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Stop Working So Hard to Calm Your Kids

Often less is more when children are in distress.

Key points

  • Parents, out of love, often respond to distress with too much talking and too much effort to try to make it all better.
  • When kids are in distress, they often can't accept a calming tool.
  • What they often need is one empathetic statement, not 10, and space to weather the storm.

It is counterintuitive for many, but the fact is that more than ever, parents are doing far too much when kids experience a hard time. As always, this comes from the most loving place: parents don't want to see their children in distress and will do whatever they can to relieve that discomfort.

It also comes from a misinterpretation of messages many of my families have absorbed on social media about the importance of accepting, validating, and being present when kids are distressed. This translates into parents believing they are harming their children—sending them the message that their feelings don't matter and they are alone—if they are not constantly by their side, repeating empathetic phrases to show they understand, or trying to get their child to talk about his feelings. This has become equated in their minds with abandoning their child in his time of need.

In theory, this may sound logical, but here is what I see in practice:

In the heat of the moment, when parents ask their kids why they are melting down, they escalate. Their brains are flooded with emotion and they cannot think clearly. Further, they often don't know why they are melting down. In many cases, they are just having a hard time making a transition. ⁠

The more parents repeat supportive phrases when their child is melting down ("I know, this is really are so mad/sad right're having really big feelings...this is really tricky... I am here for you...I understand..."), the more dysregulated their child gets. I hear kids shouting things like: "Stop talking!" or "Go away, mommy, you are not being a kind friend!" ⁠

When parents try ⁠to get their child to engage in problem-solving to muscle through a frustrating moment, the child's stress increases, making it less likely she will persevere.

Parents want their kids to process difficult experiences; to reflect on and learn from them. But for many children, it feels too overwhelming and uncomfortable to think back on these moments. The more parents try to coax their kids to talk about the difficult experience, the more vehemently they resist, which causes stress and makes learning from their experiences—the ultimate goal—impossible.

What most kids need when they are distressed is one, simple, loving validating statement and then space—yes, space. This is NOT rejecting your child or communicating that her feelings don't matter. It lets her know that you: understand and accept her feelings, are not angry or frustrated, AND, that you have confidence that she can work through this difficult moment.

"Leaving the playground before you're ready is hard. Do you want to be in charge of your body and get into the car seat or should I be a helper and get you in?"

"Puzzles can be tough and frustrating. Would you like some help working on it—I have some ideas—or do you need a break and you can try again later?"

"Your teacher said that you get very upset when your friends won't play the game your way. I know that is hard for you. I am happy to talk with you about that when you're ready."

When we say and do too much, it not only increases the child's distress, it inadvertently communicates: 1) That this is, indeed, such a big deal that you don't think they can't handle; and, 2) That you don't think they are able to learn to tolerate and work through the feeling or frustration.

Your kids don't need you to try to make it all better. ⁠They just need you to be their rock—to tolerate their distress and give them the space to recover.

A Case Study

A recent client, Melanie, used this insight to make a significant course correction in her fraught interactions with her 4-year-old daughter, Willa. Melanie couldn't do anything right. Willa was constantly whining and blaming Melanie for everything. Melanie was feeling depleted, hopeless, and very sad.

One of the most stressful moments with Willa was at preschool pickup. Willa was melting down every single day. She complained about everything: mom brought the wrong snack, mom had made the car seat too tight and it was 'squeezing' her. She screamed and hurled venom (and sometime her shoe) at Melanie. Here's what Melanie had been doing to try to calm Willa in these moments:

Melanie: "What's wrong, Willa? Why are you so upset? Mommy brought the snack you asked for. Please stop screaming. Those words make mommy sad."
Willa: Escalates

Melanie: "I know, it's hard to go from school to home. I'm here for you, This is a tricky moment." (Willa continues to wail and thrash.} "I understand, You're not alone. I'm here. This feels so hard, I know." Melanie continues to express empathetic phrases.
Willa: Escalates.

Then Melanie makes a shift:

Melanie: "I know, it's hard sometimes to go from school to home. I am going to take your shoes off to help you be safe.” Melanie removes Willa’s shoes and then is just quiet. She puts on Willa's favorite music and hums along.
Willa: Screams for 3 more minutes and then calms. They move on with a much more pleasant afternoon than usual.

Responding in this way has been a game-changer for many of my families. I hope it will be for yours, too.

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