Troubling Behavior: How to Take On an Emotional Project

By Kristen Volk and Patty Wipfler

What’s an emotional project?

An emotional project is a set of persistent feelings or behaviors that come up for your child again and again. When the same feeling or behavior is triggered many times in somewhat similar situations—like always hating to go to school or daycare, or always becoming aggressive if other children crowd too close—it indicates that there’s a big hurt under the surface. To heal that hurt, you’ll need to listen many times to the same big feelings—“You don’t care about me!” or “It’s not fair! It’s never fair!”

You can’t reason with the feelings of someone who is in the midst of an emotional episode. That person’s mind isn’t working well. He’s in a state of emotional upheaval, caused by feelings awaiting emotional release.

A child who has a younger sister might see unfairness every day in interactions that aren’t unfair at all. If he thinks his scoop of ice cream is a tiny bit smaller than his sister’s, he’ll feel intense injustice. And if you add more ice cream, he will then become upset about the side of the table she is sitting on, or the spoon she uses to eat her ice cream.

To heal from a persistent feeling, a child has a steady series of upsets of the same kind. With a good listener, these upsets can lead to a kind of deep healing. As your child cries or rages and you listen with care, the two of you will together drain that big hurt, and change your child’s overall outlook on life and on his relationship with you.

You won’t see progress if you look at the intensity of a child’s feelings each time he has an upset, because feelings are emotional history. Every time the child has those feelings, he’s wrestling with his past experience. That past experience remains the same, and so do the feelings. But if you’ve listened to him, those feelings are replaced by a sense of connection you’ve given him, and you will see progress in your child’s behavior.

This progress will be most apparent during ordinary moments, when he’s not upset. You will see him become more resilient, happier, or more relaxed over time. The big feeling will be tripped less often; however, when it is tripped, he’ll feel it intensely, just as he did before. That intensity is wired into the original experience, and will be there until he cries his very last tear about it, and the experience heals entirely.

When children get repeated help with their deep-seated feelings and perceptions, their outlook changes. They become more confident, more outgoing, more relaxed, and more trusting. Their skills and their enthusiasm grow over time.

A child who once saw many interactions as unfair can become quite content with and loving toward his sisters and brothers. A child who was wary of everyone except his parents can become confident, even with adults he doesn’t know well. And a child who is often aggressive can become relaxed, and can ask an adult for help when he’s feeling upset about what another child does or says.

Do you recognise this behavior in your own child? Here are steps you can take to help with an emotional project

First, you will need:
1) Time
2) Patience
3) A long-term view of where you are headed. Your goal is to build a closer connection with your child, and to help him offload the stored feelings that are causing him trouble.
4) All of Hand in Hand’s Listening Tools, which are designed to help you connect, support, and think creatively about your child.
5) A strong support system for yourself, to help you maintain the perspective that your child is good.

The more you practice the Listening Tools, the more you will see the goodness of your child. The easier it will be to see that that the behaviors you find difficult, like hitting, spitting, whining, aggression, running away, or defiance, are not your child at all–They are little behavioral scars that cover feelings of hurt he still carries.

Underneath, your child is a generous and good-hearted person.

  • Special Time, Playlistening, Setting Limits, and Staylistening can soften your child and build his trust in you
  • Repair the connection between you
  • Help your child offload the feelings at the root of his difficult behaviors.


Identify one issue you want to help your child with. Just one. Your first step is to offload your own feelings about this issue, the fears you have, the hurt feelings triggered in you, and your current irritations, in listening time.

After you identify the issue, get listening time on all aspects of what comes up for you. Look at it from different aspects. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. When you were a child, what happened to you or to your siblings when you tried this behavior? What did your parents do or say?
  2. When you were a child, did someone behave this way toward you? What was that like?
  3. What feelings come up for you when your child adopts this behavior?
  4. Are there other times in your life you have felt this way?
  5. What do you most fear about your child persisting with this behavior?
  6. Does your child remind you of anyone when he does this behavior? If so, talk more about that person and his/her effect on your life.
  7. Do you feel it in your body? Does that feeling in your body remind you of another time in your life?
  8. What are your impulses toward your child when he does this behavior? Show them fully in your Listening Partnership.
  9. Then, figure out what extra support you will need. Do you need listening time before your child comes home from school or day care? Before dinnertime, if that’s when his feelings usually arise? After bedtime, so you can let someone know how your day went, and offload the stress that collected?

Do you need spontaneous listening times at moments when you would normally yell, punish, or give up? Who can you set up an agreement with, and what kind of listening can you offer in exchange?

If you don’t have a regular Listening Partner, how can you build one? Who can you ask?


Doing Special Time with your child provides a baseline of connected time together. It fosters connection and trust. It is like nourishment for the mind. Without Special Time your child can easily go off track.

Plan for connection …
– In the morning
– When you rejoin your child later in the day
– At bedtime (a challenging separation for many children)

Special Time:
1) Always name it so your child can ask for it. You want Special Time to be a time when your child can completely depend on your attention.
2) Always time Special Time. Timing it allows your child to work on his disappointments when he has your attention. If your child becomes upset at the end of Special Time, and can cry or tantrum with your support, it will lighten the 3) emotional load he carries.
3) Always end Special Time warmly, but clearly. Bring your warmth.
4) Plan to do some Staylistening at the end. Bring your time and patience. Children feel so encouraged by the attention we give them in Special Time that their instinct to heal from stored feelings gets stronger. They cry or tantrum when Special Time is over because our good attention has encouraged them to feel, in order to heal.

