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Three Ways to Stay Calm When Your Child Isn't

Father Comforting Upset Son
It's normal to become reactive when kids get upset, but there are many ways caregivers can self-regulate their emotions and help manage the situation better.
When kids experience big feelings, it's difficult not to become upset right along with them, but there are ways we can stay calm and support our children as they work through their feelings and move toward emotional regulation. Here are some tips.
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We've all had those days when nothing seems to be going the way we planned. Unexpected meetings popping up on your calendar, spilled lattes, and heavy traffic when you are already running late. Yet, as an adult, you may have developed some strategies to self-calm even during the most challenging times. Deep breaths, long walks, letting feelings pass like clouds in the sky and a big glass of ice water are among my favorites. But how do young children stay calm when the world seems to be caving in all around? Well, often they don't.

When our children experience big feelings, it's difficult not to feel guilty and become dysregulated right along with them. Especially if we are also having "one of those days" (yet again), but there are ways we can stay calm and support our children as they work through their feelings — and essentially work towards emotional regulation. Here are some tips.

Get Curious About Your Child's Behavior

Training our brains to refrain from blame, anger and embarrassment when our child has a meltdown is not a simple task. But it's possible. One of the most helpful ways I've learned to shift is to get curious about the "why" of a child's behavior. As an educator, this is how I'd respond to students who were working through complicated situations and feelings. As a parent, it's a beneficial way to think.

Pause to reflect. Once a meltdown is in full swing, if I'm feeling regulated, I take a deep breath, recognize the emotion I'm feeling — be it frustration, stress, etc. — and take a moment to ask myself a few questions (silently, of course). Some of the questions I run through include:

  • Is my child hungry?
  • Is my child tired?
  • Have I been saying no a lot instead of yes? Is there a way we can compromise? For example, if I told my child she couldn't watch television right before the meltdown, I might rephrase and say, "We can't watch television right now … but we can play a game together. Do you have any ideas?" By shifting from what we can't do to what we can do, sometimes we can turn the situation around quickly.
  • Is my child experiencing sensory overload? For example, if the weather is too windy and her hair is blowing in her face, a hat might be a simple fix. If her clothing feels scratchy, we can change into something more comfortable.
  • Have I been busy, and my child is simply craving connection? How might I prioritize connection for a few minutes to make my child feel seen and heard?

About 75% of the time or more, once I pause to reflect, I'm able to acknowledge my child's feelings and redirect with compassion. This might look like offering a hug, noticing something your child has created or being open to spending a few minutes coloring or playing a game together. But the other 25% is often a mystery. In that case, I offer a few options and then give my child space to feel her feelings. As long as she is not at risk of hurting herself or others, spending some time crying, flailing, or scribbling in her journal with passion can curb the anger, sadness or frustration.

Find patterns. A proactive step is also to find patterns in your child's behavior. For example, if your child is consistently melting down at 8 p.m. every night before bed, it may be time to try your bedtime routine at around 7 p.m. instead. You might also find that your child benefits from extra exercise throughout the day, and on days where there's more quiet play, there's an increase in meltdowns. Jot down any of your observations and remember that it's all about getting curious — sometimes you won't find a reason at all and instead will need to remind yourself to respond compassionately. One of the most beautiful things about parenting is that we have a chance to repair harm if we become frustrated and respond in anger or frustration when our children are upset. Apologizing to your child is the first step, and it may simply sound like, "Mommy yelled at you today. Instead of yelling, mommy could have taken a deep breath and walked away. Mommy will try this calming strategy next time."

Regulate Your Emotions

When we're feeling regulated, we're much more likely to be able to respond to our children's needs throughout the day. Self-regulation means we can manage our emotions, behavior and body movement even during the most challenging moments. There are several ways to do that.

Identify your triggers. Our children exhibit certain behaviors (e.g., whining, yelling, disrespect, spills/accidents) that can trigger an emotional response from us that is reactive instead of proactive. For example, when my child yells at me, it takes me back to my childhood, where verbal abuse was a common and accepted way of communicating. If my child begins to yell, taking a deep breath or a drink of water can ground me in the moment instead of getting swept away in my first instinct to yell. Over time, my neural pathways will change to support me in responding with compassion instead of reaction.

Create your own self-regulation plan. Everyone needs different things to stay regulated. For adults, that might mean talking with a friend, taking a break, creating art, journaling, playing with fidget toys, doing exercise, trying meditation, or listening to music. Check out example emotional regulation plans for children and then create your own with your child. Get creative and use a format that feels good to you (e.g., collage, checklist, visuals, etc.)

Build Your Child's Calming Toolkit

Just as we teach our children how to ride a bike, we can support them in developing strategies to calm down when they feel upset. Each child is different, so it's also important to recognize that children may benefit from various sensory strategies. Some ideas include taking deep belly breaths, shaking calming jars, playing with breathing wands, jumping five times on a trampoline, running up and down stairs, jumping, covering up with blankets, putting on noise-canceling headphones, playing with coloring books, or wearing weighted vests. Involve your child in developing their calming toolkit and use pictures, charts and a designated area in your home to support their understanding.

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