How To Use Emotional Containment To Calm Big Feelings + Stay Safe

Wondering what to do when toddler or children's tantrums or meltdowns turn physical? I'm talking throwing blocks, kicking doors or you, hitting, etc. The answer: emotional containment.

Discover how to use verbal, environmental, and physical containment to help kids with big feelings stay safe. The goal is to prevent things from getting physical, and provide you with tools to handle the situation if it does.

Difficult emotions and tantrums are normal and developmentally appropriate for toddlers and young preschool aged children , but can definitely feel frustrating and overwhelming for adults.

As a parent, we don’t want to stop our toddlers from expressing their emotions – and as long as there’s no safety issue, we actually don’t want to stop the tantrums either.

Instead the best thing we can do is help them through it so they learn to handle big feelings themselves in the future. Which is exactly what we are looking at today. How to contain those physical moments to steer our child back to safety. Afterall…

Our job as parents is to help them finish the stress cycle, help them develop coping skills, as well as ensure AND create safety. 

We don’t look at cessation of the behavior as a success, but instead look at recovery time. Meaning are they staying in a depleted state after the storm has passed or are they back to a vibrant curious toddler? Are they avoiding situations or developing generalized anxiety or are they willing to take risks and revisit things that didn’t go well last time? 

The goal here is to create the most embodied, authentic, aligned little human as possible. Meaning they can shift from vulnerable to playful, from sad to happy and it’s not a mood swing shift, it’s just riding the waves of emotions we all experience throughout a day without them getting stuck in their body. 

So again, our job as parents is to help them finish the stress cycle, help them develop coping skills, and to both ensure AND create safety. 

Tips For Calming Big Feelings

Before we jump into the three containment strategies, I just want to provide some foundational tips for calming and preventing big feelings in toddlers and young kids.

Finish the stress cycle

Finishing the stress cycle basically means moving out of the sympathetic nervous system – which is our fight/flight response or worse the dorsal vagal which is the freeze response – back to the parasympathetic nervous system which is our rest and digest.

When we do this, we see our bodies relax, we feel better, and just feel like ourselves.

Our bodies complete the stress cycle through physical activity, physical touch like hugs, crying, breathing, talking, and creative expression like dance or art. It's basically moving the energy out of your system in a way that feels right for you or your child.

This is a core concept for us as parents, and for our kids, as parents will need to complete their own stress cycle in the presence of their child's stress since kids, especially first borns or only children, mirror the parents the most.

Verbal Containment Strategy:

Name it to tame it

This is a pretty popular one you may have heard of, but I want to expand on it.

Name it to tame it essentially creates a verbal container for feelings. It provides a sense of order and demystifies big feelings by identifying them, making them easier to handle by giving it a verbal container so to speak. We'll talk more about containers later on, but this is basically step one with containers.

Here's the thing though: a lot of adults have a hard time identifying emotions within themselves, and if that's you don't stress!

I'm going to teach you a little hack where we take a montessori education method for teaching only a set of letters at once, and applying it to emotions here.

There is some debate on the exact number depending on which psychologist you follow, but generally the world agrees there are 5 to 8 primary emotions that are universal, hardwired into human beings. These are:

Anger, Fear, Sadness, Disgust & Joy – Interest, Surprise, and Shame

Within these are loads of variations, but those are like the big 8 let’s call them. 

So my suggestion is start with naming just the big 8.

Of course you can swap out some things to fit your language, like instead of joy say happy or instead of interest say love, friendly, or acceptance.

But keep the initial names simple – just like in montessori you only teach a small subset of letters first, only teach the big 8 first – once they master identifying those within themselves, start adding on the variations within them. I think this just makes it easier for everyone, especially if you have a toddler who struggles with speech, showing up consistently with these small set of names can build a sturdier container for them.

Start by doing this with YOUR emotions and then theirs.

Do nightly check-ins at dinner, or if you’re having a big feeling around them, name it. They can feel your energy, so it’s better to just explain it than pretend it’s not happening.

BONUS: Limit books/tv talking about emotions

I’ve shared in the past about things to avoid in books for babies and toddlers which I want to briefly touch on here as it relates to primary vs. secondary emotions.

