Overreactions, Exaggerations, and Tantrums, Oh My!

Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed

Licensed Professional Counselor, Intern

I am big on family systems therapy, even when working with individuals. This means that when I work with an individual client I keep in mind the dynamics of the entire family. When working with children and adolescents, I facilitate this by sending home “experiments” for the whole family, or at least the client and client’s parents, to do together. Many of my younger clients are uncomfortable with the idea of their siblings being a part of their therapy process. Personally, I respect this and talk about what makes them uncomfortable in session. Having families complete experiments at home helps transfer what is being developed and worked on in the counseling room to other parts of the client’s life. This helps all members of the family have a universal language which keeps everyone on the same page.


Children and adolescents often struggle with appropriate reactions to problems that arise in their lives. As your child navigates this oftentimes-confusing world, reacting this way is completely normal! Ultimately, we all learn through experimenting with behaviors. This is one reason why I call the material I send home “experiments,” instead of homework; there are no right or wrong answers, rather it serves as an opportunity for parents and children to work together to find a universal language that works for everyone.


Determining the size of a problem, when your child struggles with overreacting, is one way to simplify communication. A child may not be able to understand that their reaction was way over the top in comparison to the problem at hand. Parents, use this as a teaching moment instead of reprimanding your child for overreacting. This can be done by encouraging your child to talk about what happened and to identify how it made them feel. You can also talk about how the problem they experienced would have affected you had you experienced it. The next step is to determine the size of the problem using agreed upon terminology. A small problem to you can feel like a big problem to your child. Little problems are defined as, “problems that only effect one to two people and can be ignored or solved in a matter of minutes” (Kuypers, 2011). Medium problems are defined as, “problems some people share that are able to be resolved in an hour to a couple of days” (Kuypers, 2011). Big problems are defined as, “problems that many people share and that have no easy, quick, or pleasant solution” (Kuypers, 2011).


The size of the problem can be broken down to a scale of 1-5 with a 1 being a tiny problem or a glitch, a 2 being a little problem, a 3 being a medium problem, a 4 being a big problem, and a 5 being a huge problem. Examples of a 1 are not getting the color game piece you want, making a mistake, or being last in line. Examples of a 2 include a friend or sibling taking something from you without asking, and not doing as well on a test as hoped. Examples of a 3 could be getting in a big fight with a friend or sibling, and getting a detention at school. Examples of a 4 could include a car accident or a family member in the hospital. Examples of a level 5 problem could include a death in the family, someone getting seriously injured, and natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes (Kuypers, 2011).


The size of the reaction should be equal to, or smaller than, the size of the problem. Appropriate reactions to little problems should be little as well, which could include ignoring the problem, fixing the problem, taking a deep breath, remembering to have a flexible brain, and taking a break in order to avoid a larger reaction. Appropriate reactions to medium problems are walking away, some disappointed or upset feelings, talking to a trusted adult, and using a strategy to calm down such as squeezing a stress ball, counting backwards from 10, or taking at least 5 deep breaths. Big problems are those that need to be handled by an adult. It is okay to feel scared and to cry, however it is also important to get an adult right away, to use listening skills, and practice calming strategies to remain as calm as possible. Your child can identify the problem as a little, medium, or big problem or identify the size of the problem using a number. Remember, this process helps your family come up with a universal language that works for you, so pick whatever works for your family.


Try completing this worksheet at home with your child using the examples provided above as a guide, while adding more to each section. If a problem comes up that is not on the list, work together to decide the size of the problem and what an appropriate reaction would be. Remember, the size of the problem=the size of the reaction!


People see these as big problems







People see these as medium problems






People see these as little problems



Adapted for The Zones of Regulation® from the original work of Winner’s Think Social (2005), pages 44-46,

www.socialthinking.com and Buron and Curtis’ The Incredible 5-Point Scale (2003).


© 2011 Think Social Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

From The Zones of Regulation® by Leah M. Kuypers • Available at www.socialthinking.com




Kuypers, L. M. (2011). The zones of regulation: A curriculum designed to foster self-regulation and emotional control. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing.