How do you help a hot-tempered child calm down?
Why does logic fly out the window, along with all the calm-down toys and fidget toys you offer?
Why don’t kind words or reasonable consequences seem to make any difference when your child is melting down?
Why do calm-down strategies fail?
The answer is: timing. Some strategies work best in the heat of the moment. Some strategies only work before tempers boil over. Some strategies help to prevent meltdowns before they even start.
Our bodies and brains are physically different before, during, and at the peak of frustration. It makes sense that our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviours would be different as well.
By the time you are finished reading this post, you will have nine different calm-down strategies to use with your child, and even better, you will know EXACTLY when to use them.
What happens when we get angry?
In last week’s blog post, you learned about the way the body and brain react to stress. Logic, creativity, humour and empathy are just easier to drum up when we are calm. When we reach a certain level of physiological arousal, it’s harder to be reasonable.
We are most likely to fight, freeze, or flee when we are tired, worried, startled or offended. Instead of being flexible and kind, it’s easier to be forceful or defensive. When we are stressed, we even tend to look around us and assess the situation in a pessimistic way (does this sound familiar? “YOU NEVER DO ANYTHING NICE FOR ME!”)
In order to be successful in helping your child manage frustration, it helps to understand which strategy they need most in that moment.
How to choose a calm-down strategy that works
Remember this robot?
Calm-down strategies that work best in advance
Let’s say this robot represents your child’s problem-solving skills. This robot can tackle frustrating situations with creativity and logic. Let’s call these strategies the BLUE strategies, because we can use them in advance, when everything is calm.
Here are two “blue strategies” to PREVENT frustration from reaching the boiling point.
- MISSION: COOPERATION. Before you walk into a difficult situation, talk about your “mission” (your priorities) and invite your child to get on board. If your child has a different set of priorities, it’s much easy to talk about that “mission” before you set off together. When everyone is calm, your child’s “robot” can understand what your priorities are. For example, I worked with one family who struggled with visits to the grocery store, because one of the children would unexpectedly ask for a treat that was not part of the plan. Instead of having a heated debate in the bakery aisle, this family created their own “mission notebook” so their son could make a note of all the planned “missions” before heading out the door. Instead of saying “No, and this is why..” the parent was able to say: “Let’s check our mission notebook.” This pro-active strategy became a terrific help in preventing sudden impulses and unexpected requests as the family ran errands together.
- WHAT IF? Looking into the future is a key skill. Children can imagine future situations, identify possible challenges, and brainstorm solutions. For example, before going to an appointment together, talk about what might be boring or confusing, and collect ideas about how to pass the time. One mother asked me for ideas about working from home, because her son was struggling to keep himself entertained when her job required hour-long phone calls. After we talked about “blue strategies” she realized that her son might have some helpful ideas, and they could set up a list of activities together.
As your child gets more frustrated, or if your child is already tired, hungry, sick, worried or startled, you may notice that problem-solving becomes more challenging.
Here’s where you, as a parent, walk a fine line between supporting your child as a problem-solver, and helping your child self-soothe.
If you can see that something is creating stress or discomfort (hunger, pain, fatigue, heat, cold, worry, noise, etc.,) then it is be wise to tackle that stressful situation before trying to solve any other problems together. Your child will be more focused, alert and flexible when those other irritating problems are taken care of.
Calm-down strategies that work best when frustration is building
It’s hard to find the balance between giving your child a chance to use self-regulation skills, and preventing the frustration from boiling over into rage or overwhelming distress, but parents can offer support with the following ORANGE strategies:
- LISTEN AND REFLECT WITH EMPATHY: As children learn to identify and express their own emotions, they start to take the steps toward self-regulation. Research suggests that as children develop empathy, self-regulation improves. Simply restating the problem, such as “Woah, that really hurt,” or “That child said some very unkind words to you,” or describing the emotions you see, such as “I see that you are feeling very worried,” or “You must be so mad!” can help children learn to describe their own emotions.
- KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM: Self-regulation means being sensitive to your own body’s signals, and noticing when stress is building. If your child asks for a break, you can help by allowing them to have a safe space, with some calming sensory tools, before they reach that boiling point. Parents can also point out possible signs of stress and suggest a brief break, such as “I see that you are hunching your shoulders. I wonder if you are frustrated. Would you like to come and get a glass of water?”
