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How to Respond to an Angry Child

Using the brain-aligned skill of validation to de-escalate problem situations.

Key points

  • Validation is the verbal skill of helping kids regain control over their behavioral responses by putting language to their emotional state.
  • Validating statements help move the child toward engaging their prefrontal cortex.
  • Validating statements let a young person know that you non-judgmentally accept their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

During stressful incidents, the brain's limbic system (commonly referred to as the "emotional brain") often becomes dominant over the prefrontal cortex (known as the "thinking brain" because of its responsibility for logical thought and rational decision-making). For young people, whose thinking brain is not fully mature until their mid-late 20s, limbic brain dominance is especially common. And because there are no language centers in the limbic brain, the often-used adult directive, "Use your words," is good advice that upset kids are incapable of taking. It is not unusual for children and adolescents to become flooded by intense feelings when problem situations arise and to impulsively act out those feelings through aggressive, hurtful, or otherwise unwanted behaviors.

Validation is the verbal skill of helping kids regain control over their behavioral responses by putting language to their emotional state. A helpful validating statement puts a young person's feelings into words, a brain-aligned strategy that helps move the child toward engaging their prefrontal cortex. What's more, validating statements let a young person know that you non-judgmentally accept their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as important and understandable. Examples of effective validating statements include:

  • "I can see that you are angry with me."
  • "It sounds like you felt very uncomfortable."
  • "You are feeling frustrated that your brother won’t let you have a turn."
  • "I can understand you are feeling embarrassed about what happened."
  • "That must have been a really scary situation."

In each of the statements listed above, you'll notice that the speaker uses simple, but specific words to validate the young person's feeling state. When young people are offered a reliable vocabulary for their feelings, they can more readily use words to express their emotions, rather than acting out their feelings through unwanted behaviors.

Too often, in a well-intentioned effort to "fix" a child's problem quickly or to make their upset feelings "go away," adults react to kids' emotional outbursts with statements that inadvertently invalidate their feelings. Worse, some adults take a child's emotional statement personally and react with their own limbic-driven harshness or threats of punishment. In all of these circumstances, the young person's level of stress can increase, leaving them feeling misunderstood or contradicted. For example, compare the relative merits of the adult statements below:

The stressful situation: A young person drops a glass during dinner. It shatters on the floor. He says, "I’m such a screw-up. I always ruin everything."

Parent's "fix it" statement: "It’s not a big deal."

Parent's validating statement: "You are really upset right now about dropping the glass."

The stressful situation: A student realizes she has made several errors on a spelling test. She says, "I never do anything right!"

Teacher's "make it go away" statement: "That’s not true! You do many things that are right!"

Teacher's validating statement: "It must feel frustrating to believe that you never do anything right."

The stressful situation: "I hate you!"

Adult's "take it personally" statement: "Don’t you dare speak to me that way. You’re grounded."

Adult's validating statement: "You are feeling super angry right now. I am here to listen."

In each example, the validating statement is that one that de-escalates the activity in the emotional centers of the child's brain and uses concrete language to engage the prefrontal cortex, making kids feel heard and understood. When professionals, parents, and caregivers use the brain-aligned verbal strategy of validation, they help young people regain control over their emotional responses and substitute words for problem behaviors.

More from Signe Whitson L.S.W., C-SSWS
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