Resources / For families

A phase or a problem? How to handle tantrums, hitting, and separation anxiety

Parent sitting with crying child on couch
Brightline Logo Mark Orange
Brightline team

Apr 19, 2024

You know your child better than anyone. You’re in tune with their sleep needs, you can guess when they’re hungry, and you definitely know how to make them smile. 

What can be a little harder to predict are their phases of growth and behavior change. Some phases they go through seem like they’ll never end — and then something will start or stop so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. How are you supposed to know if the behavior you’re seeing is just a passing phase or an issue that you could use some help navigating?

The first step is to get familiar with developmental milestones so you have some idea of what to expect (and when). Read articles, talk with your pediatrician’s office, ask friends or family, and talk to your Brightline team. Share what you see happening with your child so you can get reassurance or data-driven advice to help you understand the behaviors.

There are also some behaviors and patterns you can watch for from day to day and some tools that can help as a first step.

Tantrums and hitting

All behavior — the ones you like to see and the ones you hope to change — is communication. So start by getting curious about what your child is trying to communicate, and why.

What is the function of the tantrum? What emotion are they trying to express? What do you think they are hoping to get as a result of their outburst? Why are they frustrated, sad, or angry? Why are they defaulting to a physical reaction instead of a verbal response? Why are they trying to get attention in the first place?

Next, do you notice any patterns, like what is going on right before or right after a tantrum? If you can start to track certain emotions or situations that seem to trigger the behavior, you can start to predict them, and help your child express those emotions or needs in a different way. 

If you tend to see frustration or the behavior on days where there isn’t enough scheduled attention and focus:

  • Try watching YouTube videos, reading books, or using emotion charts. This can help your child identify how they feel and find new ways of dealing with big feelings in their body. 

  • Give them more structure and consistency to see if that helps them soothe and regulate their emotions. 

  • Teach your child a replacement behavior, then reinforce it with an age-appropriate rewards and consequence system. Make it fun — role play or use stuffed animals to act out what the replacement behavior should look, sound, and feel like. Then, give your child regular reminders to use the new behavior instead of the old habit.

What if it’s not working? Track the tantrum behaviors you see. If any of the following are happening consistently (at least twice a week for three months), it’s time to reach out to your Brightline team for help:

  • Your child is injuring themselves or causing damage during an outburst

  • The intensity or length of outbursts are way out of proportion to the triggers

  • The tantrums or hitting are having a negative effect at school, with siblings, or with friends

Separation anxiety

It’s normal for kids — and parents — to feel nervous about spending time away from people and places they know. But learning independence and how to navigate the world a little bit at a time is healthy. 

Let’s talk about five ways to encourage and support your child as they branch out of the nest, using starting school as an example.

  1. Prepare in advance: Walk or drive by school, take a tour of campus, or meet a teacher before classes begin. Read books like “The Kissing Hand” or “The Invisible String” to remind them they’re never alone.

  2. Give them a little piece of home to take with them: A note in their lunch, a photo of their dog or the family, or a meaningful trinket from home can help comfort them throughout the day.

  3. Check your own emotions: Kids can pick up on parent/caregiver emotions or hesitancy. Even if you’re struggling with the transition, too, try to keep your emotions in check — show them positivity and confidence that they can do this.

  4. Transition activity: Work with a teacher or counselor in advance of school starting to set up a special task or activity for your child to do when they get to school. Feeling busy and needed can help distract from the transition.

  5. Rewards and praise: Motivation matters! Track the good days on a reward chart and give your child something to look forward to after school like extra play time or a special treat. 

What if it’s not working? Track the instances of separation anxiety you see. If any of the following are happening for several weeks or if their separation anxiety is affecting their ability to enjoy time away from home/family, it’s time to create a plan with your Brightline team:

  • High levels of fear and stress when attempting separation (or even just thinking about it) that don’t align with your child’s developmental stage

  • Catastrophizing or worrying about a parent getting hurt or not coming back

  • Refusal to go anywhere, fear of being alone at home or in another setting, or a fear of sleeping away from home

  • Persistent nightmares or physical symptoms when they’re away from home

If the tactics above don’t seem to help, or haven’t created lasting change, coaching or therapy is a great next step. Let your Brightline team help you and your child get to a place where these behaviors are more manageable. Visit to get started.