Post No. 2 – Dealing with kids’ emotions by understanding how the brain works

In my previous first ever post on parenting using coaching principles, I shared about how coaching process works in real life, with my son, in our relocation project (cleaning up a mess of dozens of boxes of toys, books and clothes hoarded for years). One of coaching principles is to help clients regulate emotions. And we all know that the ability to do that will play a big part if making us effective at home, at work and in life. So I want to dedicate this post for this topic: How I helped my child regulate his emotions?

As a parent, I have experienced endless times when my toddler son throws tantrum when not getting what he asks for, gets cranky for no reasons in beautiful mornings, or just lies down on the couch like a string of noodle seeming to have no interests in anything by just asking “Mum, what do I do now?” Well, when we hang out with the other families, my friends often say he is a well-behaved boy. I appreciate that and at the same time, look, he is a child. More importantly and essentially, he is a human. And I am a fellow, so behind the cheerful or calm me that my friends often see, I have to confess that I was like my son sometimes: pissed off and scolding him loudly. So we are not an exception: human has emotions, and up and down moments.

I have read many articles that tell parents should be cool and approach the situation with calmness but when situations arise, I somehow cannot help having fire within my stomach. The good thing is I am more aware about my anger bursting with my son so keep trying to echo in my mind that one’s ability to regulate emotions, instead of being at their mercy, is central to one’s effective, success and happiness. This is not only for my toddler as he grows up but also for me as I grow as a human being. And I learn to apply a few brain-based coaching principles. It’s not easy, but with a reminder in my own mind during those “bad” moments of my toddler BEFORE any reaction, it gradually works. I repeat that voice in my brain, “Tu, please be calm, don’t speak for now, don’t speak for now, don’t speak for now, PLEASE, and breathe.” Self-talk did me wonders and I know it does the same for a lot of other people in different situations. All I have been trying to do is to practise, practise and practise; over time, I feel a better mother in terms of controlling my own reaction and helping my son regulating his own emotions.

Before I share the story, I suppose it would more effective if I brief you at high level the study of the brain functioning behind emotions so we understand why we do what we should do. Please be patient (or else, you can skip this theoretical section).

So what are emotions and how are “bad” and “good” emotions generated from our brain? First, let’s understand the two primary parts of the brain: the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) which is responsible for high-level thinking processes such as deciding, memorising, understanding,… (this is also the part of the brain that is only highly developed in human beings), and the limbic system which is connected with emotional experience. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, our automatic response to dangers or rewards are generally thought of as emotions. Sensing either danger or reward, even at surprisingly subtle levels, can have a dramatic impact on how and what we think. The brain constantly makes toward or away decisions. When it detects a threat like seeing a mad dog, feeling hungry or tired, or even seeing an angry face in a photo, the brain non-consciously takes action to stay away from that threat. When the brain detects rewards which help us survive such as food, money, love, or even a familiar face, we will non-conciously take action to move toward that reward.

What are their impact? Threat response creates away emotions such fear, anger, frustration, confusion, and pain. With a threat response, we can hardly see issues clearly, solve problems, and work with others. On the other hand, threat response creates reward emotions like happiness, interest, joy, curiosity, and excitement. When you feel a reward emotion, you see more options and can receive information.

How to best regulate emotions then? We as parents always do these two things. They never work but we instinctively still do them. They are: Letting our children feel and express the emotions by even further stimulating them, or letting them hide their emotions by not helping them to face with it or even worse, scolding them and asking them to shut up. What will the child feel? 100% uncomfortable. So what’s the sensible way? The principle of regulating emotions is to dampen the arousal of the limbic system and increase the arousal of the PFC (pre-fontal cortex) system. There are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Ask the child to give the emotion a name: By doing this, you are activating the PCF (the good guy) and reduce the activity in the limbic system (the bad guy) in the brain. The questions you can ask are: How do you feel now? OR if stimulation is needed: It seems to me that you feel really hot as it’s a super hot day today. Is this correct? And after waiting for the response, you can ask: What else? OR If you can give the emotion a name, what would it be? (Leveraging on the movie Inside Out’s five emotions would be lovely if the child has watched it to see if it works.) And then give them some acknowledgement and offer help: I am sorry to hear about that. How can I help you to feel better? How about…? This way they feel supported and want to work on the issue too.
  2. Seeing the situation in a positive way: This is more difficult as it requires more working of the PCF. So I usually do the first option and it proves to work well. If you want to try this, maybe with an older child says 8 and above, you can ask these question (and please share your experience!): What do you think a good response to this situation would be? How important is this (whatever the subject at the moment) for you? What advice would you give a friend in this situation? What would a 10-year-old Minh (whatever future age appropriate to your child) say to your present self? How could you think about this situation differently? 
  3. Training the child to relax: This takes many forms, and meditation is one of the most effective methods. There is no one-size-fits-all relaxation technique; parents just need to read the situation and wear creativity hat. Regarding meditation, in my own experience, I help my son practise (or sometimes just remind him as appropriate) AROUND that bad moment, not AT that moment. Only when he is strongly aware and familiar with meditation, I will use this AT the moment by reminding him to take a few deep breathes and checking in if he feels better; else, I will remind him to keep breathing till he feels good.