Basically we have primary emotions, like I just mentioned, which are universally hardwired into human beings. These are what I just mentioned.

They have been studies done for decades were children of different cultures are shown pictures of other cultures and still able to identify these feelings on faces. 

And then there are secondary emotions which are learned. This is when we have an emotional reaction to an emotion. So when we get angry, we feel shame for that anger because maybe we get scolded for not wanting to share our toy as a child for example.

Secondary emotions are learned, and that often happens by watching caregivers, their environment, and through TV and books. 

I personally hate Daniel Tiger because it’s teaching kids how to feel about situations before they can often times experience it themselves. Be cautious during this critical age with what media you introduce and if your child is having a hard time, definitely comb through what they are consuming.

Narrate + Model

If a toddler can’t handle emotions on a large scale then you need to make sure you’re handling your emotions aloud using verbal containment.

I already mentioned you need to model finishing the stress cycle and name your emotions in front of them, but you want to also narrate what's going on.

If you’re crying in front of them, try narrating: “Mommy is crying because mommy feels sad right now. This is a big feeling, but mommy can handle it. You are safe and I am safe.” Place your hand on your heart and breathe until you feel yourself calm and then continue. 

In that example you've named it to tame it, narrated the reality, and modeled a stress cycle completion coping skill.

Environmental containment

This is moving the child to a smaller physical space and staying with them.

So this could be from a great room to their bedroom or a fort, from a large bedroom to a bathroom or closet. From the park to the car or a bathroom stall. From the backyard to a cozy spot under a tree or the backyard play set. 

That change to a more “cave” like environment may be enough to calm big feelings.

While in this more contained space, just be with them. Don't try to talk or rationalize or do all this crazy validation.

You can say occasional reminders like “You're having a hard time right now, I'm here with you.” If you feel like your presence isn't registering for them.

In general though, being in a small room with you remainig present and atteneitve to them should bring them down after a few minutes.

If they're still escalating, then you may need to move to physically containing if it becomes a safety issue where they are kicking, hitting, or throwing things that may hurt themselves or others.

Physical containment

First, I want to really express that physical containment is different than restraint.

Restraint has literally killed children and we do not want to do that. 

I would equate it to a swaddle where babies arms are down and they are fully restrained – we don’t want that vs. the swaddles where they have freedom of the arms to varying degrees and their moro reflex is softened, not suppressed. 

Physical containment, if used inappropriately as restraint, can be more harmful than helpful which is why I want to have this conversation since it’s often avoided and something parents struggle with in silence more than we realize.

Physical containment should only be used when a child is a safety threat to themselves or others. 

Before we choose to contain, we try a smaller environment, a supportive loving presence, a gentle touch on the shoulder, and waiting for the child to reach for us for support.

Remember earlier I said just be with them is one of the biggest keys. Be with them in that room, it’s okay if they are tossing pillows, knocking down their toys, etc. as long as they aren’t a threat to themselves, you or others. 

Hitting, kicking, scratching or throwing objects at you or someone else are all times we need to intervene physically. 

Again, you want to avoid it getting to this point, but it does happen, so here’s what you can try:

Hold them in a child-led way, like you would a baby ideally.

If your child is kicking/hitting you may need to start in a bear hug – again this isn’t to restrain them fully, it’s to contain.

If using their full force, kids would be able to get out of this at the pressure you’re holding.

Think of it as putting on a tight sweater – not a straight jacket. You are only applying pressure to hopefully create a pause in the behavior or prevent a hit, not to prevent movement altogether.

You can also lay on them. The way I like to do this is starfish, so their legs are totally free – because again this is for like a 3 year old, not a 10 year old who could kick you in the back in this position – place your head on their belly, not chest. My hands are free to hold the forearms if needed for hits, but otherwise hands are just resting on their arms or chest.

Another – and my personal favorite – is cradle them like a baby. It’s a bit more gentle and less dominating feeling. While still giving that gentle pressured touch reminder to come back into their body.

While doing this, narrate

Tell them what’s happening or about to happen.