- PROBLEM OR CHALLENGE? Carol Dweck’s research showed that when children look at hard situations as a positive challenge, they try harder and express more optimism about their own abilities. When children approach problems as a measure of their abilities, e.g., “smart” vs “dumb”, they are much more likely to avoid difficult situations and describe themselves in a negative way when confronted with a challenge. Parents can help children use this cognitive tool by educating them about growth mindset. In a frustrating moment, parents can describe the problem in a positive way, such as “Woah, this is a tough one. It’s like a puzzle, and we are going to have to really exercise our brains to figure it out,” or “Yikes, I don’t know the answer. I bet I’ll learn a lot. Let’s think about what we already know.”
If you and your child are successful in problem-solving together and reducing sources of stress, then you’re on your way.
If not, you may see your child’s frustration get to a point where reason, communication, and creativity are much harder to use. Some children express this frustration in big, loud, angry ways. However, not every “tantrum” is actually a full meltdown, so watch for other clues. For example, a child who is truly overwhelmed does not quickly switch back to “normal” or engage in reasonable debate. In that case, you might still be able to use “orange” strategies to get back on track.
Calm-down strategies that work best “in the heat of the moment”
When your child reaches the boiling point, you know that reassuring words and pats on the back are not helpful anymore. The blue and orange strategies just don’t help much at this stage, so here are some RED strategies available to you.
The following strategies don’t solve the original problem, but they can keep the problem from getting much bigger.
- CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF: Are you starting to feel stressed to the limit as well? If there is someone to tag for help, go ahead and do that. Take the time you need, or if you must stay in the situation, take some deep breaths.
- LESS TALKING. When children are very stressed, they may find it hard to communicate with words or understand what is said to them. If you notice that your child has switched from words to screaming, or refuses to speak at all, it’s okay to be quiet. Children at this stage can often say “NO” but are less likely to say “yes” even when asked a question they agree with, so sometimes silence can be interpreted as agreement. If you are unsure, you can say “I think you want me to keep the door open. You can tell me if I’m wrong.” If you can, it’s helpful to describe your positive intentions: “I’m here for you. I will help you when you are ready.”
- SAFETY FIRST. If you or anyone in your family is in physical danger at this stage, you need a plan. If you don’t already have one at this stage (I would urge you to call for professional help in getting this plan set up as soon as possible), look around to see what you can move out of the way, and who needs to be in the room. If your child seems more upset when you come closer, then give him/her space if possible. If your child needs to be held or moved for the safety of him/herself or others, please seek training (look for crisis prevention training in your area) so you can assist your child without injuring yourself or your child. These kinds of supports should be a last resort but are sometimes necessary in severe situations.
- CONNECTION: In the midst of a raging meltdown, both parents and children can sometimes feel under attack, and the impulse to punish or isolate each other is understandable. However, this kind of response can easily add fuel to the fire. Similarly, try not to give warnings or set up consequences if your child has already been ignoring or pushing boundaries. A volcanic eruption is not the ideal learning moment, so save the conversation about consequences until later, and leave the door open for rebuilding that warm connection again.
One more note about your child’s behaviour and how to talk about it…
As they say in the Zones of Regulation® program, “there’s no such thing as a bad zone.” Of course, no one really enjoys being on the receiving end of a slammed door or a flying fist, and it’s common to children feel sad or ashamed when recovering from an intense episode. Loud or disruptive behaviours are commonly labelled as “bad,” “mean” or “rude.” In some cases, children hear these negative labels used to describe them as well. If your child is worried about “being a bad kid,” you might find it helpful to talk about these “robots,” how they can be both helpful and harmful, and how to gain the emotional self-regulation to let the right one do the job.
Parents can talk about their own reactions, and which “robot” was needed at the time: “Woah, I almost used my fighting robot because I was so surprised when I heard the crash! Then I calmed down, and it was easier to use my problem-solving robot to get it cleaned up,” or “Phew, I’m glad I used my emergency robot when I saw you riding your bike off the sidewalk! I just jumped up and grabbed you without even thinking!”
This six-page free workbook is perfect for exploring this topic with your child. Emotional self-regulation is an essential skill for both kids an adults, and these activities can give you a fun way to start that conversation. Download it, enjoy it, and come back soon for more!