The well-meaning yet dreaded phrase “cherish every moment” was certainly not coined by a parent in the midst of a child’s major tantrum. When you’re caught in those messy weeds, take heart, parenting warriors: know that you can absolutely cherish your child without the pressure of treasuring every single second of parenting. (It’s still too soon to discuss our epic Hobby Lobby Meltdown of 2016.) For those not-so-adorable moments that we all experience sometimes, these research-based strategies are designed to help you confidently navigate the situation to a swifter, calmer outcome.
Know What’s Going on In A Child’s Brain During Moments of Stress
Tantrums are a normal, healthy part of toddler brain development, and it’s helpful to know what is scientifically going on in a child’s brain once they are emotionally past the Point of No Return. When any person–children included–feels significant stress from an emotional or physical threat, the part of the brain in charge of executive function and decision making is not operating normally. Instead of thinking, our brains are instinctively operating in “fight or flight” mode as the body releases stress hormones to help heighten our physical abilities, like being able to duck like Wonder Woman from a flying sippy cup headed your way. (Solidarity, sister.)
Wait Until the Child Is Calm Before Reasoning or Discipline
The same brain chemistry causing “fight or flight” goes for our children when they feel stress. As their brains instinctively release those stress hormones, reasoning and logic are not functioning normally. This is why it is not impactful to try to rationalize with our kids during a heated moment because their developing brains literally cannot process reasoning at that time. (If you know, you know.)
It’s so tempting to try to explain or make our case over why their behavior is blown out of proportion or unreasonable. Instead try very short sentences to help them get calm, such as “You are safe,” “I see you are upset,” “Let’s take some deep belly breaths together.”
This also doesn’t mean that kids are let off the hook for negative behavior. If a consequence is in order, the message will be retained much more impactfully by the child when they are calm, rather than a parent using punishment as a knee-jerk reaction to a tantrum.
Keep Your Cool
As if parenting during a once-in-a-century global pandemic isn’t tricky enough, staying calm during our kids’ most triggering moments can feel downright impossible. (As Elle Woods would say, “What, like it’s hard?” YES, ELLE. YES IT IS.)
In those messy situations, remember that our children can feed off of our own moods. Our calm is contagious, but so is our anger, worry, or other negative emotions. Yelling or screaming something like “CALM DOWN!” or “JUST STOP!” at a child when they are upset usually just adds fuel to the fire, lengthening the unpleasant situation. It’s okay to take a few deep breaths to calm and center yourself so you can respond to the situation calmly, rather than abruptly reacting to it.
Be Aware of Your Own Triggers
When we are feeling frustrated, annoyed, or irritable, it’s all the more difficult to be the best version of ourselves for our children. Understanding our own triggers is extremely important when it comes to responding to our children’s behavior.
Jill Ceder, LCSW explains, “In order to make the choice to change your behaviors, you first have to become familiar with your “hot spots” and emotional triggers…To feel a sense of control over your emotions, you first have to be able to recognize and anticipate what types of situations are likely to trigger hot spots and emotional responses in you.
For example, parents who were punished for portraying negative emotions in their own households growing up may feel more agitated towards a child whining or crying, possibly because handling the situation calmly was never modeled by his or her own parents. Or, a child who always had to finish his or her plate at dinner time may feel particularly agitated by picky eating in their own kids. The next time you feel yourself having heightened emotions over a child’s behavior, try taking a moment of mindfulness to examine why this could be particularly stressful for you.
Help Kids Understand Their Emotions
When a child can recognize and express their emotions, it helps them not impulsively react to those feelings. For example, a child who can say “That makes me mad, stop it” to a sibling is less likely to lash out, hit, or kick.
Teaching children to label their emotions can begin at a young age, especially with visuals. In our home, we have an emojis poster taped to the refrigerator that our children can easily access. During one crying episode from my toddler that seemed to come out of nowhere, my husband and I were completely baffled over the source and reason over her emotions. She was able to point to the “sad face” emoji and after some coaxing, we were able to understand that she was missing her grandma, who lives far away. Once we could pinpoint her emotion, we were able to say to her, “You are feeling sad and that’s okay. I have felt sad too, sometimes. Here are some things we can do when we are sad to help us feel better.”
Teaching kids how to recognize and understand their feelings is crucial for expanding their emotional intelligence, which in turn contributes to helping them know how to handle those emotions constructively.
Teach and Model Healthy Coping Skills
“Good” behavior from a child isn’t from the absence of negative emotions. It’s experiencing those negative feelings repeatedly until they can properly manage them in a healthy way.
Clinical psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, explains, “Young children need to learn that their feelings are part of life — even the difficult ones — and that they come and go, like waves in an ocean we need to ride…As parents, we need to model and teach them how to cope with these feelings, not how not to have them, which, frankly, won’t work anyway.”
Once a child is able to identify how he or she feels, being aware of what they can do is just as important of knowing what they can’t do. For example, to help process negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or sadness, you can teach your child to take deep belly breaths, write in a journal, squeeze a stuffed animal, or listen to calming music rather than screaming, hitting, or throwing things. This takes practice and probably won’t happen overnight. Keep consistently teaching your child healthy coping skills until they can know what to do independently.
Modeling managing our emotions is equally, if not more, impactful. For example, if I spill my water bottle all over the counter in front of my children, I will audibly say, “Oh look, that is frustrating. Oh well, it’s not a big problem and I can just take a deep breath while I clean it up. We all make mistakes sometimes!” Parents or caregivers are a child’s biggest influencers and we all make mistakes sometimes, so remember to give yourself grace if you ever handle a situation poorly. However, if my kids regularly and consistently see me flying off the handle by swearing, stomping my feet, or yelling, that type of behavior is absorbed as “normal” and will likely be replicated or accepted in future relationships.
We’re All in This Together:
Raising small humans can simultaneously be the best and hardest job on the planet. It’s inevitable–and completely normal–for our children to lash out sometimes. Remember, children tend to lose control around the people they feel most comfortable with because they know they are loved unconditionally. In all of those ups and downs, know that you’re not alone in this messy, beautiful thing that is parenting.
Lindsay Richardson is a writer and educator who has been published in a variety of major publications. She loves writing honestly and humorously about life experiences and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children (three if you ask the dog.) You can visit her website Hope and Happy Hour or follow her on Instagram: @hope_and_happy_hour.