How to calm upset toddler

The wails of a toddler in distress ricochets off the walls. I glance at the mother, who yanks her crying toddler by the arm, ignoring her wails. The toddler drags behind her, screaming her protest.

The mother stops. Towering over the child she speaks sharply, wagging her finger in the child’s face. Then she marches on, with sobbing child in tow.

We’ve all had parenting moments we’re not proud of. But what can help us do differently? Here are some thoughts for stressed parents on what to do when your toddler acts out. We can handle a child’s challenging behaviour more helpfully when we have  insights about how the human brain develops. If you are facing a toddler upset here are ten tips for responsive parenting to calm your child and recreate connection.

I hope you’ll keep reading, even if you have older children, because if we all knew what toddlers need to thrive we’d create environments for:

– happier, healthier children

– children who will be more successful as adults

– a happier, healthier generation.

Understanding A Toddler Upset:

  ✓  Your toddler’s brain is still “under construction”

This means the toddler cannot reason like an adult. She doesn’t have a concept of time. She doesn’t understand that you have deadlines to keep or chores to complete. Trying to explain your agenda to her when she’s demanding won’t help. Rather, focus on connecting with her.

  ✓ When your toddler’s upset, she’s emotionally flooded, so she can’t reason

The ‘fight or flight’ part of her brain has now been triggered. She’s not reasoning – so trying to logically explain things to her is only likely to increase her frustration – and yours. First she needs your connection and sympathetic understanding.

  ✓ The young child cannot self-regulate

In other words, she is physically not able to calm herself down. She might cry to a point of exhaustion and then stop – and that’s very different from the child being calmed. When a child’s experience is ignored until she ‘gives up’, her exhausted body is still overloaded with nasty cortisol! Leaving your baby to cry without giving comfort and attention is tantamount to leaving her in a closed room with toxic paint fumes.[i]

So let’s look at what a parent can do to calm an upset toddler.

Toddler Upset – Ten Tips On How To Calm Your Child:

1. Stay emotionally connected to your child

When she’s upset she’s trying to let you know she needs your support. At times when you child is most challenging tile is when she most probably most needs your love and support.

At these times the young child is emotionally overwhelmed and needs your support to calm her down.

2. Choose to be calm

Get down to her eye level and make eye contact (if she will) with a ‘soft gaze’.Your toddler physically can’t calm herself down when she’s upset – she can’t “self regulate”.  Her immature nervous system relies on an adult to calm her. So if you choose to calm yourself, it will help to calm her. Your soft gaze will do far more to calm her than any amount of ‘reasoning’  words.

3. Remember her behaviour is about her – your response is about you

There’s already one immature person having a meltdown. Your job is to remain the calm, collected adult who, rather than reacting, chooses to respond helpfully.

4. Focus on your breathing

When you steady your breathing your steady your thoughts.Remind yourself this is your young child who is distressed and needing support.

If you have a key phrase that reminds you of the sort of parent you choose to be,  say this to yourself:  for example: ‘calm’, ‘being the adult’, ‘reassure’.

Your steady breathing will also help to steady your child’s breathing.

5. Send a ‘CONNECT’ message through your tone of voice/ body language and your facial expression

Your child senses your motivation far more strongly than she can hear the words you are using. (When you most want to say’ Listen to me’ is when  she’s emotionally flooded and it’s impossible for her to listen! In upset times your child’s brain can’t make sense of your words. First she needs to connect with you.

She will learn how to deal with stressful times by what you model.

6. Focus on seeing the situation through her eyes, rather than trying to explain yours

See life from her perspective.

Reflect the same words/ energy / simple phrases that she does.

Focus your attention on connecting with her. It’s helpful to imagine ahead of time, before an upset, how  you might respond in a similar scenario. Here’s how I would choose to respond:

Child: ‘I want the toy.’

Mother: ‘You want the toy.’

Child: ‘I want it!’

Mother: ‘You really want it.’

