Anger, voiced by Lewis Black, shows his rage in the movie, "Inside Out." Photo courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

“I have a spirited, stubborn, fierce, precocious, delightful daughter, age 7. When she is tired or hungry she loses all control and smothers her brother and gets in his face, yells, loses her temper, slams doors, etc. How can I help her calm down? We try to make sure she gets enough sleep and food but she often refuses to eat, She is much improved from when she was 2 though!”

It sounds as though your daughter has had, and still has, challenges when stressed. I hate labels but some people might call her a “difficult child” or an “over-reactor.” I like the descriptive term my son uses about my grandson, “Joshua had a meltdown in the toy store today.” I know how it feels when I am about to melt down so I can sympathize with kids who do.

You use many positive adjectives to describe her.

Hey, Dr. Heins is stubborn really a positive attribute?

Actually it is when a child sticks to a hard homework assignment until it is done and gets a good grade in school. Not so positive when a preschooler refuses to get dressed and makes everybody late. What is truly positive is that your daughter is “much improved” so we know she is on a good trajectory as she grows and develops.

Time to shift your thinking from how you “can help her calm down” to how you can help her calm herself down. This has two parts. When she is hurting or scaring her brother or anyone else, she has to be separated from the scene. In her room until she calms down. Comes out still fuming? Back to being separated from the others. The privilege of being with others is conditional on the fact that we don’t hurt them.

I suspect your precocious daughter wants to learn tricks to calm herself down. She knows her behavior is childish and unwanted. Tell her what grownups do when they get upset. Teach her to take deep breaths, show her how it’s done, tell her this works for you (fibbing is OK!). Also suggest she imagine herself in another place where everything is calm to help her feel calm. Role play together to imagine peaceful places.

Probably the most important thing you can help your daughter learn is how to recognize what it feels like inside herself before she has a meltdown. I tell harassed, overworked mothers with young children, “Before you explode or drop, STOP!” Make sure the baby is safe and leave the scene to calm down time. Better than screaming at the baby (which you will regret) or worse.

Help your daughter realize she can feel what is coming and stop the meltdown. Role play with your daughter, tell her how you feel when everything goes wrong, and how being alone for a few minutes can really work. Rehearse what she will do when she is about to lose it.

I am assuming your daughter does not have meltdowns at school or you would have told me. Many children feel home is a “safe place” to let out their feelings and it should be. But the rule of not hurting others is ubiquitous and goes back to the Golden Rule: don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. Without this rule civilization trembles. I am pretty sure this will not happen because of her trajectory but if your daughter starts hurting others outside the home get her professional help.

I’m guessing time cures 90% of behavior problems in children but we carry our innate personality traits into adulthood. Perhaps your daughter will put hers to good use and become a dramatic actress!


Ilustración por Tammie Graves / La Estrella de Tucsón

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, great-step grandparent, and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email for a professional, personal, private, and free answer to your questions.