Last but not least, just talk about it to the child the coaching way (biggest principle of which is solution-focused) when it’s a good time. Look! There is quite some theory already huh so for this point, I will just share about my actual conversations below. And now, let’s look at my “struggle” and… “snuggle” :).



Right after picking Minh up from school, he was cranky, with sweats running all the way from his forehead to his chin. So I just followed his “leadership” in taking us home the route he wanted without talking much. In previous similar situations, I would feel angry too: “How on earth you had fun activities at school, and then I pick you up, and you are cranky? You’d better stay cool. You’d better fix it!” However, this time, I was more aware. The little voice in my mind again reminded me, “Tu, do not react. Do not react. Just keep quite. Keep quiet.” I did as it said.

When being back home, the external heat no longer lingered, I asked “You seem to be very hot. Is that right?” Minh said, “Yes.” Then I continued, “What else do you feel?”. “Tired.” So I said, “I am sorry to hear that you are tired as well. I prepared for you a cup of milk in the kitchen because I guessed you may be tired after school.”

Minh’s eyes were sparkled, as his mother understood him. (Well, she remembered being hungry or tired or thirsty also causes the threat response by triggering bad emotions.) Minh thanked me, which was like a cup of cool orange juice in such hot weather to myself, and went to the kitchen island to take the glass of milk and drink. While he was finishing the milk, I went to the bathroom saying out loud, “I will give you another little gift and I am sure you will like it. You will feel refreshed.” I then brought out a face towel soaked with cool water and cleaned his face. “Mummy, you are the best! This is so good! And I want one more time!”, exclaimed Minh.

“How do you feel now? Do you feel better?”, I asked, to hear Minh’s instant response, “Way much better. Thank you mum! You are the best!”

I saw no more a cranky Minh. I saw a happy Minh finding his way to his room getting out a book from the shelf and read.



Minh stood still in a corner and looked so sad while his few friends were still playing golf around when we walked down from our friend’s apartment to pick him up and go home together.

Me: Minh, what happened?

Minh: [Did not answer]

Me: You look sad. Can you share with us what went wrong?

Minh: [Head down with sad eyes still]

So I did not try to ask further, knowing that that might just make him feel down more. However, once all of us were settled in the car, I tried diverting his mind to something else that I was sure he loves: buying Pokemon cards. He is crazy about anything Pokemon, and I made a promise to give Minh a set of Pokemon card of his choice for his hard work in writing a creative story some time back. This reward triggered a reward response that created better shade of the emotions: Minh’s face switched from still sadness to twinkling sadness. We then went to a shopping mall with two tasks: Doing grocery shopping and buying Pokemon cards. I let Minh decide what  to do first to give him some empowerment boost. After we got all we needed and hopped on a taxi to go home, we talked about Pokemon then I asked:

Me: Minh, can you share with mum why you looked so sad just now?

Minh: [Finally spoke up about it.] Because I was the last in playing golf.

Me: I see. I am sorry to hear that. Hey, look, you now have a lot of powerful Pokemons. Which Pokemons do you like best?

Minh: There are many that I like.

Me: Can you share with me their names?

Minh: [Listed names including Snorlax.]

Me: What would Snorlax do if he were last in the game like you?

Minh: Well, I don’t know.

Me: If you knew, what would that be?

Minh: Snorlax would go to sleep so he has more energy to bounce back!

Me: How about you? Would you do the same?

Minh: Kind of. I will practise in my own time so when I play, I could win.

You could tell who was happier 😉



It was a Saturday the morning when we planned to go to the High Line in NYC and when Minh, after getting up from his bed, was cranky. He would shrink his eyebrows when he talked. No trace of a smile could ever be found on his childish face.

When we were at the park and unpacked our snack boxes, the sun was pouring down its honey-like rays onto the ever-green lawn and blooming flowers. Everybody around looked happy and cheerful. It was an overall happy environment and Minh looked to be better.

Me: Minh, do you know that this morning, you were so cranky and that made mum and dad very very upset? And this happened not for the first time, which makes us feel so unhappy. [normal tone]

Minh: Sorry mum. [apologetic tone]

Me: What can you do to make yourself better the next time?

Minh: Tell the anger to go away.

Me: What else?

Minh: Breathe deeply.

Me: Cool. I look forward to seeing you do that the next time OK?

Minh: Okay mum!

Me: Also, can I help you as well with a suggestion? [asking for permission]

Minh: Sure. What’s that?

Me: By signalling if you are in really bad emotions or nearly there? That means when you are angry or cranky or whatever, I will let you know whether you are in yellow or red light, like the traffic lights?

Minh: Yes. What is yellow light for?

Me: That means you are making people quite uncomfortable, not very.

Minh: How about green light?

Me: Of course, when you are fantastic and well behaved, I will let you know that you are in green light?

Minh: What if I am so so good?

Me: It would be really green light. Sounds good?

Minh: Okay mum!

We continued to stroll under the shades and through the scents. [I used the traffic lights tactics and it works great, particularly when my son is in yellow light. After getting the signal, he makes the efforts to be in green not red light.]


I know that after reading this, you may forget a whole lot as your brain does not and cannot handle too much information. The bottom line is we have to be really creative as each child is different and each situation is different. I however still hope the key techniques shared are helpful as you navigate and tackle a puzzle. If there is one thing you want to remember from this post and want to try applying, what would that be? I would be grateful if you share how you apply that in your own creative way in the comment below.