When a child is going through a difficult time, it’s hard for a parent to know how to help. Here are five useful tips on how to support your upset child.

What can a parent do!

A key skill is to remain in “approach” mode.

Teddy bears hug

In every relationship the other person experiences us as being in “attack”, “avoid’ or “approach mode”.

Samantha has been trying to stay in tune with her daughter over these past few days. She’s heard a deluge: I hate school, I haven’t got any friends, The teachers are stupid, Nobody cares. I don’t want to go to school. 

How does a parent respond! 

She takes a deep breath. 

“Okay, Paula. So you don’t want to go to school. You can stay home tomorrow, BUT …” 

Samantha takes a long, deep pause trying to figure out what she’s going to say. But she doesn’t get a chance. 

“You’re just like them. You don’t care!” Her daughter slams out the room. 

“What did I do wrong!” Samantha is mystified. 

 

Samantha didn’t realise her child’s brain registered the long pause, followed by her heavy “BUT… ” as an “attack”.

The thing is, it’s not what we intend that counts – it’s the message the other person receives that will influence the interaction.

The thing is, when a child already feels overwhelmed it’s easy for them to misinterpret a parent’s signals and they can easily experience the parent as being in “attack” or “avoid” mode. This is only going to add to a child’s distress.

Your child’s unreasonable outburst may be upsetting, but realise it is exactly that  – “un-reason-able”. The behaviour stems from the child being “unable to reason” because at times of high stress the “thinking brain” temporarily goes offline. The child snaps into a “fight or flight” reaction.  Samantha’s prolonged, heavy pause was all that was needed for her stressed child to experience her as another attacker.

Crying child

What Not To Do When Your Child Is Upset

#1 Don’t tell your child to “Be reasonable.”

Right now the deep, reactive “reptilian brain” has seized control. It’s impossible for your child to reason once they have dropped into this reactive state. Until she’s calmed down, she IS un-reason-able!

#2 Don’t try help your child  find solutions whilst upset

It won’t work to try help your child find solutions whilst upset because the human brain cannot see options and imagine consequences while the “thinking brain” is “offline”.  First connect and support your child to regain calm.

#3 Don’t tell her, “It’s not really such a big thing,” or “It will be all right.”

At this moment it doesn’t feel like it will ever be all right again. She’s hurting and her reptilian brain is registering “PAIN!”, which means your child can’t see beyond that point until she regains her calm.

#4 Don’t compare

E.g. “You used to like school.” “Your sister is happy there.” 

Here earlier experience doesn’t negate what’s she’s feeling now. Somebody else’s experience isn’t hers.

#5 Don’t tell her to calm down

That’s like telling the cloud to stop raining.  When this level of tension has been reached, the strong emotion will temporarily overwhelm.

parent and child hug

So what can a parent do?

 Five Useful Tips On How To Support Your Upset Child

TIP #1  Recognise your  upset child is unable to reason

At this point, your child can’t see another point of view or imagine possible consequences to her actions until she has calmed down and returned to “whole brain thinking”.  So don’t expend your energy trying to achieve the impossible!

TIP #2 Focus on remaining calm and in “approach” mode

Staying calm is the only way to park your own anxiety and keep your “thinking brain” online. And this matters because there needs to be at least one thinking brain online to find the way through the current upset!  For more on this see my e-book  “Stop Yelling – 9 Steps to Calmer Happier Parenting”.

TIP #3   Tune in to your child’s experience

If your brain is busy imagining the letter you will write to the teacher, what you’d like to say to those other kids, worrying that your child might drop out of school, then your brain is in another world and not focusing on your child’s world, which is where you can support her right now. There will be time to find solutions later. Right now focus on being present to your child and to her experience. Imagine crossing the bridge into her world experience and seeing the situation through her eyes.

TIP #4 Empathise with your child

As you tune in to your child’s experience seek to understand what she might be feeling. Anxious, lonely, angry, frustrated? Don’t try to “change” her feeling. Feelings are what feelings are. Once she has a sense of her life experience being understood and validated, she’ll sense you being in “approach” mode and then be able to calm down. (Even though that might not be immediate).

TIP #5 When your child is calm, use “What?” questions

Use “What?” questions to explore possible ways forward.: “What needs to happen now? ” “What can I do to support you?” “What else could help?”

(Not “Why?” questions – which  tend to lead to blaming or excuse making).

Explore the options together and support your child to recognise the factors within her control, because these are the only things she can change.

“Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.”  Zig Ziglar

If you found this article helpful you will probably also enjoy reading:

How to Support Your Child If They Are Having Difficulty At School which gives the core principles of building TRUST in our parent-child relationship.

If you are facing a challenging situation concerning your child,  why not work with me as your Parenting Coach. I can help you tune in to your child so you are in a grounded space to support your child to create collaborative solutions.

How to support your upset child

I’d love to hear your experiences about how to calm your upset child.

What has helped you to support your child when they are upset?

What is your greatest challenge in supporting your child through a difficult experience?

Your answers help me to create the posts you’d love to read.

Last edited March 07th 2019

Every parent has concerns about their children’s health. But have you considered: are grandparents making your child obese?  Val Mullally discusses how to comfort an upset child, without resorting to unhealthy food habits.

