Expert Parenting Advice
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Judy Arnall: How to calm down your child’s brain so that they can listen to what you are saying

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here

In this interview with Judy Arnall, a best-selling author and a certified brain and child development specialist, we talk about what actually happens in your child’s brain when they misbehave or become emotional, and why hugging works so well to calm them (and yourself) down.

Tags: Judy Arnall

Also in this interview:

About Judy Arnall

Judy Arnall, BA, CCFE, DTM is a certified brain and child development specialist and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices.

She is the founder of the Attachment Parenting Canada association and is the bestselling author of 5 print books translated into 5 languages, including “Discipline Without Distress” and “Parenting with Patience”.

She has also compiled a handy tips book titled “Attachment Parenting Tips: Raising Toddlers to Teens”.

Her latest book, “Unschooling to University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content”, is becoming a bestseller in an age of parents seeking educational options. She is the parent of 5 self-directed educated, attachment-parented children.

Judy has attended four university convocations. She can be reached at, or, or at

Why hugging your child when they misbehave is important if you want them to listen to you

Judy shares why, when your child is misbehaving, giving them a hug is not “rewarding them”, but instead calms them down, and allows them to listen and problem solve with you.

Sue Meintjes: What is your favorite technique or strategy that is working well for you or your clients, for getting kids to listen, or increasing the chances of them cooperating?

Judy Arnall: I would say my best strategy is giving the child a hug. Because it connects you to the child, and everybody listens better after they feel validated. Now, I get lots of pushback from parents on this because they say, “If you give a hug to a misbehaving child, you’re rewarding them.”

Most misbehaving children do it because they’re expressing strong emotions. They’re not calculating that they should misbehave. So, what you’re doing in giving them a hug is calming them down. When you’re both in a space where you’re really calm, then you can talk to them, and problem solve what to do instead.

What happens inside your child’s brain when they are misbehaving or throwing a tantrum

Judy is a certified brain and child development specialist, and here she shares what happens in your child’s brain when they throw a tantrum, and how giving them a hug physically calms down their nervous system.

Sue Meintjes: So, you don’t punish them when they are misbehaving, but instead try to see what they need to be better. I know you are an expert at childhood brain development, so can you tell me more about what happens inside your child’s brain when they are throwing a tantrum or behaving badly?

Judy Arnall: When a child is throwing a tantrum, or upset, or screaming, or crying, they’re under stress. So, their body is releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Their body is on high alert and by not even just saying anything, just calming them down, putting them in your lap, picking them up, giving them a hug, you’re calming physically the sympathetic nervous system. So, you’re calming them down.

You know, nothing gets solved when everybody’s upset. We’re mad. We issue consequences. The child’s mad. They may be hitting and pushing. Just physically calming down is the first step, before you get to the rest of the steps. It’s good for everybody. It calms the stress response.

How to stay calm when your child is upsetting you

Staying calm when my children are upset is very difficult for me. Here Judy gives some practical tips to follow when your child starts throwing a tantrum, to help you stay calm and help them calm down.

Sue Meintjes: Yes, nobody can listen when they are agitated or stressed. How do you stay calm when your child is behaving badly and making you feel stressed? Like, when my daughter starts throwing a tantrum, it makes me upset, and I struggle to remain calm.

Judy Arnall: Oh, I’ve had lots of experience with that. Five kids. If you’re out in public, getting them back to the car, where you’re in a quiet place and nobody’s watching, really helps parents too.

What I used to do is put my kids in their car seat, and then I just stand by them and sort of pat their head a bit. Not say anything and just wait. Just wait. So, they can feel you patting their head while they’re still tantruming. And they’re probably mad because they’ve been put in their car seat. But they do eventually calm down. They really do. Everybody does. And it helps you feel like you’re doing something to help the situation by just stroking their head.

At home it’s a little harder. I would make sure they’re safe. If they’re really little, you could put them back in their crib. They could finish their tantrum in there. Sometimes they don’t want you to touch them or hug them. And then just let them be, just be around, but let them finish their tantrum. There’s not much you can say or do if they don’t want you to touch them. But again, every tantrum calms down at some point. And that’s when you go in with a hug.

What to say and do after your child has calmed down

After your child has calmed down, the next step is to talk to them and teach them what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable. Judy shares what you need to talk about after an emotional outburst.

Sue Meintjes: So, the first step is to calm them down. What do you recommend we do after they are calmed down? What do we do after the hug?

Judy Arnall: After, you can talk about feelings. Acknowledge that they really had big, strong emotions and it’s okay to have big, strong emotions, but it’s not okay to kick your brother. Because after, then they can start hearing what you’re teaching them because they’re calm. So, don’t forget the teaching part.

Sue Meintjes: I’m really interested in learning more about this non-punitive parenting approach. Is there anything else you want to add?

Judy Arnall: There’s always a few tools to use. It depends on your child’s age though.