7. Don’t give her what she’s demanding – just acknowledge what she wants

Just because she “wants” the toy, doesn’t mean she has to have it.  But you can still acknowledge her experience. (Think of when you say something like, “I’d love that Porsche.” Just because you express the wish, doesn’t mean you need it explained to you why you can’t have it! ) What anyone of us wants is for someone to acknowledge our experience. So, you can empathetically respond, “You’d love that toy”  – but it doesn’t;t mean you have to buy it!

8. If she uses attacking words, like ‘Silly Mummy’ reflect the emotion below her words

For example, you might respond,  ‘You’re cross with me.’

9. Give words for your child’s emotions

When we acknowledge emotions, over time your child will learn to ‘name, claim and tame’ her emotions. As we model this, our children will be more able to use reason to deal with emotional upsets – to ‘find words (left brain activation) for strong feelings (right brain activation) instead of moving into primitive discharge of these feelings. (as in tantrum).’[ii]

10. It’s okay for your child to cry

Don’t try to stop the tears, just be compassionately present and ready to connect when your child is ready to do so.When we cry when we’re upset, the tears are chemically different to the tears we cry when we’re peeling an onion. Our ‘upset tears’ contain stress hormones. So having a ‘good cry’ / ‘crying it all out’ makes sense.

How to Deal with Toddler TantrumWhy Connecting Matters

When you see an upset toddler it’s helpful to remember that her brain and nervous system are still ‘under construction’. She is reliant on you as parent (or carer) to calm and regulate the strong emotions that are storming her young body. Her crying is trying to communicate to you that she’s especially needing your support right now. She needs you  to ‘listen to her behaviour’ ; for more about this, see my blog  “My toddler screams when her 4 year old sister ‘bugs’ her!”

Your young child is not out to make your life difficult – she’s doing the best she can.

The bottom line is babies and toddlers need caring, connected parents, particularly in times of emotional stress.

But how to be the calm, connected parent you want to be in times of stress? You can discover more with the three signpost to Mindful Parenting in my new Parenting book, ‘BEHAVE – What To Do When Your Child Won’t’.  And if you’re a parent who is really keen to discover the practical tools to  a more mindful way of Parenting, you’ll want to sign up now for start-when-good-for-you, return-as-often as-you-wish Online Parenting course.

I recommend Margot Sunderland’s book ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’. It’s the type of book that you’ll frequently dip into, with chapters on issues such as sleep and bedtimes, behaviour issues, crying and separation. It’s filled with a wealth of knowledge and practical advice, based on scientific fact, about what children need to thrive.


[i] Sunderland Margot at Play Therapy conference in Dublin 2008

[ii] Sunderland Margot ‘The Science of Parenting ‘2006 Dorling Kindersley Limited. London, p. 231

Last edited October 13th 2019

‘I don’t want to go to school’

Jamie had been excited about going to school until the big day came.

Suddenly she was clinging onto her mum’s shirt, her arms wrapped tightly around her as though she would be washed away by the tide of excited new pupils.

Her mum was embarassed that her ‘big girl’ was suddenly reduced to tears.

‘Now what do I do?’ she thought. The thoughts raced through her head, ‘Traffic’s going to be heavy today. Got to get to work. Can’t leave her here like this. What do I tell my boss? The other kids are going to laugh at her if she’s blubbing like this.’

Four year old Amy wasn’t as vocal as Jamie about her protest. But in the last few days before school started, she’d been very quiet and seemed to lose her appetite.

Both Jamie’s and Amy’s parents are worried about whether their child will settle at school.

What can a parent do when your child’s anxiety is eating away at her like a mouse with cheddar cheese?

The good news is that you, as parent, can make a big difference in how your child copes with school.

I came across a magical little formula about Anxiety recently on the cover of Chip Conley’s book, ‘Emotional Equations’.

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Even though this isn’t a Parenting book, Conley’s approach can be helpful in responding to unhappy children. A parent can reduce a child’s Anxiety by increasing their sense of Certainty and reducing the sense of Powerlessness.

There’s a number of ways that you can help your child with this. Here are a few Parenting tips if your child’s anxious about starting school that will increase your child’s sense of certainty  and give a sense of having some  power in the situation, and this can significantly decrease your chid’s uncertainty.