Build connection in other ways:
1)  Notice the things you that aren’t Special Time, but that do help your child to feel connected. Notice the times he typically doesn’t feel connected, and his behavior goes off track.
2) Build a connection plan with this information. What times of the day can you proactively connect with your child with snuggling, reading, play, walks, warm touch, and during the tasks of daily life like bathing, dressing, and eating?

3) How can you bring a sense of connection to activities that generally disconnect your child, like car rides, the morning routine, and your use of your smartphone?
4)  Actually write out your connection plan, including both Special Time and attention to connection in other ways.

For example, you might want to include times like these in your connection plan:

– Upon waking
– When you greet your children after school or day care
– Before dinner
– Before experiences/situations that trigger your child’s upsets
– Before times of the day that are hard for your child
– At bedtime


Be a detective. Try to figure out what triggers the behavior in your child. What happens right before the behavior? What patterns do you notice? Gather information about your child and his behaviors.

Notice when you say to yourself, “Oh, I hope this doesn’t happen again!” or, “Please not one more day of this!” We often allow false hopes to put us into the victim role. When you assume that the behavior will crop up, you’re in a position to plan, prepare, and experiment with Listening Tools that might help foster healing and connection.

Consider getting listening time before the times or situations that are particularly challenging for you. If you “lose it” during these times, note the feelings or the behaviors that set you off. Take these feelings to your Listening Partnership, and express them there. None of us can navigate an emotional project without making one darned mistake after another! So make your mistakes and offload your feelings. Progress happens this way, and perhaps only this way. Parenting well is a very messy process!


See what you can do to get active play and laughter going between you and your child, or with the whole family. Your child’s laughter will help build the foundation for deeper emotional work with these tools. Don’t use tickling to start laughter. Play the less powerful role instead. Ask him if he can think of a game about the kind of situation that’s difficult for him, and follow his lead. Blunder. Be surprised. Be less competent than he is. Be affectionately shocked, surprised, baffled as he pelts you with pillows, or scares you with his karate moves, “puts you to sleep” and sneaks away from you.


If you can, see what you can do to relieve your child of some of the stresses he’s facing. For example, if he’s really upset about having to dress himself for school, you could lovingly dress him for a week or two, while you do more Special Time and Playlistening to build his sense that you support him. Dress him as though he were two years old again, with affection and admiration for what a sweet child he is. After a couple of weeks of extra affection around dressing, reset a small part of your expectation again. Asking him to put on his socks, while you do the rest, may bring forth the stored feelings your child needs to offload, in the form of anger, tantrums, and all kinds of protest. Expect this. Be ready for it. It’s what needs to happen. Healing emotional release will happen best after you’ve made things easier and more loving for a period of time.


You need to build the energy to take on an emotional project, and you’ll need extra support as you follow through. So arrange extra listening time, and do what you can to lighten your parenting load for a defined period of time. Can you ask the neighbor’s teenager to come over two afternoons a week to tidy up the house or to wash a sink full of dishes? Can you let cooking go, and serve very simple meals—cheese and nutritious bread and cucumbers for dinner, for example? Can you decide not to clean the house for a month? We heartily approve of messy houses and undone housework, when connection is the goal. All those things can wait if you’re brave enough, and focused enough, to put them on hold while you play, snuggle in, and get listening time when you need it!


While you’re in the “adding extra attention” stage, do what you can to get play and laughter going! It may take some good Listening Partnership time to become calmer around your child’s difficult behavior—you may need to tantrum, lecture, threaten, and pound your fists with your Listening Partner in order to offload the emotional charge you feel about what your child does and how it affects you and the rest of your family. But when you’ve got that work going, set up some Playlistening times when your child can have the upper hand.

See if he can devise games around the issue he has. For example, if he runs away from you impulsively in public, endangering himself, then see what you can do to set up chase games, in which you want him badly, loudly, openly, but with a “happy puppy” attitude. “Where’s my sweet child? I’ve got to find him, I can’t do without him!” Look all over for him. Try to catch him, and fail multiple times. Or if your child is aggressive with others, playfully try to “tame” him, and be surprised but not put off when he playfully shows his aggression, and snaps back into being a “wild creature” again and again. Keep thinking of affectionate ways to “tame him” again and again. This will open the doors to deeper work when you go back to setting the limit with him.


After you’ve used Special Time and Playlistening to plump up his trust in you, perhaps over a few weeks or so, then tell him that he’s going to need to do XYZ now, and that you know it’s hard, but you’ll help. Set out one little task for him. If he hates to dress himself, tell him that you’ll dress him, but that he’ll need to pick out his clothes himself. If the preparations described above have gone warmly, then it may be that this minor expectation will start him crying or having a wild tantrum. Expect this. Staylisten. Hang in there, and keep saying, “I know you can pick out your clothes. You know what you want to wear. I’ll help you after that.” Listen all the way through. The next day, add one more small part to what you expect him to do, and listen through his protests again. You’re on your way! Don’t stop the extra Special Time, or the extra help for you, until his behavior is truly changed. That can take awhile as children work through their big early issues. But you’ll get there.

For help, you can call upon one of Hand in Hand’s consultants either for listening time for yourself, or for help with setting your strategy and getting important questions answered.

You’ll learn a lot from taking on an emotional project, and the effort will help to build your support system. It will also encourage your child.

We wish you the best with this important work! You’re improving your child’s basic impression of his world, and his safe place in your heart. Every cry that is accompanied by your love and attention makes his world feel safer. It’s worth the effort. You probably won’t receive the accolades you deserve for your good work, but your child’s pleasure, confidence, and trust in you will be your true reward.


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