As a child learns to connect ideas and concepts, certain accompanying emotions may cause him or her to suddenly become disorganized. The child may become anxious or withdrawn or actually feel disorganized. You can help your child by tuning in to the specific emotions that tend to tilt his or her emotional balance. By tuning in, you can

  • intervene before a potential emotional overload
  • provide support if the emotions get too intense
  • help your child become aware of which emotions at what level of intensity create discomfort

Let’s say your child becomes overstimulated as you are having a playful and friendly race with little cars on the carpet in the family room. Suddenly, your child starts throwing the little cars rather than sticking to the race. It may be that your child is having a hard time with either the competitiveness or aggressiveness of the play.

As a first step toward calming the situation, be empathetic. Let your child know that you understand her feelings of disorganized overstimulation: “Wow, the car got really revved up there. I know that when that happens, sometimes kids want to throw things.” Such an indirect approach works well because your child will feel that you are connected to his or her feelings, and by feeling understood, your child will be more open to what you say and are going to say.

After your empathic response, you can offer a reminder about safety—throwing cars can hurt someone or damage something—and then add sequences to the play that will help your child control the emotion that caused the reaction: “I wonder if this road needs to have some stoplights?”

As you continue to play over the next several days, the themes of winning and losing and going fast and slow probably will surface again. Simply play out these themes, provide soothing regulation, and continue to explore ideas to enable your child to respond to any associated difficult feelings.

Your shared closeness and reengagement in the play are the priorities for helping your child learn to handle intense emotions.