Stay Calm When Your Child Isn't with These 7 Steps
It’s the Holy Grail of parenting: Keeping your sh%t together when your child is losing his, euphemistically known as staying calm when your child isn’t.
To reach this elusive goal is to find happiness, eternal youth and infinite abundance. Ok, maybe not the last two, but for sure happiness.
It’s a simple enough concept, why is it so damn hard to do?
It all boils down to self-regulation, a fancy word to describe the ability to manage one’s emotions. People with good self-regulation have the ability to both feel their emotions and keep them in check.
When something stressful happens, rather than impulsively reacting by saying or doing something hurtful, turning to a substance like food or alcohol to dull the emotions or pushing the emotions away and ignoring them, they’re able to tolerate and feel the negative feeling (anger, frustration, anxiety etc.) and to choose a healthy way of responding- pausing, taking a deep breath, journaling, sitting through the feeling until it passes.
People with good self-regulation don’t get stuck. They’re flexible and adaptive. It’s not that fewer stressful things happen in their lives, it’s that when life gives them a lemon, they’re better at turning it into lemonade.
Our kids learn by what we do not by what we say, so if we can’t hold it together during stressful moments, they won’t be able to either. How we handle stress, directly influences our children’s brain development.
Let that sink in for a moment. How we handle stress, directly influences our children’s brain development.
Don’t you love how being a parent doesn’t come with any pressure?!
The good news is that if you’re a person who others - your kids, partner, the person who accidentally cut you off in traffic- would not describe as “chill” or “easy-going,” there are several things you can do to improve your ability to self-regulate.
In the meantime, when you're in the eye of your child’s tantrum storm, here are 7 steps to staying calm and handling it without losing your sh%t so you can practice modeling good self-regulation for your kids:
This is cliche for a reason. It's imperative for being able to be responsive instead of reactive. Take a deep belly breath and while you're at it, say (either out loud or to yourself), "I am a calm mom." I know it sounds hokey, but it works. Those two simple actions cue your parasympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for keeping you calm) and your prefrontal cortex and help thwart a sympathetic nervous system hijack. You may need to do it a few times in a row.
2. Safety first.
If your child is doing something to hurt himself or to hurt someone else, quickly intervene to make sure everyone is safe. No need to narrate what you're doing, just step in and remove your child and/or any objects he might be using to wreak havoc.
3. Mirror and validate.
Instead of yelling, reprimanding or lecturing, try mirroring and validating first. "You really wanted that toy, I can see you're upset." "That made you mad when I said you couldn't have another popsicle." "You love playing Roblox and it's really hard when it's time to stop."
4. Avoid reasoning.
Trying to reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum is like trying to negotiate with a terrorist. Save yourself the frustration and avoid reasoning all together.
5. Less talk, more action.
This is where I usually mess up. Those who know me would agree that I have a tendency to "over explain" things. Bascially, I like to talk and this can sometimes get me into trouble (read: it can be annoying!). And it most definitely doesn't serve me well when it comes to managing tantrums.
The goal is to state the limit one time. That's it. No need for lengthy explanations or drawn out arguments. Just state it once and let your child have his feelings about it. "We don't grab toys," said as you're giving said toy back to the child who it was just grabbed from. "I can't let you kick me," said as you move your child away from you. "Screen time is over," said as you turn off the Wi Fi.
6. Stay close.
This one is tricky. If you have a child like mine who is "very expressive," staying close while he's "expressing" his anger and frustration can be tough. The idea is that you want to let your child have his feelings (so long as he's not harming himself or others) while staying in close proximity to let him know that you're there. We want to try to be a container for our kids' big feelings so as to teach them it's ok to have all their feelings, the good, the bad and the ugly and that you can handle all their feelings, the good, the bad and the ugle.
Showing our kids that we can handle their feelings by staying close and staying calm throughout their tantrum, no matter how "expressive" (read: bat shit crazy!) they get is the most powerful example of good self-regulation. The more they witness us holding it together while they're not, the more they will internalize the skill of self-regulating.
Full disclosure: When you have a child with sensory issues whose tantrums really go the extra mile, staying calm throughout every single one is not humanly possible. So, give yourself some grace if you're losing it. We all lose it most of the er... from time to time. If you find that it's impossible to stay calm and you're falling apart every time your child does, that's a sign that you're in need of extra support. Don't hesitate to reach out.
Once your child has released all his feelings and is done with his tantrum, give him a hug and tell him you love him. Our society promotes the notion that in order to "teach people a lesson," we have to shame and punish them while withholding affection and love. This notion could not be more false! Need proof? Just look at the rate of recidivism amongst convicted criminals.
Shaming and punishing children actually reinforces bad behavior and leads to higher rates of anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health issues. People do not change by being shamed and punished. People change when they feel safe, accepted and loved.
This is exactly how we want our children to feel, especially after they've lost their cool- safe, accepted and loved. One of my favorite quotes about parenting is, "Children need the most love when they're acting the least deserving of it." It's so true. I would replace "children" and "they're" with "we" and "we're."
We need the most love when we're acting the least deserving of it.
It's true for all of us.
I hope this is helpful. Remember, there's no way you are going to stay perfectly calm every time your child has a tantrum. There will be times when you yell, lecture or reprimand and this is ok, it's called being human. Just be sure to reconnect with your child when the storm passes.
If your child's tantrums are frequent, intense and atypical, there is likely an underlying physical cause that needs to be treated. Dr. Katiraei of Wholistic Kids and Families has devoted a portion of his practice to helping families of kids with atypical development get to the root of their child's suffering. He's available for telehealth appointments and is truly gifted in his ability to help children heal.
Let me know where you're at with handling your child's tantrums, I'd love to hear your comments and questions.