When I received training for being an inpatient counselor, I learned this handy little acronym. Not only does it help with very quick diagnostic decisions at the hospital, I believe it can immensely help with parenting as well as other relationships in your life.
HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.
We should never make big decisions when we are in any of these states. The acronym itself is helpful as it asks for you to stop and assess before you continue with what you’re doing.
The reason it’s important for parents to know the HALT acronym is because children and adolescents oftentimes cannot recognize these states within themselves and need their parents’ help. It may seem like a no brainer to adults to be able to recognize these states in themselves but that’s because by the time you’re 25 or 35 or 50, you’ve had a whole lifetime of practicing self-awareness. Anyone below the age of 18 hasn’t and they need some help recognizing these states.
Let’s take a walk through each part of the acronym.
While everyone makes fun of those who become very irritable with hungry (i.e. hangry), it is a very real phenomenon. Hanger is the result of low blood sugar impacting your mood. Sometimes, us humans forget to listen to our bodily signals and forget to take care of certain physical needs. When that happens, the body can manifest these needs as emotional states. The same can also happen in reverse believe it or not (i.e anxiety frequently manifests as stomach pain). This is often referred to as psychosomaticism and is your system’s way of bringing your attention to various needs. Furthermore, regardless of your beliefs on food intake, your brain needs fuel to operate properly. If you’re hungry, you’re only using half of your operating power to make certain decisions. It’s okay. Have the snack and refuel.
If your child or teen is also showing signs of irritability, ask them when the last time they ate was. If it’s been a while, maybe give them a hearty snack with a balance of carbs and proteins.
If you’ve had your snack and you’re still upset, chances are you’ve been wronged in some way and your emotions are trying to alert you to the situation you’re in. Therefore, it’s best to sooth or address what’s causing your anger before moving on. Imagine a long-term dating relationship or even a marriage. Imagine if either party were just angry and ended the relationship prematurely because they weren’t able to address their anger in a healthy way. That’s a lot at stake!
If your child or teen is showing signs of anger, check if they’re hungry first, but if they’re not, ask them what’s bothering them. Please be patient with your kid. They’re still learning healthy communication and it’s going to take a while as it’s not always very intuitive. Remember, we’ve had a whole lifetime already to get good at this stuff (and even then we still will struggle from time to time if we’re totally honest) and our kids are just starting to figure it out. Consider yourself as more of a mentor in these situations and try to take as compassionate of an approach as possible. If you have to walk away and regather your patience, do so. It’s okay! It can wait a little bit but not longer than 24 hours.
The lonely part of the acronym oftentimes plays into folks who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. Believe it or not, taking one’s own life is actually a choice and it is not good to make this choice when one is in a state of loneliness as emotions (including loneliness) will pass. An appropriate reframe, and one that I use myself, is to be very mindful about your lonely state and view your situation almost as a scientist would. To be alone is merely a mathematical state of 1. To be in a state of 1 does not ascribe value to your personhood. It merely means you are on your own for that period of time and soon may be joined by another 1 to become 2 and then you will not be on your own anymore. Using this reframe can actually help overcome perpetual feelings of worthlessness as well as thoughts of suicide when one is in this kind of state.
If your child or teen is feeling lonely, they may still need help walking through this reframe and you might have to do it repeatedly. Repetition is what builds new neuropathways. So be patient. It’s going to take a little time like many good things in life. Moreover, your kid’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) isn’t fully operational until about… 21 to 25 years of age. The PFC is responsible for logical decision making. You know what is fully operational though around 12 to 15? The nucleus accumbens, the reward center, and the amygdala, the primary emotion center. So be patient. It’s not entirely your child’s fault that they’re struggling. Their neurology is still in development and we can help them along!
Tired is also a pretty easy one and plays into many situations such as eating choices, relationship choices, and thoughts of suicide. Allow me to explain in terms of energy. Consider cycles of anxiety and depression. Anxiety is a state of increased energy and depression is a state of decreased energy. Those who have worked through these cycles will probably directly understand this. However, to broaden this, your sleep/wake cycles can also be described in terms of depression and anxiety. Amusingly, we as a society have said that depression and anxiety are bad but they are actually a very natural part of life. So your wake cycle is very similar to state of anxiety where the body is collecting all the energy it got from sleeping and then seeks to implement it throughout your day. Then of course, sleep is a depressive phase where the body actually becomes tired and looks to slowly, naturally shut down to collect energy again.
You see why then that we shouldn’t make big decisions when we’re tired and it’s okay to sleep on some things? It’s because if you’re likely to feel sad or depressed at any time during the day, it’s when you’re tired as this is a natural, depressive state to help you fall asleep.
I think this one is pretty obvious for parenting with younger children. They might just need a nap. It’s okay to send an upset child for a nap even if they’re crying they don’t want one. Remember that neurology talk we had before? Kids can’t always set limits for themselves and that’s why parents need to teach children healthy boundaries from a young age. Nap time helps build children’s self-awareness around their sleep-wake cycles. With teens, it can be a little bit more difficult. If you’re teen isn’t sleeping well, it might behoove you to have a talk with them about sleep hygiene. Now, we don’t have to be punitive about helping kids develop healthy sleep hygiene but it is worth a talk. This could mean suggesting your kiddo downloads a blue light filter for any screen devices they use (phone, computer, etc) as blue light has been shown to interrupt melatonin cycles. Another easy to suggest habit is to stop caffeine intake after 12 since caffeine has a rather long half-life. If your teen (or you for that matter) is still tired after 2 cups of coffee, it’s okay. You’re just going to be tired for the day. Just get through it and get a good night’s sleep that night instead of chugging more caffeine. We don’t have to feel 100% all the time.
I’ve prattled on for quite a bit now so I’ll end it there. If you have questions about my post, as always, please feel free to ask me questions either in a session or in the comment box. I hope you found this little acronym helpful for either yourself or a youngster in your life. Keep in mind, with all parts of the HALT acronym, it is okay to take a longer time to make your decisions! It is better to make a good decision when it comes to certain things than a quick one.