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

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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This