messing around” to “my child doesn’t know how to calm their body down, I need to teach them how”.

Shift your focus from “my child is so annoying” to “my child loves me and wants my attention”.

Focus on what your child is trying to communicate to you through their behavior. Their behavior is a window directly into their brain state. Notice their brains states, instead of judging their behaviors.

The 4 Steps are not going to work perfectly every single time because life is messy and often things work a bit differently in real life than they do on paper.

The 4 Steps give you a framework for how to handle situations, and once you understand the framework, you can adapt the steps as necessary.

If you are feeling elevated when your child starts misbehaving, then you won’t be able to use these steps effectively. Self-awareness is the key, and you must remain in green as you do these steps. Just as a flight attendant tells you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping your child, you must be calm and composed in order to help your child learn how to get back to green. And that is honestly the hardest and most demanding part of this whole process.

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