1. Firstly and most importantly, no matter what stage of schooling your child is at, ensure that your child knows that his experience matters and that you are trying to understand. (Discover more about how to connect with your child so that he feels heard and validated: Childcare Concerns: How to Listen to Your Child)

2. Think what choices you can give him:

  • Discuss if he would like to meet a friend at the gate and go in together.
  • If he’s anxious about saying goodbye to you ask if he wants to say goodbye at the school gate or if he wants you to walk to the classroom door with him.
  • Give him a choice of what he’d like for his snack.

3. Ensure that he has the information and skills he needs, e.g. where’s the toilet, what’s the teacher’s name, how to open his snack box

4. Make sure he is being collected by someone he has a secure and warm relationship with. (Ideally Dad or Mum, or someone your child has a close, connected relationship with). Explain who will be there to meet him, and make sure that the person is there well ahead of time.is your child anxious about starting school?

A final tip:

Remember emotions are contagious. If you are stressed, frustrated or anxious your child is very likely to ‘catch’ that emotion.

So prepare everything well ahead of time to avoid last minute stress and focus on  being calm and centred.

Keep in mind:

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

I’d love to hear what other ideas you suggest.

P.S. For practical support on being the Parent you’d love to be, discover our online Parenting course:’ BEHAVE-WHAT TO Do When Your Child Won’t’ and face-to-face training offered by accredited Parent Coach Val Mullally MA.

 

 

Last edited August 31st 2017

Are you anxious about your child as they begin preschool or school? Is your child anxious about school?

Free Parenting workshop at Ardfallen Centre, Douglas, Cork on Thursday 12 September at 7.30 pm. This is your chance to discover helpful insights and practical tools to reduce the worry and to deal with the situation.

Last edited August 24th 2013

If you’re anything like I was when my children were young  – those words filled me with anxiety.

I needed my child to be happy at school so that I could feel okay about it.

So how to respond in a way that’s actually helpful?

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own anxiety that our response is actually about trying to calm our own anxiety – rather than responding to him.

Here’s some of the tactics we parents use in our attempt for ‘smooth entry’.

Parent: Unhelpful Tactic 1

We try to do is convince him he thinks /feels otherwise.

‘Of course you want to go to school – you love school.’

Parent Unhelpful Tactic 2

Change the subject.

‘Oh, look.  There’s Johnny.  Let’s go to the park together.’

Parent Unhelpful Tactic 3

Compare.

‘Your sister loves school.’

Parent Unhelpful Tactic 4

Try to reason.

‘You’ll be home in just a few hours.’

‘But last week you said you really wanted to go to school.’ (Maybe he did – but that was last week –not now!)

Parent  Unhelpful Tactic 5

Bribe.

‘Be a good boy and go to school and I’ll buy you an ice-cream on the way home.’

Parent Unhelpful Tactic 6

Belittle.

‘Big boys all go to school.’

These tactics aren’t helpful because:

* Your child’s not feeling heard or ‘feeling felt’.

(When his emotions aren’t calmed, he won’t be able to figure out how he can handle the challenge).

* When he experiences his parents ignoring what he’s experiencing, over time he might begin to doubt or ignore his own inner experiences /  thoughts and feelings.

* If he can’t share these worrying emotions with you because you ignore / divert him then  he might  start thinking that he can’t share  other concerns him with you.

* He might feel resentful towards a sibling (just because she likes school, why should that mean he does?)

* And if he figures that bribes get him rewards, you’re creating a situation where he’s more likely to complain about more things. (‘Mentality: ‘The more I complain the more ice-creams I get!’)

* Shaming a child might get the immediate result you want, but it means he’ll just be stifling his worries, rather than learning he’s got a supportive mum / dad who will listen and help him figure out what’s needed.

So what can be helpful?

