Stop Reacting, Start Exaggerating

Stop Reacting, Start Exaggerating

“I know what I should do, but I often react, instead of responding with understanding.”

For every parent who feels wrong for reacting in the moment, I was right there with you when my kids were little. I’d read all the books, and knew what to do, but there were times when I just couldn’t do it.

The thing that made a difference for me was realizing that there had to be something right about my reactions, or I wouldn’t be having them.

Over the years I boiled down the “needs” the experts were talking about into three simple categories. I call them the Three Basic Needs: Experience, Connection, Power. I added a chapter about that in the back of the printed version of my handbook as a preview section for the next book (still in progress).

Turns out that we have the same Three Basic Needs as our children! And like our children, our physical and emotional reactions to a mental trigger are our body’s way of meeting our own need for power

So the best thing to do in those moments is to go into it by doing something on purpose (in a safe way), instead of trying to stifle it. You would never try to cap an active volcano, but that’s what we do to ourselves, and then we start fueling the next explosion immediately when we start kicking ourselves for being volcanos!

Since making big sounds and big actions (reactionary yelling, stomping, etc.) actually work to meet our need for power, a great thing to try in the moment is exaggeration. Because exaggeration is deliberate and big, it gets you conscious and starts to meet your need for power instantly, which is all it takes to turn the tide.

Plus saying something like, “That’s it! I’m so angry, I’m about to explode!” then miming a roar and stomping or pounding the table in slow motion like a giant, does two things. Brain research confirms what experience has shown us, that putting your feelings into words makes anger less intense. Plus the exaggerated actions break the tension for you and the kids and create a moment of playful giggles and connection. That may be all it takes to allow you (and them) to return to the problem at hand feeling more in control of yourself and able to SAY WHAT YOU SEE to describe the problem more objectively. 

If exaggeration doesn’t work for you, then try turning away and validating your own feelings out loud by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to yourself:

“You are so angry right now, you are ready to explode…”

Anything that doesn’t make you wrong for reacting will help.

Just find one thing you can do, practice it over and over in low-stress moments until it becomes second nature, and you will not only be changing your reaction to heated moments but be modeling for your kids self-control through self-acceptance. Plus, self-acceptance can help you take a fresh look at the mental trigger that set you off in the first place, and voila, you’re back on the path to personal growth.



I went into the exaggeration strategy in greater detail in a 3-part interview a while back. Here is the relevant section, edited slightly for clarity since it is out of context:

Tornado parenting sounds like a dizzying whirlwind of overwhelming moments that has the potential to leave a path of destruction. Not a desirable place to be for the parent or child.


The situations you describe tend to leave a parent feeling powerless [like when “…the parent is dealing with his/her own emotions, is exhausted, has a shorter fuse, and less patience…”]. When our needs are high, we need to meet them first before we can do much to help our children. Since we can’t stop and make the world go away, here are four things that come to mind:


1. SAY WHAT YOU SEE to yourself. The same kind of compassionate understanding you bring to your children when you say what you see, you can bring to yourself. Imagine you have a short fuse one day (or lots of days) and yell at your child for forgetting to feed the dog. You even call him or her irresponsible (my own personal hot-button). SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to yourself afterwards in your head could sound like:


SWYS (complaints): “You are so angry that the dog didn’t get fed! You even reminded her, and she still didn’t do it. You’ve done all you can do! You are at the end of your rope, working, taking care of the kids, and now the dog, too. It’s too much responsibility. Life shouldn’t be this hard!”


When you begin to nod and agree with yourself as in, “No, it shouldn’t,” you’ve established the dialogue needed to get you heard. After you have heard and agreed with all of your complaints, go into your wishes continuing to refer to yourself as “you.” This process makes you your own best friend and guides you toward your STRENGTHs:


SWYS (wishes): “You wish there were someone you could count on to help you get through all of this. You hate doing things alone!”


Just like that you find out you are someone who loves doing things with others, who loves companionship, loves supportive relationships. Wow! And you thought you wanted the world to go away — including your kids!


Seeing your STRENGTHs usually fills your need for power enough to go back and do a do-over with your kids. If you use these moments to help them understand human behavior and why, even as adults, we do things we don’t want to do when we feel powerless — like yell at our kids — it’s a win for everyone.


