I like to think of myself as a fairly even-keeled person. I have 20 years of training in the mental health field and I work daily at finding ways to be a more self-actualized mother, daughter, sister, wife, and employee. However, if there is one thing that sends me to the stratosphere, it’s when someone tells me to “calm down.” And yet, I say those words to my daughter all the time.
As I write this, I’m swamped with several work projects, some family commitments, and a pending equestrian competition. In the midst of this stress, the least helpful thing people have said to me is to “calm down.” What I’ve realized, however, is that “calm down” is like an SOS from the people who have to deal with me. What they’re really saying is, “I don’t know how to handle you right now, so please stop.” Could that be what I’m trying to communicate to my daughter when I’m at my wits’ end and feeling desperate and inadequate and have no other tools in my toolbox?
If this sounds familiar, I don’t want you to feel like I’m shaming you for losing your cool. After all, I’m writing this as a mom who has to work hard to relate to my daughter in a different way when she struggles. This all becomes particularly pronounced when I have no patience left. The guilt sets in because with the constant juggling I do—working at a startup, seeing clients in private practice, teaching at the local university, competitions, volunteer days at school—I feel like I do a million things but can do nothing well, including the one thing that is the most important to me: being a good mom.
It is so challenging to dig deeper than a “Calm down!” SOS and find another strategy. But I’ve begun to appreciate that helping kids cope with big emotions is a two-way street. By identifying and managing my own triggers, I’m better-equipped to show my daughter how to identify and manage hers. Here are a few things that I am currently trying myself:
- Take a deep breath. When you feel those words (“Calm down!”) about to come out of your mouth, it means that you’re approaching your kid’s level of agitation. Before you escalate the situation, take a moment to consider why you’re so worked up. Are you irritated because your kid is having a meltdown at the DMV, or because you made a mistake at work or you feel guilty that you forgot yet another important appointment? It’s important to remember that our everyday stressors often amplify our reactions to our kids’ behavior. Taking a deep breath, or even stepping away for a moment, allows me to put aside whatever may be bothering me and treat your big-emotioned child with more compassion and less frustration.
- Ask a question. You’re probably used to making demands (“Don’t do that!”) when your child is acting out. Instead, try asking a question: Why are you feeling the way you’re feeling? What’s going on that’s making you have a difficult moment right now? Kids have more emotional intelligence than we give them credit for. They’re not often asked to self-reflect, though. Asking a question like “Where is this coming from?” gives your kid the chance to move past the immediacy of their feelings and think about how they got there in the first place.
- Check in with their body. Most adults know about the connection between our emotional states and our bodies. Does your kid? When they’re mid-tantrum, see if you can get them to feel their heartbeat. Then encourage them to try to slow their heart rate down. This trick, a type of mindfulness, is one that your kid can use in other situations when they feel themselves losing control.
- Use humor! My husband is an expert at cracking a joke when my daughter’s in the middle of an outburst. Ninety percent of the time, it helps defuse the tension in the room. Once, when my daughter was writhing on the floor and we were running late for school, my husband asked her, “Who taught you how to breakdance?” We all immediately started cracking up. You of course don’t want to demean or ridicule your child, but cracking a joke when things are intense can be really useful.
- Make a game out of it! If your kid is really struggling, try distracting them with an improvised game like “Who Can Make It to the Car Faster” or “Who Can Make the Dog Come to Them First.” Sometimes a momentary distraction is all a kid needs to forget why they were angry. For something a little more elaborate, try “Tea Party With Mama.” As I explained to my daughter the first time we played this “game,” when I was a little kid and had a hard day, my grandmother would throw a tea party for me. So, when my daughter is in a particularly bad mood, I put the kettle on, have her take out the cookies, and we sit down and talk about what’s going on with her. It’s a great way for the two of us to decompress from a stressful day.
- Model how you deal with frustration. To circle back to the first tip on this list, self-regulating is crucial in helping your kid deal with their own difficult emotions. The other day, I found myself getting cranky with my daughter, which I never do. When I realized it, I said to her, “I don’t know where this is coming from. Mama woke up like a gremlin!” I then asked her to feel my heart, which was beating faster than normal, and if she could help me relax. And she did! She put her head on my chest and let me put my head on hers, and that helped me calm down.
- Remember: You got this. Most of us, if we are being really honest, wonder at times if we are good enough parents, friends, spouses, colleagues, employees, athletes, siblings. But at the end of the day, tackling our challenges is what makes us grow and be our best. When you believe in your own capacity to overcome challenging moments you show your child that they can, too. And when you got this, they got this.
All of these tips show that helping your kid deal with Big Emotions is a collaborative process. Telling them to calm or stop will only get you so far. What you can do instead is work together to figure out why they’re feeling how they’re feeling, find fun ways to feel better in the moment, and learn how to deal with their emotions in a healthier way in the future.