Setting Limits With an Explosive Child

My daughter is 7 years old. She is having a hard time hearing the word “no”, and always has. My daughter frequently melts down and has a tantrum, yells etc. We do not back down, but constantly have to move into consequences, which result in the tantrum escalating, it is exhausting. We try to keep a cool head. … I do not know whether she is just tired, this frequently happens after school. I think she holds it together all day at school, and falls apart when she comes home. Thanks in advance for your reply.

Best, Sue

Explosive child getting ready to tantrum


While some children make it easier for us to say no, it isn’t uncommon for some kids to be more explosive when we try to set limits. It is wonderful that you are strategizing ways to set your daughter up for success.

For starters, you might want to check out a couple of the tips we’ve compiled about talking to teenagers and avoiding power struggles. I know that your 8 year old isn’t a teen yet but the strategies will likely be helpful for her as well!

Some children have a more difficult time than others regulating their emotions. For these kids, it isn’t a “bad attitude” that makes them angry and defiant. They simply have a very difficult time managing their emotional responses. This does not mean, however, that they don’t need to learn limits and consequences. For kids who have a particularly difficult time regulating their emotions, I’ve developed a model that may help.

The Cliff

When kids lose control over their emotional responses and get past a point of no return I call this “the cliff.” The goal is to avoid going over the cliff when possible.

  • Share the image of the cliff with your child. Explain to her that “When you get really upset it is as if your brain falls off a cliff and feels out of control. Let’s think of ways that we can avoid the cliff together.”
  • Know where your child’s cliffs are. It sounds like your daughter has a particularly difficult time when she gets home from school. Try to create predictable structure during these times so your child knows exactly what is expected of her. Be prepared to use cliff-avoiding strategies during particularly vulnerable times.
  • Look for signs that your child is headed towards the cliff. It might be clenched fists, stony silence, or “I can’t do this!”
  • Try to steer your child away from the cliff. If the conflict is around a chore or task, take a moment to distract your child so that she can re-regulate. There is nothing wrong with sitting down for a snack and then trying again.
  • If your child continues to head for the cliff stay calm and connected with her. Let her know that you understand that she is angry or frustrated. “I know you want to go hang out with your friends right now and that you are angry that I won’t let you. Can I help you get your chores started so that you will have time to catch up with them?”
  • If she goes over the cliff regardless of these attempts, stay calm. Don’t escalate her emotions by yelling or over-explaining. Repeat reassuring phrases like “We can get through this together. We are going to calm our bodies together right now.”
  • If she needs to go to her room to calm herself down that is just fine. When she is not heading towards the cliff, talk with her about different strategies she can use to calm herself down like taking five deep breaths.

Pick your battles

Setting off an explosion of emotions every time you say no can be exhausting. Decide in advance which limits are worth fighting for and make sure you remain consistent on these behaviors. Next decide if there are some things that you want to address but aren’t worth heading over the cliff for. You may choose to put less emphasis on these issues. As your child gets better at regulating her emotions the things in these categories may move up the priority ladder.

Remember your child’s strengths

Try to remember that your child needs a lot of practice learning to regulate her emotions and she isn’t trying to make your parenting life difficult. Remind yourself of your child’s strengths and mirror those back to her. If we are constantly scanning the horizon for potential cliffs, we sometimes miss the things our children are doing really well. Provide frequent and immediate feedback on positive behavior. For example, “I noticed that you included your brother in the game even though you were with all of your friends. I really appreciate that.”

Let me know if these ideas help! Every child is different and your daughter is lucky to have parents who cares so much about her.