Plus you might just get to hear what CAN DO’s your child has already come up with to remedy the problem and point out the STRENGTH in your apology: “I am sorry I yelled at you and called you irresponsible for forgetting to feed the dog. Forgetting is a mistake, but figuring out a solution is responsible!”


Seeing the STRENGTHs behind your complaints also helps you figure out what CAN DO’s will fill your needs. If you take yourself at your word in the above dialogue, you will see you are right. You have done all you can do and know what you need — help. Seeing the hidden STRENGTH in wanting help, as opposed to seeing it as proof you are irresponsible, may open the door for you to finally get the help you need in the way of friends or a support group. There’s always something you can do when you find your STRENGTHs.


2. SAY WHAT YOU SEE to your children. This one step, because of its uncanny ability to get you out of your head into the present moment, can help you stay calm in challenging moments. Even if at first, it comes out through clenched teeth, say it again, objectively describing what you see, until you begin to calm down. Once calm, you will be able to offer CAN DO’s and ultimately find STRENGTHs, either in this moment or later as a do-over.


My Language of Listening® partner Eva Sim-Zabka shared a moment like this when her son and a friend were digging in her yard:


SWYS: (Fists tight and teeth clenched)“You’re digging in my grass!!!”


SWYS: (Calmer) “You’re digging in my grass. You must want to dig.”


CAN DO: “Must be someplace you can dig that’s not in my grass!”


STRENGTH: (After the kids found a patch of dirt) “You found another place to dig!”


3. Own it and become Tornado Mom. This surprise reversal can instantly turn any challenging moment around but it requires you to take ownership of your mood without guilt or blame. Becoming Tornado Mom “on purpose” with the appropriate warning sirens (some weird noises made by you) can break the tension and create lots of giggles. My favorite parenting author Lawrence Cohen explains why in his classic book, Playful Parenting.)


For example, imagine you are trying to make dinner. It’s already late, everybody is hungry, kids are chasing each other through the kitchen, table is not set, and what you really want is help. Start with the warning siren:


“Bwoop, bwoop! This is a Tornado Mom warning! Clouds are swirling around the kitchen. Kids running makes the wind worse. Oh no! Here they come again! Quick, get the dishes on the table before Tornado Mom lets loose! This one looks like a real yeller! Grab the plates! Grab the silverware! Oh no, she’s about to go! Oh no! Aaaargh! (Make loud noises and stomp or sweep playfully around the children.) Dishes aren’t enough! I hear tummy thunder! Must be something else you can do…”


In addition to looking hilarious, exaggerating how you feel instead of resisting it is a kind of validation for you and is far more authentic for the kids. They already know you are Tornado Mom, whether you admit it or not! Turning the game over to them with the all-purpose CAN DO “Must be something you can do,” can stop the running and possibly create the sense of team.


If after the first giggle or two, one or both children decide it’s not funny, at least you will be calmer and ready to SAY WHAT YOU SEE to hear their thoughts, feelings and upsets about their day. Either way, it gives you a short emotional break.


4. Seek professional help. If none of the above work for you, depending on the severity of the problem, either talk to a therapist or find a life coach. You can find links to our Authorized Language of Listening® Coaches on our Team page.


In the case of Tornado Parenting, the key to calming the storm and getting rainbows back in your life is being heard and validated — both for you and your kids.

Note: The artwork pictured is by my daughter Colleen. You can find more of her amazing original drawings and prints at


  1. Kateb |

    Fantastic ideas for shifting the dreaded anger tornados to not cause emotional wreckage. The idea of leaning into the angry moment going towards humor…..”Angry Mom Tornado Warning Alert” is something I want to try. Just like you said, it does not deny the feelings and what comes with the feelings.. I especially appreciated the tip to start using it in smaller less emotionally charged situations to re-train reactions. It’s a brilliant tool to try for improved parent self regulation so that the situation can be more constructively managed than with parent anger tornado explosion.

