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Advice to help you support your child's emotions and behaviour throughout their development.


Throughout your child’s first few years, you might find that they feel overwhelmed by big emotions. These feelings can trigger some challenging behaviours such as hitting, throwing, biting, or refusing to follow instructions. Luckily, there are ways that you can help your child develop ‘self-regulation skills’ that will allow them to manage these emotions as they continue to grow. Educational Psychologist Dr Nicola Canale offers an insight into children’s behaviours in the early years – with suggestions on how parents can respond to those tricky moments.

Building self-regulation skills

Children's behaviours are very much linked to their stage of development. Their brains are still developing rapidly in the early years and some of the behaviours that younger children display are outside of their control as a result of their big emotions taking over. Parents or care givers can help children to learn ways of understanding and having some more control over these behaviours by helping them to develop an important set of skills called self-regulation skills.

Developing self-regulation skills takes time. Every child is unique and the development of these skills is a mixture of the child’s biology or temperament and their environment. A big part of this environment is the relationship they enjoy with their parents or care givers. When parents or caregivers are faced with these behaviours it is important to respond in ways that help the child to develop these self-regulation skills.

‘Upstairs Brain’ vs. ‘Downstairs Brain’

Dr Dan Siegel created the ‘Hand Model of the Brain’ to demonstrate what is happening in a child’s brain when these big emotions overwhelm them and we are faced with behaviours such as hitting, biting, throwing, refusing, etc.

The palm of the hand represents the brain stem (or primitive brain). This part of the brain is responsible for things that we don’t have to think about – like heart rate or natural fight or flight response.

The thumb represents the limbic (or emotional brain). This part of the brain is responsible for big feelings like fear, sadness, and anger.

These two parts of the brain can be thought of as the ‘downstairs brain’.

The fingers represent the cortex (or thinking brain). This part of the brain is responsible for things like planning, organising and being able to think before you react.

This part of the brain can be thought of as the ‘upstairs’ brain.

When both parts of the brain are working together we feel calm yet alert and are ready to explore, learn and take on board new information.

When children (or adults) are experiencing big emotions, the upstairs brain becomes disconnected from the downstairs brain. Dr Dan Siegel calls this ‘flipping the lid’.

After ‘flipping the lid’, older children and adults have developed the self-regulation skills needed to return to re-connect the upstairs and downstairs brain so that the upstairs and downstairs brain are working in harmony again.

Younger children have not yet developed the self-regulations skills needed to do this and still need a lot of adult help and guidance to help them reconnect the upstairs and downstairs parts of their brain. The more we do this, the quicker they will develop these skills.

Punishment vs. Discipline

Using punishment to respond to a child’s unwanted behaviour might result in a ‘quick fix’ – but is unlikely to lead to any longer lasting change. Punishment is also unlikely to support the child’s social, emotional, or behavioural development and could impact negatively on the child’s self-esteem.

On the other hand, discipline, which comes from the Latin word disciple (‘to teach’) will lead to longer lasting changes and will help develop children’s social, emotional, and behavioural development and can increase self-esteem and wellbeing, which is a win-win situation for both parents and children.

Responding to Children’s Behaviour in the Early Years

We know that responding to your child’s behaviour in the Early Years might be challenging from time to time – take a look at Dr Nicola Canale’s seven tips (adapted from Dr Kim Golding’s work) on how you can respond to your child’s behaviours.

The Seven C’s of Responding to Behaviour Dr Nicola Canale, 2020 (Adapted from Parenting in the Moment © Kim S. Golding, 2015)

Step 1

Clock it: Noticing and stepping in early is key. Do you need to step in or can you choose to ignore the behaviour and distract the child if behaviour is not causing any harm?

Step 2

Calm yourself:  Check whether you are feeling calm and in control of your own emotions. You may need to take five deep breaths. It’s important to calm yourself first so that you are able to respond instead of react.

Step 3

Calm your child: If your child has ‘flipped their lid’, they will need your help to calm down. Every child is unique. You as their parent will know what best helps them calm. Some children like to be hugged and others may need a bit of space with you sitting nearby to help them calm down.  

Step 4

Be Curious: Be curious about some of the underlying emotions or needs that would explain why your child is behaving in this way. A useful acronym to remember in the Early Years is H.A.L.T. HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Are any of these needs unmet? Could this be the cause of their behaviour?

Step 5

Connect: Join the dots for your child. Connect the underlying emotion or need to the behaviour you are seeing for example “I think you are tired, let’s put the toys away and have a rest.” Connecting your child’s emotion or need to their behaviour helps them to feel understood and soothed and will also help to develop their self-regulation skills.

Step 6

Correction: This is where you will provide a limit or boundary around the behaviour and decide whether an age appropriate consequence is necessary. At this age a consequence needs to be immediate and relevant to the child for example “you hurt your sister with the toy, the toy is going away”.  With younger children you do not necessarily need to put another consequence in place if a natural consequence to the behaviour has already taken place for example “you wouldn’t put your wellies on so there is not enough time to go to the park sorry”.

Step 7

Connect again: Once you’ve set down the limit, boundary or consequence, and stuck to it, don’t revisit the behaviour at a later time in the day, be like Elsa and ‘let it go’. Your chid will recover from these little ruptures, and will learn from them, and your relationship will remain strong.

Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Dr Dan Siegel’s ‘Hand Model of the Brain’ can also help explain the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. 

An ‘upstairs brain tantrum’ is when the upstairs and down stairs brain is still connected and a child might be acting in way to try and get something they want.

A ‘downstairs brain tantrum’ (or meltdown) is when the child has ‘flipped their lid’ and the thinking brain has become disconnected from the upstairs brain.

Younger children, particularly very young children, are much more likely to be having a ‘downstairs brain’ tantrum or meltdown and will need help from an adult to bring them back to a state of calm before the adult is able to even consider correcting the behaviour.