They seem like such simple tasks to us… Make your bed… Pick up your toys… Sit still. However, those words can be the catalyst to an all out, foot-stomping, throw-yourself-on-the-ground tantrum. Tradition says to dig in your heels and threaten consequences for refusing to follow such a simple instruction. Sometimes this works. But what if it doesn’t?

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We have two parts of our brains. One part is responsible for survival—fight, flight, or freeze. The other is responsible for higher thought—logic, reason, language. Many times, for whatever reason, our request triggers our kids’ high-alert, survival brain. Maybe they are sleep-deprived, need a snack, sensory overloaded or just pre-occupied about something else at the time.

If this is the case, threats and consequences do not register as the part of the brain responsible for understanding the privilege at stake or processing all those words you are throwing around is not engaged. In fact, the angry tone that probably accompanies those words throws our child deeper into fight/flight/freeze and escalates the situation. At this point, it is a matter of can’t instead of won’t, and, we, the parents are starting to dysregulate as well.

So how does a parent exit such a downward spiral?

The idea is to find something calming or something that re-engages the part of the brain that can reason.

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For calming activities, try blowing bubbles into a cup through a straw for an extended exhale, a deep pressure hug, or getting your child upside-down. Activities that engage the logical brain include coloring, counting, and reading. Talking (that’s not arguing with you) can work too. Try having your child identify what he’s feeling through words.

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Once your child (and you) have calmed down, make another attempt at the task at hand.

A great resource on this subject is The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.

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Melissa Corkum

Melissa Corkum

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A photography-dabbling, veggie-loving, housework-hating, triathlon-trying, black belt-seeking, grace-needing mom, Melissa blogs primarily about homeschooling and raising kids from hard places. She has 6 kids ranging from 6 to 15.