We’ve all been there. Many times.

One minute, our kids are happy campers and the next minute, it’s an epic meltdown. It might happen at the grocery store or in church or (always a good time) on an airplane. And as parents, we think, “What is going on? Why are they suddenly out of control?”

I firmly believe that there’s a reason behind every behavior for children (and adults as well). Sometimes our kiddos can tell us what’s bothering them and why they’re acting out. But many times, they just can’t find all the words to express what they’re feeling.

When emotions are big and humans are small, I like to ask these five questions:

empty plate with a sad face and silverware on it

Are you hungry?

A seasoned mom once told me that a well-timed healthy snack can frequently save the day. And she was right.

When my kids were really little, they often didn’t realize they were hungry until they were well past the point of all reasoning and emotional stability. Now that we’re at the edge of the teen and tween years, I’m noticing a reoccurrence of these “hangry” people. Twice this past week when kids’ tempers flared and words flew, I asked, “Who’s hungry? Should we make some snacks?” They became much more delightful to be around after eating something healthy and filling.

Our go-to snacks right now are mandarin orange cups, Skinny Pop popcorn, and string cheese.

Are you thirsty?

I don’t know what the word is for angry-thirsty people, but I should coin it. My kids will sometimes lose their cool after sports practice or mowing the lawn when they’re hot, tired, and thirsty. As it warms up here in the Midwest, we are stocked on Gatorade, fruit juice, and…milk. It sounds odd but my crew has claimed since toddlerhood that a cold glass of milk is sometimes just the ticket when they are thirsty beyond words. Milk is full of vitamins and natural sugars to replenish calories and electrolytes lost.

green Gatorade bottles
two small boys sitting under a tree outside

Do you need to rest?

This is something I started asking when my children were babies. Since they couldn’t talk, it was a nice rhetorical question. “Do you need a nap? Are you tired? I think you are!”

Sleep training at a young age can be tricky, but I believe teaching kids how to recognize that they need rest is key to regulating emotions and behavior. My kiddos didn’t always need a nap if they were out of control. Sometimes, they just needed a break from the rest of the family or some quiet time with a book. And that definitely still holds true to today when one child gets overwhelmed and needs a minute to himself or herself. My kids all received bean bags for their birthdays (in their favorite colors, of course). They’re the perfect size for a preteen to curl up or flop into when they need to rest and recharge.

Do you need to use the bathroom?

I could fill a book with anecdotical evidence of how my children’s behavior changed from night to day after using the bathroom. This especially pertains to two of my kids; they know that if they have grouchy moods or surly behavior, I will most definitely ask, “Have you been to the restroom lately? No? Then go right now.” They use the bathroom, and their emotions return to baseline.

Is it magic or science? I say science. The vagus nerve (or vagal circuit) is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs from the brain to the digestive system and other organs. Studies suggest that this nerve helps regulate moods and behavior in conjunction with digestion and waste production. When the digestive tract is in homeostasis, so are emotions (in theory).

grey and white bathroom
two small children hugging in a field

Do you need a hug?

I will ask my children this question until the end of time. There is nothing better than a hug when you’re upset, whether you’re a little kid or a grown adult. That oxytocin flows, your heart rate slows, and your blood pressure drops. It’s amazing and is sometimes all my kids need when they’re out of control. Even toddlers who are throwing a tantrum can pull themselves together to get a hug, if you just ask and have patience. We might not always understand the reason behind the behavior, but we can provide clues, cues, and open arms to help our kids feel better.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Somehow this piece needs to be required reading for every parent and care-giver. Hospitals could tuck a laminated copy in with the newborn before sending the little one home. I imagine copies posted on refrigerators in homes all over America, beyond. Then, let’s all imagine what can happen.

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