I always say under age four you can use more physical tools like childproofing, substitution, prevention, things like that. You could always pick them up and move them if they’re not listening to you.

After age four, they’re starting to become more talkative, then the number one tool is problem solving. Coming up with solutions that work for both you and the child to meet both needs. And that really works as long as everyone’s calm. That’s been my number one tool all through the teen years too.

Kids learn to problem solve. They learn that relationships need to be worked out rather than punishing people in relationships. I go into it more in my books. But it depends on a child’s ability to talk things out too.

Why you need to learn to “pick your battles” with strong-willed children

Judy shares some useful things to keep in mind if you have a strong-willed child.

Sue Meintjes: Can you give me an example of how you would problem solve with a 4-year-old? For example, she wants to wear a pink shirt, and doesn’t want to wear any other shirt.

Judy Arnall: Well, with strong-willed children, they’re born with, and they keep that temperament, through their whole life. It takes a little more working out things with strong-willed children and a lot more “yeses” on your part. So, you got to look at, “Is clothing really something I want to fight for?”

They exhibit very strong preferences. And that’s a good thing. That’s a trait that you want to protect. I always say that parenting strong-willed toddlers is like parenting a teenager. You’re just getting practice a lot earlier. Now, safety for one is something you do want to really, really get your needs met on, so you’re going to push for that.

But things like what they wear, you got to put that in the “not going to battle that one” pocket. So really pick your battles when you have strong-willed children.

Why you should rather give yourself a time-out than your child

This advice from Judy is something that I have started doing more and more, and it definitely helps me keep in control. When my kids misbehave and upset me, I walk away to first calm down, before coming back to talk to them.

Sue Meintjes: So, try to be more flexible. I really like the idea of just first focusing on calming down everyone. One thing that I tend to struggle with is keeping calm myself.

Judy Arnall: Yeah. I always advocate that parents need to be calm first, because we have a lot more practice calming ourselves down and, someone needs to be in control.

I know time-out in North America is very popular and I always tell parents, you know, time-out is more for you to get yourself calm. So, rather than putting your child in time-out, you take a break. Whether it’s taking deep breaths or just having a five-minute cup of tea, to get a grip on yourself. And you have to do that first before you can calm your child down. That’s for sure.

What happens in your brain (and your child’s brain) when you give your child a hug to calm them down

Sue Meintjes: Yeah. And just getting a hug yourself is also calming. What does the hug do to the brain?

Judy Arnall: Well, the stress response has calmed down. So, it lowers your cortisol, your adrenaline, which sends better signals to the brain. Your heart rate goes down. You just start thinking more clearly.

When we’re angry, our brains don’t think logically. We are just overloaded with emotions. We think more clearly when we’re calmer, and then we’re going to be more realistic. We’re not going to ground our teenager for a month because logically we know that’s impossible. We make better choices when our brain is not over-flooded with emotions.

Why there is no such thing as “bad” emotions (and what you need to teach your kids about emotions)

This is so important – teaching kids that they don’t need to fear their emotions, and that all their emotions are ok.

Sue Meintjes: Yeah, that makes sense. Is there anything else that you think parents should know about calming down themselves or their children?

Judy Arnall: I think there’s a lot of bad parenting advice out there and I think the more parents know about brain science, the better. I think it’s a good trend that we’re recognizing children have big, strong emotions and it’s okay to feel those emotions. It’s not okay to behave certain ways because of those emotions, but all emotions are good, and kids learn how to handle them by watching us.

I think we’re heading more in that direction, which is a good thing.

Sue Meintjes: I’m really enjoying your book, Discipline Without Distress. Before we end, can you share some of your favorite parts of your book?

Judy Arnall: I think the best part is 50 pages of common behaviors. It tells parents what the child might be feeling. Kids don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m gonna bug my parents today.” They don’t. They are just natural “emotion-letter-outers”.

I think the charts kind of help you figure out what they’re feeling and what to do about it.

Action steps

Here are my action steps that I got from this interview. I hope you’ll find these useful as well:

  • Next time your child throws a tantrum or gets upset, instead of scolding them, first give them a hug
  • After your child has calmed down, talk to them about their feelings and that it is ok to have those feelings
  • Instead of thinking of punishments or consequences, try to sit with your child and problem solve together
  • Instead of giving your child a time-out next time, rather see if you can give yourself a time-out to calm down
  • Get Judy’s book “Discipline Without Distress”  for better understanding your child’s behavior

This interview is part of How To Get Kids To Listen: Leading International Parenting Experts Reveal Their Best Secrets For Getting Kids To Cooperate, an ebook containing a collection of interviews I did with parenting experts from around the world.

I asked each expert one simple question: What is your best strategy for getting kids to listen and cooperate? and then listened as they shared their best parenting tips and advice.

How To Get Kids To Listen is available for free download here