An Emotion Focused Approach:
Leaning in When Your Kids are Acting Out

By Gretchen Pianka MD, MPH, FAAP

Do you sometimes feel like time-outs don’t work when your child misbehaves? You’re not alone. The time-out approach focuses on children’s unwanted behavior. But many of these unwanted behaviors arise because our children are having big unpleasant emotions that overwhelm their coping skills. If we only react to our children’s behavior, we can miss the opportunity to respond to their emotional needs and increase their coping skills. Learning to lean in with curiosity allows us to connect and teach them emotional agility, while calmly responding to their emotions and working with them on behaviors.
Think of emotional agility as the ability your child has to move fluidly from one emotion to the next, just as they might move from one monkey bar to the next on the playground. Children need practice and guidance to learn how to do this. We need to be ready to catch them if they fall and teach them how to relate to their big unpleasant emotions. This may be a completely new idea for many parents who may try to ignore or suppress their own unpleasant emotions in order to keep on going. When we feel sad or angry, we often label it as “bad” or “negative” and sometimes feel guilty for having the feeling. Our mind searches for the cause of the emotion so that we can try to avoid that feeling in the future.

But our human emotions are like ocean waves, they come and go with their own energy when left unhindered. Some are more pleasant than others but none are inherently “bad.” By judging the emotion and focusing outwards on the perceived cause, we inadvertently prolong it and have a tendency to not care for ourselves.

Next time your child acts out, use the opportunity to encourage emotional agility. See if you can respond to the emotion rather than react to the behavior by using a strategy called NICER:

NOTICE: Notice that your child is have a big, unpleasant feeling. Try not to label the feeling as bad or negative. The important thing is to allow them to feel all their emotions. Your child (and you) may not be enjoying the experience but it’s a teaching moment and it’s okay if it is loud and messy.

IDENTIFY: Help identify which feeling your child is having. Try to stick to the basics (sad, afraid, angry) and don’t fixate on the perceived cause. Say something like: “I hear you. You sound angry. Allow that feeling to come and it will go. Your job is to take care of yourself while it’s here.”

CONNECT: Connect with your child about how unpleasant it is to feel that feeling and model how they care for themselves. Think of a time when you felt that way, what did you do to care for yourself? Say something like “I know it feels yucky. But this feeling will come and go with its own rhythm. I am right here loving you.” Model self care with them (breathing exercises, listening to music, going for a walk, cuddling the dog, etc).

EXPLAIN: Explain the boundaries once their emotion passes. Children can’t learn when they are flooded with emotion. Notice with them how that big yucky feeling actually was like an ocean wave. Even though in the moment it seemed like it was never going to leave, it did eventually go. If they acted out, say something like: “It is our job to not hurt ourselves or each other with our words or our bodies when we are having big unpleasant feelings. Hitting your brother was not a choice.” Try to make sure consequences are natural. Be careful not to shame your child or remove anything necessary for their emerging coping strategies (music, journaling, etc).

REVIEW: Review what everyone experienced, how any consequences felt for you and the child and if anyone was hurt. Go back to the feeling that they were having and explore it. What did it feel like in their body? Where did they feel it? For example, fear often feels like a tightness in your throat, your heart may race and stomach may feel tight or heavy. Help them connect with what the energy was like inside of them, at that moment so they can recognize it the next time. Come up with a list of self care strategies they can use the next time that feeling arises. An angry young child might need to go outside and run around the house, roar like a lion or punch a pillow. An angry adolescent may need calming music, space away from younger siblings or just time snuggling the family pet.

Emotional agility comes from learning to surf the waves of emotion as they come and go. We must stay in that space with our children, leaning in and learning to love the loud and the messy.


Dr. Pianka has been a pediatrician for 15 years. She has three children and currently practices in Lewiston. She enjoys practicing primary care pediatrics, teaching about emotional health and promoting calm parenting strategies (many of which are accessible on her website www.gretchenpianka.com). She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and serves on the Board of Kids First, an organization dedicated to protecting children from harm during divorce.