  2. Angelika |

    This is really great advice! I never allowed myself to embrace my own feelings, but tried to negate them instead. Embracing my own need for power makes such a difference because I can feel heard. And when I feel heard and seen, it´s so much easier to get back on track. Although I´ll need some pratice to get into the habit. For me, exaggeration is one of the few things that works when I have one of those “short-tempered, sleep-deprived days”, and the “Tornado Mom” exaggeration seems such a fun idea to embrace these moments and change their energy. I´ll defintitely try that and I think my “tornado daughter” will love it ;-).
    The other thing I´m beginning to understand is the gift of do-overs. Knowing that – if I don´t see the strength in the first place – I can come back and add it later, is an incredible opportunity! Thank you for these wonderful insights!

  3. Angelika |

    In addition to my first comment on this article, I would like to share my experience about actually TRYING the “tornado mom” because it turned out in a totally unexpected, but (in my opinion) quite brilliant way, and I would love to get your opinion on this! To get my first try as “tornado mom” or “tornado alert” as I called it, I picked out the time just before lunch. It´s usually a busy time: the children are hungry, my toddler is already tired, my older daughter doesn´t like to sit down at the table and starts running around the kitchen, and I am slightly irritated trying to put a healthy meal on the table and make lunchtime as peaceful as possible while managing everybody else´s needs. I thought it would be a good moment to try a “tornado alert” because I didn´t have a real “hot spot”, and I wanted to try this first – as you recommended – in a “low stress moment”. What actually happened was that my four year old daughter watched me express my upcoming storm in this game-like, exaggerated way, and she instantly captured the play-character of the situation. So, to my great astonishment, she JOINT IN, stomping her feet, making angry faces, letting some of HER stored feelings out. Nonetheless, she managed to take her things to the table and sit down as I had asked her to do through the exaggeration (that shows real strength!). Later on, and to my even greater astonishment, she asked me, if we could play the “tornado game” again! At that moment, I didn´t feel quite comfortable about that, but the next day she kept asking to play it again. So it occurred to me that maybe she felt that – while the “tornado game” was on – there was a SAFE PLACE TO EXPRESS STRONG FEELINGS in a playful way (similar to our power-play- / connection-game-times). She might have got that idea because I did it in a really playful way without being too stressed. When I realized this, two things came to my mind: (1) My daughter totally knew what she needed – a safe place to get some stored feelings out –, she wanted to do it in a playful way as in the “tornado game” and she communicated her need every time she felt it was time for a “child tornado alert”. (2) Considering the original idea of the “tornado mom” as a way to manage MY hot spots, that actually WASN´T a safe place and time for her to express herself, and if I wanted to give her the opportunity to use the game for herself, I would have to give it up for myself or make a really clear distinction, so that she could know when it was safe for her to do the game. Since I want to follow my child´s lead because she knows what she needs, and since she already showed me a way she felt comfortable to let stored feelings out, I think I will give up the “tornado mom” and try out a “child tornado alert” to see where it will take us. I think it would be a wonderful thing for a playtime. And I can still use other ways of exaggeration to get some of MY feelings out. I´d love to know what you think about this!!! Thank you!

  4. Angelika, how wonderful! Truly brilliant to use it in any way that it works! You are right that she knows what she needs, and playtime would be another great place for it, though introducing it there would be up to her.

    Being observant allowed you noticed that expressing herself helped her take her plate to the table and sit down. I’m guessing you pointed that out either in the moment or as a do-over to show her what works for her.

    If expressing her tornado feelings helps her overcome resistance to your boundaries, for sure, turn it over to her in those moments if you need to. Then there would be nothing for you to get upset about. When you can let the problem with your boundaries be the child’s, not yours, there’s no upset in it for you.

    But I have to say, it’s hard for me to give up the humorous image of you both tornadoing around at the same time. If you don’t think it would work that way, or you just want some unique expression of your own, you can get more ideas from her about what to do when you need to let out your feelings, or when you both do at the same time. She might surprise you again with her solutions.

    I think because you like it, this kind of exaggeration (tornado or other) could change your lives, because it helps you separate how you feel from what is happening, release the feelings in the moment, then return for objective problem-solving inside your boundaries: “You don’t like that, and that’s just how it is. Rats! Must be something you can do…”

    So excited to hear how this is going for you. Thank you for sharing it with me and the others who read this.


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