Think of Big Behaviour Like Smoke From a Burning Building. Here’s why, and what to do.

Boy in behaviour and response

Think of behaviour like smoke from a fire we can’t see. The behaviour we see is the smoke. The fire is a brain that has registered threat, and needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. The question isn’t, ‘How do I stop the smoke?’ but, ‘What’s causing the fire, and how can I stop it burning?’

The ‘fire’ is being fuelled by a felt sense of threat. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe. It’s about what the brain perceives. For any of us, ‘threat’ might be anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, interruption, waiting, unfairness or loss. ‘Threat’ can be physically driven (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger, possible physical danger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness). 

When big behaviour happens, we often focus on the ‘smoke’ – the behaviour we can see. This would be like noticing the air thick with grey smoke, but rather dealing with the burning building that’s feeding it, we focus on the smoke and try to disappear it with a big fan. This might get rid of the smoke for a short while, but if we haven’t dealt with the burning building, it’s not going to be long before the sky fills grey with smoke again. Something else that might happen by focusing on the smoke rather than the building, is that the big fan we’re using will actually enrage the flames and make the fire hungrier. The answer is to focus on the cause of the problem (the fire / the lack of felt safety), not the effects (the smoke / the behaviour).

Bringing this back to big behaviour, the priority is to support our children back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, and validate. Validation can be with or without words. We can validate the need, ‘Yes, you really wanted to stay in the park. I wish we had more time so you could do that,‘ validate the feeling, ‘I know how angry you are at me. I would be angry too,‘ or if words are annoying for them, just feel what they feel but stay regulated – they will feel you with them. 

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets their nervous systems on fire. When this happens, cycle between holding the boundary, and tending to the relationship. Let the limits be on behaviour, not thoughts or feelings. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. The idea is to be an anchor presence – strong, steady, connected, and surrendering the need to ‘fix’ anything while the emotional storm passes. To do this, you might need to cycle between recalling the boundary and tending to the relationship: Flag the behaviour, ‘It’s ok to be angry. It’s not okay to call me names. I know you know that,’ and then shift focus to relationship, ‘I’m right here,’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’ Think of this as love and leadership together. We can lovingly hold the boundary, and loving them should not be without leadership.

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

But holding with love and leadership can be tough sometimes!

When our children are in distress, we might also go into fight or flight. This is a very normal response and happens for an important reason. It happens to make sure our bodies are physiologically ready to protect them, should they actually be in danger. The brain doesn’t care that they aren’t actually in danger. It will ready us, just in case. This means that rather than fighting for them or fleeing with them, our own fight or flight response might see us wanting to fight with them (which is why their anger, frustration, irritation, anxiety might drive the same in us), or flee from them (by walking away for a moment, ignoring). This is not bad parenting. It’s a really normal response from a brain that is readying you for ‘fierce protector’ mode, just in case. The problem isn’t the response, but that there is no actual threat for us to deal with – just a young brain that feels like there is.

Responding to big behaviour with relationship and connection does not mean we are ‘rewarding bad behaviour’. Far from it. What we are actually doing is bringing their brains back to a learning-ready state so they can be open to our guidance and influence. The brain can only learn when it has a felt sense of safety. Supporting our children to feel validated, seen, and loved in the moment brings them back to calm and felt safety. It lets us be guided by the true north of our parenting hearts, and brings us back to what discipline was always meant to be about – to teach, not to punish.


Shevi S

I love this post. So true and so well explained. Thank you!
One thing that I hope you write more about, is in your last words “to teach, not to punish”. “Teaching”, unfortunately, has become synonymous to schooling or a top-down model of transferring information. I would love your take on what true teaching is all about.


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Separation anxiety can come with a tail whip - not only does it swipe at kids, but it will so often feel brutal for their important adults too.

If your child struggle to separate at school, or if bedtimes tougher than you’d like them to be, or if ‘goodbye’ often come with tears or pleas to stay, or the ‘fun’ from activities or play dates get lost in the anxiety of being away from you, I hear you.

There’s a really good reason for all of these, and none of them have anything to do with your parenting, or your child not being ‘brave enough’. Promise. And I have something for you. 

My 2 hour on-demand separation anxiety webinar is now available for purchase. 

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Access to the recording will be available for 30 days from the date of purchase.

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The more we treat anxiety as a problem, or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it. 

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave. 

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big. 

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does - you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’♥️
I’ve loved working with @sccrcentre over the last 10 years. They do profoundly important work with families - keeping connections, reducing clinflict, building relationships - and they do it so incredibly well. @sccrcentre thank you for everything you do, and for letting me be a part of it. I love what you do and what you stand for. Your work over the last decade has been life-changing for so many. I know the next decade will be even more so.♥️

In their words …
Posted @withregram • @sccrcentre Over the next fortnight, as we prepare to mark our 10th anniversary (28 March), we want to re-share the great partners we’ve worked with over the past decade. We start today with Karen Young of Hey Sigmund.

Back in 2021, when we were still struggling with covid and lockdowns, Karen spoke as part of our online conference on ‘Strengthening the relationship between you & your teen’. It was a great talk and I’m delighted that you can still listen to it via the link in the bio.

Karen also blogged about our work for the Hey Sigmund website in 2018. ‘How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)’, which is still available to read - see link in bio.

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I often go into schools to talk to kids and teens about anxiety and big feelings. 

I always ask, ‘Who’s tried breathing through big feels and thinks it’s a load of rubbish?’ Most of them put their hand up. I put my hand up too, ‘Me too,’ I tell them, ‘I used to think the same as you. But now I know why it didn’t work, and what I needed to do to give me this powerful tool (and it’s so powerful!) that can calm anxiety, anger - all big feelings.’

The thing is though, all powertools need a little instruction and practice to use them well. Breathing is no different. Even though we’ve been breathing since we were born, we haven’t been strong breathing through big feelings. 

When the ‘feeling brain’ is upset, it drives short shallow breathing. This is instinctive. In the same ways we have to teach our bodies how to walk, ride a bike, talk, we also have to teach our brains how to breathe during big feelings. We do this by practising slow, strong breathing when we’re calm. 

We also have to make the ‘why’ clear. I talk about the ‘why’ for strong breathing in Hey Warrior, Dear You Love From Your Brain, and Ups and Downs. Our kids are hungry for the science, and they deserve the information that will make this all make sense. Breathing is like a lullaby for the amygdala - but only when it’s practised lots during calm.♥️
When it’s time to do brave, we can’t always be beside them, and we don’t need to be. What we can do is see them and help them feel us holding on, even in absence, while we also believe in their brave.♥️

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