Recently I read a wise quote online, “Your child is not giving you a hard time, your child is having a hard time.” The slightest difference in wording reframes a child’s behavior and emotions completely. Often as parents, it is challenging to remember that more is going on with our children than meets the eye. For example, verbal or physical defiance can hide anxiety and temper tantrums can mask sadness. That is often the case with our children.

When children act out, they are often acting in secondary emotion. Anger, frustration, and jealousy are secondary emotions children express when they become upset. Primary emotions are the vulnerable emotions that we don’t always sense in our children and others. Those primary emotions can include shame, fear, loneliness, sadness, and hurt. Often, children use their secondary emotions to cover up what they are really feeling, their primary emotions.


"Meet your child in the same emotional state

to understand what's going on"

In his book, The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel Siegel discusses “attending to the emotional brain of a child before appealing to the rational brain." In other words, meeting the child where he or she is in emotion (even anger) in an attempt to understand what is going on emotionally. All before attempting a behavioral change. Being in sync with our kids’ emotions is called attunement.

Practicing attunement does not come naturally for most people. “In the process of experiencing a child’s emotional dysregulation, we ourselves can become caught up in the emotional frenzy and experience our own emotional activation and escalation.” Simply said, your child is “losing it” so you “lose it,” too. Obviously that is never productive.

Looking past the expressed emotion and getting to the root of what is going on with your child is the goal. How many times has your child acted out at home, for you later to hear that something bad happened at school? Thus, put that undesirable behavior in context? Learning the catalyst for the undesirable behavior can take patience and diligence on the part of the parent, especially if your child is taking their stress out on you in a negative way.

"Mindsight is emotional insight"

Emotional attunement first takes being aware of your own emotions and what is going on for you as a parent. Daniel Siegel calls it “mindsight.” Mindsight is emotional insight of ourselves and empathy toward another’s experience. Children need guidance and direction in learning to deal with their own emotions. Siegel states, “Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach—not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences. 

When we teach mindsight, we take moments of conflict and transform them into opportunities for learning, skill building, and brain development.” This mindsight takes intentionality and practice. You will likely not master it overnight, and it can be especially difficult on days in which you are stressed, busy, and having a hard day.

As you attune and make this kind of emotional space for ALL of your child’s emotions, you may experience a surprising payoff. Your child will feel more bonded to you and will have less emotional outburst. Your child will be comforted by your ability to be with them in their emotions and fully attune with them. As a result, the outbursts are likely to decrease.

That is something everyone can look forward to!


Paula Morse, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor,
Arkansas Families First, LLC