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Emotional Flooding

What is it?

Have you ever been so consumed with an emotional reaction that you say “I can’t think right now”? That’s the same as a child’s meltdown. It feels like there might be a house on fire but all you did was put peas on her plate. The clinical name is emotional flooding because that is physiologically what is happening: emotions are flooding the brain and thinking is impossible.

Quick review. Remember fight of flight: there’s a bear, a signal of alarm is sent to your brain, and the amygdala springs into action before the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) even knows what is happening. That’s great if there’s a bear. But emotional flooding is the result of the amygdala pushing the survival alarm bells based on information that may be faulty (faulty in that it doesn’t require that intensity of survival response).

Why does it happen? Some kids are simply more reactive by nature. Anxiety, helplessness, or not wanting to be told what to do (eat peas) can be a cause. Not feeling understood in the moment is also a culprit. A child can also just be hungry, tired or overstimulated.

How to Address It?

Once your child is emotionally flooded, she can’t be rational. Blaming, criticizing, talking, arguing, explaining the logic or even screaming will only prolong the flood. The thinking brain is off so it is not the time for teaching; limits, boundaries, consequences have to be done in a teachable moment (sorry). The only way forward is to stop the flood and get the brain back into balance. In your head, you need to say, “I will not argue, fight, explain” - and stick to it.

Your Response in Action

Accept What It Is

Knowing that flooding is the brain’s response to stress as opposed to your child’s attempt to be manipulative (yes, that can happen too), the absolute first step is for you to understand, accept it for what it is, and drop all notions of I NEED TO TEACH HER THAT THIS IN UNACCEPTABLE. That comes later.

Diffuse the Situation

This looks different for different kids. With younger children you might simply wait and then help soothe. Validate, “I see you are really upset”. With older children or teens, they might need some distance. Try modeling self-control, “I see you are getting upset, let’s take a breather.” I practice by just biting my tongue and listening until there is a shift in the intensity.

Problem Solve

When the emotional intensity is back to normal, you can go about fixing the problem if there was one. Understand their point of view and find a solution (that does not mean ‘giving in’). Have a snack, encourage your teen to talk it out, make a plan for when he can have what he was screaming for.


The first step is awareness that your child’s brain has taken over, and that all notions of teaching or fixing behavior are counterproductive. Just try letting the emotion take its course. Repeat to yourself, will not argue, fight, explain” - and stick to it. One step at a time.

Meltdowns and changing the behavior is multilayered and very, very difficult. Give yourself a break. Start small. And if you want some help, use one of my free consultations and we’ll come up with a plan.

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