A go to strategy to help your child out of emotional overwhelm

Young boy emotionally overwhelmed
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Dr. Daniel Siegel is a psychiatrist who has helped countless children and adolescents through difficult situations, ranging from bad days to serious traumas. He has been a leader in the cutting edge field within mental health called interpersonal neurobiology.

In his 2011 book, The Whole Brain Child, Siegel offers numerous strategies for parents to nurture your child's mind. This article offers some fundamental information about your child's brain, and shares one of Siegel's strategies to help your child out of emotional overwhelm.

You have a tremendous impact on your children

While at one point in time it was believed that one's brain and expression of personality was determined largely by genetics, more and more is being realized that brains are wired to be social. Experience, particularly with important others such as parents, is one huge determinant in how the brain is shaped. One way that you as a parent can positively influence how your child's brain operates is by helping them learn to integrate the right and left hemispheres of their brains. This act alone will help your child out of emotional overwhelm.

When your child is in emotional overwhelm

Any parent has been there: The hysteria, the wailing, the unreasonable demands, your child is upset and it just may be the end of the world. It can feel impossible to calm your child down because, after all, the world is ending. When your child experiences a tidal wave of emotion, using all or none terms and with no semblance of rationality, he or she is operating from his or her right brain, and there is little left and right brain balance or integration.

While trying to help your child, be mindful not to land in a few of the following pitfalls that many parents find only backfire. For example, do not try to have a logical conversation with your child about how he or she is making no sense at all. Because his or her left brain is practically offline, it will be impossible for them to take in any bit of logic.

Similarly, do not try to defend yourself if your child is mad at you or calling you the worst parent ever. Defending yourself is also a left brain response. When a left brain response is offered to someone swallowed by right brain emotions, the person will only feel like he or she is not understood or cared for.

Connect to your child's right brain using your own right brain

When your child is in emotional overwhelm, the best thing to do is to first respond with your right brain. A right brain response will connect you with your child, and will serve to soothe your child and help him or her feel heard. Your right brain is largely responsible for your emotional and non-verbal experiences, which is why hyperbole and dramatic language might seem necessary for your child to attempt to convey the depths of his or her engulfing emotional experiences. 

Communicate non-verbally with your emotional presence. Specifically, pay attention to your tone, offer validation to your child's experience and let him or her know you want to understand, use touch, perhaps rubbing your child's back, listen, and be empathetic and supportive.

Siegel notes that this is not about coddling your child and neglecting discipline or limit setting when your child has misbehaved, but helping him or her achieve a state of balance by helping him or her regulate his or her emotional experience with an empathetic response.

After connecting, redirect your child with your left brain

Only after the right brain is met with emotional presence can any logic come into play. Logic simply does not work with children or adults until emotional needs are first met. Regardless of how trivial your child's feelings may seem, they are very real to your child. Respond to these feelings first, and then you will be able to introduce logic.

After connecting from the right brain, you can start to engage your child's left brain by redirecting the conversation about what he or she was actually upset about. After his or her right brain is calmed, he or she will be more able to have a rational conversation with you. This is when the goal of left and right integration occurs, the overwhelm is calmed, and the situation makes more sense and is not as painful for your child or for you.

Siegel calls this strategy "connect and redirect." Next time your kid seems out of control emotionally, try it out and see what happens. You may feel like a magician, but in reality you are helping your child integrate his or her left and right brain. 


Siegel, D. J. and Payne Bryson, T. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. Random House: New York.

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