I am lying in bed with my throbbing ankle propped up. I’d taken the dog for a walk – my foot found the pothole my eyes had missed – I hobbled home  – and now feeling immensely sorry for myself, alone in the house. And all I want is bread and butter pudding. Not any old bread and butter pudding. My Gran’s bread and butter pudding. Bread and butter pudding is for me the ultimate comfort food.

Are Grandparents Making Your Child Obese?

Possibly grandparents are contributing to children’s weight problems.  giving children unhealthy treats are one concern but I’d like to chat about how we unwittingly hook kids on Comfort Food. Like my craving for Gran’s bread and butter pudding. It’s my psychological substitute for the warm hug and loving support I need when I feel down.

But aren’t grandparents supposed to be doing the loving, calming, make-you-feel better thing? Of course they are. But what children really need, like all human beings, is loving connection. Food becomes the addictive substitute.  Not any food – but the sweet, sugary food we associate with tender love and care.

Are grandparents making children fat?

What Can A Parent Do?

As the parent, you need to have a calm discussion with the grandparents about giving TLC without creating a dependence of overly sugary, high-calorie foods to feel better.

Take for example the day Betty comes home from school to her grandparents’ house. Within minutes she’s in floods of tears, sobbing because the class has just been told that their beloved teacher will be leaving them at the end of this week.

Doting Gran, in her concern for her grand-daughter, scurries to the kitchen.

She comes back with a plate laden with a gI-NOR-mous slice of rich chocolate cake.

comfort food when a child is upset

‘Here, darling, this will make you feel better.’

The sugary chocolately goo has the desired effect as Betty stops sobbing and begins munching.

But what’s the long-term impact?

Repeated incidents of comfort food teach Betty to reach for the indulgent, sugary, fat-inducing foods whenever she feels sad.

And so the loving grandparent unwittingly opens a trapdoor that could lead to unhealthy eating, and ultimately serious life-long health challenges that they would never wish on the child they love so dearly.

Grandparents need to hear that developing their grandchildren’s habit of comfort eating could lead to diabetes, heart problems and other debilitating and life threatening health issues. Grandparents might see a ‘cuddly child’ and be unaware the child who is overweight in pre-school years is likely to have a life-long challenge with weight. What grandparent would wish ill health on their grand-children.

How to Respond to a Child’s Distress

Betty needed a loving person to hear her story, without interrupting, without trying to explain it away or tell her it’s not really so bad. She just needed her experience to be heard.  And she needed someone close to empathise with her emotional pain:

“You’re feeling so sad about your teacher going. You’re really disappointed.”

When a loving person connects with Betty’s story she will ‘feel felt’, and she will be more able to contain her emotional pain. Yes, she’ll cry. That’s okay. Grandparents need to know the tears we cry when we are distressed are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. Upset tears contain stress hormones. So there’s wisdom in the old sayings, “Have a good cry.” / “Cry it all out.”

When Gran or Grandad have listened deeply and been there for her in her tears, Betty will be able to move forward. The wise grandparent will now ask something like,

“I can see you really care about your teacher. What would you like to do to show your teacher you’re sad she’s going?”

Here’s the opportunity to provide the child with a healthy stress relief. Grandparents (and parents) need to have crayons, coloured papers, glue and suchlike always at the ready. Get her involved in something creative to give to her teacher – maybe a hand-made farewell card.

When we make art we make meaning of our lives.

 

Other Ways A Grandparent Can Support Grandchildren

Of course, there are other ways Grandparents can help their grandchildren deal with upset emotions. Gardening, planting our spring seedlings or raking up autumn leaves, picking flowers, walking, building a model, knitting, cooking, quilting  – all take time. And time is often exactly what the child needs. Time to slow down and have someone there to hear you. Someone who listens with their whole heart. Someone to hold you. Someone to hold your thoughts and emotions. Your ups and your downs.

Are grandparents making children fat

 

 

Grandparents can be key to helping our children develop healthier lives. Not only physically healthier but emotionally healthier.

Rather than leaving the discussion with grandparents at “Don’t give them sugary food,”  tell grandparents all the ways in which you do appreciate their support of your children.  Grandparents can be key to giving children what they really need, instead of the hollow sugar food substitutes that never fill the hole in a child’s soul.

Take time to affirm grandparents for all the meaningful ways in which they give your children the message, “You are precious. You are special. You are loved.”

Over to you. In what ways do you see grandparents encouraging unhealthy eating habits?  What are the grandparenting qualities you most appreciate?

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Last edited April 30th 2018

This is a very good question!  As parents we tend to worry about our children’s hurt feelings when they don’t measure up.

The important thing here is:  How does the child explain her low grade?

Does she say, “I guess the teacher doesn’t like me,” or “The test wasn’t fair,” or “I can’t do math” ?

The first two responses put the responsibility of the low grade on external sources, meaning it has nothing to do with Elena.  There’s nothing she could have done differently to get a better grade.

The third response points to her low ability to explain her grade.  “I can’t do math,” implies that she sees herself as incapable and therefore not able to improve.  Her performance in math is stable, doesn’t change.

But perhaps Elena says, “I didn’t study enough.  I planned to study, but I got busy watching tv, and then I forgot about the test.”

Here she has taken responsibility for her low grade.  Her belief is that if she studies more, she can do better.   Her performance on this particular test was a result of something over which she has control:  how much she studies.

Next:  How parents can guide their child to a more accurate, healthy view of their successes and failures.

Last edited February 03rd 2011