“It's my job to keep everyone including you safe. I can’t let you hit, so I’m going to hold you right now. You are upset, but you are safe. I can handle this. You’re a good kid having a hard time right now.” 

Either way you slice it, holding your child like this may kick up some feelings for you.

If it does, don’t do it and immediately stop doing it in the moment if you can until you’ve worked through those feelings privately.

When physical containment isn't working…

I’ve talked about gentle pressure vs. restraint. If you've gotten to the point where gentle pressure isn't working, which means that name it to tame it, play, validation, a loving presence, a contained environment didn't work – and you're getting to the point of needing to use restraint then I strongly encourage you to seek a professional for help because there's a breakdown somewhere along that path of interventions happening for you.

Maybe it's past trauma in yourself, maybe it's a lack of understanding for your child. But when we get to the point of needing to restraint, we've missed a lot of red flags along the way and another set of eyes on the situation will be most helpful.

Addressing yourself

If you feel scared or unsure about what you’re doing, children will feel your feelings of fear/unease and it will just escalate things. 

If you go in confident, knowing you can handle whatever comes up with a sense of calm while showing them they aren’t out of control and alone, then you should never get to the point of restraint and these should all be effective at completing the stress cycle naturally.

A note on consent culture

We live in a culture of consent today which is great. But this is about our young kids and safety, not getting consent from older kids or adults.

When adults say they don’t like to be touched, that tells me there’s unintegrated trauma. Humans are not born disliking touch, that’s learned to survive. 

When our toddler is out of control, asking for consent for a hug may not be the best thing to do at that time. You're essentially taking a child who already feels out of control and trying to give them more control. It's too much responsibility.

Additionally, it can signal that you’re just as out and unsure of what to do in this situation and it can perpetuate that unsafe feeling all around. 

We need to show them their big out of control isn’t as scary as it feels, we can handle it, and we know the way out of it. 

Again, in order for them to not feel shame or hide that part of themself, they need to know YOU can handle it and sometimes one of the best ways to do that is to hold them through it. 

Think about it, if you’ve ever really broken down. And I mean REALLY broken down, full on collapsed, destroying everything in your path, you needed  someone to come in and hold you. 

Maybe even help you walk or sit up again. Your initial reaction to their touch may have been “ohh no get off me get off me” – not because you didn’t want the support, but because you didn’t feel you deserved it. You felt like such a wild animal that you, yourself was unsafe.

And that nuance – that I myself am unsafe – can be learned as a baby. 

Distinguishing safety

There's always a lot of debate about safety when our toddlers are upset – “how can I tell my toddler they are safe when they are melting down and clearly FEEL unsafe”

And that's the distinction we need to build within our children. There difference between true unsafety and feeling unsafe. To label feelings as unsafe sets out kids up for a challenging life.

That’s where just being with them, narrating little mantras like “You're having a hard time, I'm here with you. I won't let anything happen to you.” or “this feels big and scary right now, but you are safe and can handle this feeling.” Or, if needed, physical containment can help our children.

Again, if using physical containment let them lead it for it to be most effective. If they say you're hurting them, even if you KNOW you aren't crushing them, switch positions. If they say “get off get off” say “I know this is uncomfortable for you, I cannot let you hurt yourself, I’m going to hold you until you use your hands gently only. Are you ready for that now?” If they go back to the destructive behavior, go back to a gentle hold. I usually give it like 10-15 seconds before I release them. Kind of like when you ground your feet before actually getting up. It's just that extra pause.

In conclusion

Start making verbal emotional containment a part of your daily life to provide kids with safety. Do this within yourself, just as you'd narrate the plan for the day, narrate your inner world.

If children are having a hard time and you see them starting to struggle, take them to a smaller environment to support them.

If things have escalated to causing physical harm in themselves or others, then use narrate the physical containment approach you're going to take, and follow through in a calm manner. Be sure to talk to your child through the process, adjusting if they request it, letting them what to expect.

If you feel the need to restrain your child or find you're needing to practice physical containment often, consider working with a professional to see where things are going awry.

For more tips on coping with kids feelings check out these posts: