My children are little vessels of emotions that haven’t learned yet how to be tamed. In the time span of an hour, they can get deep in their feelings and experience fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, jealousy, and anticipation. One minute they are bouncing off the walls with euphoria and the next they are having an emotional breakdown about bedtime.
As a parent, it can be difficult for me to help them navigate through their endless emotions. When they are happy, it’s easy; when they are upset, it’s hard. It’s astonishing to me how seemingly random things, like a broken crayon or an apple sliced the wrong way, can send my kids into a complete emotional meltdown. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always handle it to the best of my abilities. Just the other day, my 5-year-old daughter ran to me crying because her older brother looked at her with “mean eyes” and called her a “poop butt.” I made the situation worse by chuckling under my breath, and she accused me of not caring.
It’s easy for me to dismiss their emotional outbursts as trivial, however, for them, it’s not. Their emotions are very real and just as powerful as our own. Children’s emotions are complex and multi-layered, and they don’t have the skills to navigate them properly, which is where parents come in. It’s up to us to help guide them and show them proper ways to deal with negative emotions so that they can grow into emotionally healthy and mature adults.
In my eight years of parenting, these simple tricks have helped immensely in dealing with my children’s emotional meltdowns so that they de-escalate quickly and calmly.
1. Get my own emotions in check first
There have been plenty of times when I’ve reacted with anger and yelling. And I will be the first to admit that it makes the situation much worse and ends up making me feel lousy for days. Not to mention, there’s a look of fear in my children’s eyes when their mommy has yelled at them instead of being a source of comfort.
I have learned that in order to deal with my children’s outbursts, I have to check myself first to make sure that I am calm and collected. Only then do I have the capacity to deal with any situation that is escalating. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t let things slide. If discipline is needed, I remain firm, unwavering, but most importantly I remain calm.
If I’m always the mom who is yelling at them for the trivial stuff (not sharing, tantrums at bedtime, etc.), they will be less likely to come to me with the more important stuff when they’re older.
2. Repeat after them
I learned this trick after reading The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp, a book I highly recommend. Dr. Karp calls it the Fast-Food Rule, in which you repeat what the upset child is telling you. Much like your order is repeated when you order from a fast-food restaurant to confirm your order, you are confirming your child’s feelings. Before you tell your upset child your concerns (“No, you can’t have candy”), you must repeat back what he/she is upset about with total sincerity. For example, your child is upset because she wants candy for dinner (which is a common occurrence with my 5-year-old). You say, “You want candy for dinner. You are upset because you want candy for dinner, and mommy told you no. I understand that you are upset, but having candy for dinner is not good for your tummy, and it will make you sick.”
Dr. Karp writes, “When talking to upset children, many of us are so impatient … we interrupt their cries and complaints with comments like ‘Be quiet’ or ‘Stop that’ or ‘Don’t be a baby.’ And on and on and on. We think our busy schedule or our desire to make our kids feel better gives us the right to stop them in the middle of their turn! We don’t mean to be rude and disrespectful. But that’s exactly the message we send.”
When I validate my children’s concerns first before telling them my own, I notice that they calm down quickly and are more understanding as to why I may have said “no” in the first place. It’s important to note that Dr. Karp advises to “skip the Fast-Food Rule and proceed immediately to your message if your toddler is in danger, he is being aggressive (hitting or biting), or he is breaking an important household rule. In those cases, your message takes top priority.”
3. Check for hunger, tiredness, and lack of attention
My daughter needs her sleep. She can go all day without eating a single thing, but if she doesn’t get her full 10 hours of sleep at night, she is prone to a bad mood. My son needs his food. He has the ability to only sleep a couple of hours a night and have 100 percent energy the next day. However, if he doesn’t eat three proper meals a day with snacks in between, he is prone to bad moods.
When my children get into bad moods, I make sure that they’ve slept properly, eaten well, and have gotten some attention from me throughout the day. If any of those are lacking, I can immediately sense it in their moods and behavior. I also know to tread lightly and not get quick to anger when their negative energy escalates.
There is a fine line between letting your children’s emotions run the household and completely shutting them down when they get emotional. I want my children to know that it’s OK to feel angry, upset, sad, frustrated, and all of the above. It’s completely normal to have these feelings, however, when their feelings start to negatively impact others, then it’s not OK. I’m still learning, and I’m sure as I enter the tween years with my children, I will be desperately seeking advice from those who have been there before me. Until then, I’m doing the best that I can with the tools that I have now.