Here is a parenting technique to try when your child’s body is taken over by his or her fight-or-flight reaction (I call that being run by the “back-brain”). Often when this happens, aggressiveness, shouting, and even violence occur.

As with most techniques I suggest, it begins with our ability to stay calm and keep our minds in the rational part of the brain, (what I call the “front-brain”). Doing so will give us the ability to meet our child’s immediate needs, keep everyone safe without causing strain on our relationship, and teach our children how to manage their big feelings.

I call this calming technique the remembering when you were little approach. I’ll explain how it works in combination with the phases we go through to get from being enraged to thinking clearly.

The shift from being enraged to calm has many phases, which often happen like this:

Phase One: physical activation of the fight-or-flight response

What’s happening in the body:

The brain shoots messages to the body to prepare for fight-flight-faint-or-freeze. When this happens, hitting, throwing, shouting, kicking, and other aggressive actions are likely. The heart rate and breathing rates go up, and our child feels a bit like a cornered animal. She’ll likely feel like she needs to move somehow.

In addition to the behaviours listed above, a child is in this activated state might rip out insults, an “I HATE you,” or look like she’s ready to pounce. The main messages your child’s mind is hearing are likely: “DEFEND!” “ATTACK!” “STRIKE FIRST” “THIS ISN’T FAIR!”

What we can do:

Keep your voice low, and move slowly if you can—my mantra is “low and slow.” Don’t try to talk yet. Focus on keeping everyone safe. If your child is physically out of control, hold her/ him from the back facing forward so the arms and legs are pointing away from you.

— It is important to note that striking out at an activated child, one who is in fight-or-flight, either vocally or physically, including threatening a time-out will make the child feel fear. This fear is likely to provoke resentment, and anger, and push the child to develop negative coping strategies to manage those feelings. —

I find that an activated child actually wants to be near her parent so move to an area away from breakables, and hope your child follows you. I usually head for a bathroom (this works well with younger children who might pee in the process). If your child doesn’t initially follow you, stay quiet and nearby, then slowly move closer to the place you want to get to: go in slow stages.

Phase Two: reduce the physical intensity

Sit down and don’t look directly at your child. Take long slow breaths. If you have a calm-down plan, think about what you’ve discussed with your child to help get the physical part of the activation lowered: perhaps you’ve talked about pushing feet into the floor, making star hands (make a tight fist then open the hand up fully so all fingers are as far away from the next as possible), or making big air bubbles by blowing.

Once you feel the aggressiveness has come down enough that your child can sit, pat the spot beside you as an invitation to be near you. If your child happens to sit on her own first, sit beside her nearby. At this point, don’t sit across from your child to have eye contact. Sitting beside the child removes some of the intensity that can come with direct eye contact. If your child is still pacing around near you, just wait for her to sit down, then you can move a bit closer.

Phase Three: validate

Once your child has stopped shouting and is sitting, try using a validation statement. Remember to keep your voice very quiet. It is likely that your child is angry or frustrated, and it is also likely that this feeling is a surface feeling that is masking a deeper one like sadness (from feeling disrespected, unheard, unimportant, not taken seriously, ignored).

Perhaps try saying something like this: “You must be incredibly mad to have lashed out like that.” Nod your head in a “yes” motion and pause so your child can really hear that. Or “You know that hitting hurts us so you must be so mad to have hit.”

I don’t recommend heading into the deeper emotion now—just the surface one. Acknowledge that the child felt so angry it made her act in an out-of-control way.

Phase Four: stimulate rational thought

This is the “remembering when you were little” approach.

If your child is sitting and quiet (actually, it’s okay if your child wants to still stand but the shoulders and hands aren’t tensed up and ready to go), try telling a story about her when she was little. The goal is to stimulate a part of the mind that feels good and connected to you.

The last time this happened in our house, this is what I said: “You know, I was outside shovelling the driveway this morning. While I was doing that, I thought about you when you were two. I used to pull you on the sled and run down our driveway—the little hill—just to watch you squeal in excitement. You’re face looked like you were having the best day of your life.” I paused and smiled for a moment. “And when we were walking on the sidewalk, I’d run toward the corner and swing you fast around the corner—wow, you LOVED that.” (At this point, my child is usually smiling.)

Also, have a picture of your child from when she was little nearby. You can pick up the picture and talk about it fondly.

If your child has a smile or gentle look on her face, try leaning in for a hug. If she accepts this, hug until she pulls away.

Phase Five: mention the deeper feeling

I find the best way to mention the deeper feeling is to share a story about me when I felt similarly. I might say something like this: “I saw that your brother poked at you and called you ‘mean’ when you were reading. He doesn’t understand that you really like reading—he got too frustrated and didn’t handle that well. I bet you were feeling disrespected and wanted to be left alone. I feel like that too. I think maybe we’re a bit alike that way: we both like to have alone time. I can feel not important when others don’t realize that I like to sit quietly sometimes.”

Pause and see if your child will respond to, “Were you feeling something like that?” Hopefully your child will talk about the event. Another way to stimulate that flow of talk is by asking this, “Did I see that you felt disrespected? I’d like to know what happened.”

Let your child talk until it seems she is done—it’s all out. Try not to interrupt.

Phase Six: problem solve

Talk about what needs to happen next time so the big explosion doesn’t happen. Offer suggestions and a plan to address the deeper feelings before they turn into enraged ones. I usually say, “It is okay that you felt disrespected, then really mad, but it’s not okay that you threw all the toys around in the room. A glass vase got broken. The next time you feel something, try talking to your brother like I’ve taught you to. If that doesn’t work, come get me right away.”

I recommend having a calm-down plan, which I explain in this post.

Phase Seven: follow through with consequences

If something was broken, messed up, or perhaps if a video game was involved, use a consequence that suits that situation. If something was broken, like a vase, tell the child that she will need to help clean up (maybe not if there is glass), and give some of her allowance money to pay for a new one.

If a video game was involved, explain that the game will be turned off for x amount of days/ weeks. Don’t use a consequence that has no connection to the outburst, like taking away a phone for punching a sibling. Talk about consequences ahead of time so the child has an idea of what is coming.

I tell my children that even if we feel badly for hurting someone, breaking something, or doing the wrong thing, there are still consequences. I talk about the time I got a parking ticket when I missed seeing a sign explaining that I needed to pay. I knew I made a mistake, learned from it, and still needed to pay the ticket.

Note: if you discuss problem solving or consequences too soon, your child might go back to phase one, “THAT’S NOT FAIR!” Make sure enough time has passed that your child is fully calm. I suggest having the consequences talk even the next day.


Children are all different. These are suggestions to try using your best judgment and knowing what your child will respond to: adjust as necessary. If you would like help with your child’s big reactions, I suggest enlisting the expertise of a trusted mental health practitioner. Check with your local provider or read here to learn more about consultations with me.

If you would like more information about the brain, I suggest reading No-Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD. A great read for helping with sibling conflict is Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings by Laura Markham, PhD. I also suggest getting my Taming Tantrums app (for iPhone & Android), which contains phrases to use with children to encourage cooperation and calm them down.