* Be aware that, even if you’ve been careful about what you say, your child ‘reads’ you – your body language, tone of voice, muscle tension, facial expression. If he senses you’re tense/ worried/ anxious/ don’t want to ‘let your baby go’  – he’ll cooperate with you – and give you the behaviour that you are subconsciously  ‘asking him for’. This means making sure you’re settled and calm about the situation. (And sometimes one parent copes better at the school gate than the other parent – try to plan it that way if possible).

* Respond to what your child’s experiencing – not to your own needs.  It’s so easy for us to so want for it to be okay, that we’re trying to soothe him for our own sake, rather than being tuned in to what’s actually helpful for him.

* Respond to his words.‘ So you don’t think you want to go to school today. Tell me more.’ Often just having a chance to talk about it, knowing someone’s really listening, may be all he needs to do. And maybe there IS something that’s not okay, that he’ll need your support to sort out.

* Empathise. Notice his body language and facial expression as well as his words. Try to ‘get into his skin’ and feel what he’s feeling. Naming the emotion helps him to ‘name’, ‘claim’ and ‘tame’ the emotion.

‘You’re feeling sad/ worried about going to school?’ If you name the emotion, he’s more likely to have a sense that his experience is normal / understandable to others and this makes it easier for him to deal with overwhelming emotions.  He’s more likely to calm down when he ‘feels felt’.

Our culture tends to give a message ‘big boys don’t cry’ but our tears when we are upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. Our ‘upset tears’ contain stress hormones – so when we’ve ‘had a good cry’, we feel better / more able to cope. Having said that, there’s a time  (Like going into the school gate) when tears most probably aren’t going to be helpful. Time to be listened to beforehand can reduce risk of tears at the gate.And avoid expressions like ‘Don’t cry.’ (All he’ll hear is ‘Cry’!)

Even young children can learn to use focusing on their breath to contain themselves. (Great at the dentist or doctor’s) Remind him of something that will be encouraging or reassuring. (‘I’ll be right here to meet you at home time.’)

* Some children battle to be away from the parent. Some token object to ‘keep safe for me’ or ‘so that you know I’m thinking of you’ that he can tuck into his pocket can give him something tangible to feel and reassure himself at times when he might need to calm himself during the day.

* Giving a choice can be helpful.  Perhaps as you get close to the school your child becomes increasingly clingy. ‘Would you like me to walk to the classroom door with you or do you want to say goodbye in the hall?’ Not going to school isn’t being offered as an option – but, by making a choice, your child doesn’t feel powerless in the situation

*  Daily transition times – home to school – can be stressful. Do what you can to minimize stress, like having everything ready beforehand, know where the car keys are, leaving five minutes extra early. A calm start to the day can make all the difference.

*  Keeping still (comparatively) and concentrating and cooperating all morning is stressful for young children. Plan for a healthy breakfast to start the day and an opportunity to work off a bit of energy. (Can you walk to school?)  Likewise, time to work off energy on returning home is needed.

In my years as school teacher/ principal I found that Monday morning blues after the first weekend is very common, even with some children who started school happily for the first few days. Forewarned is forearmed.  Be extra aware of what might be needed after the weekend so that you can respond helpfully before meltdown happens!

I’d love to hear your experiences.

Happy schooling!

 

 

Last edited September 03rd 2012

‘Here’s your hat. 
And your scarf.’

These words could be part of the ‘Mum Song’ lyric. Anita Renfroe’s Supermum runs round doing everything for this child. She gives her her clothes and her shoes – and presumably everything else. Imagine this same child on her first day at school.

Where’s Mummy? Teacher’s asking me a question.

I don’t know what I should say. And I’m so hungry.

Mummy’s not here to open my lunch box.

Everybody else is eating sandwiches.

I can’t open this. I can’t open my lunchbox.

I’m so hungry. And I want to pee.

Hold my legs tight together.

I can’t go by myself.

I want to pee so bad.

Uh oh.

Doing everything for your child does not equal loving your child. Love is about helping your child to develop her own competence. Observe your own actions. And your child’s. What are the things that your child could be learning to do for herself? Being a coaching parent is not about throwing your child in at the deep end. It’s day by day gentle support towards competence. What could happen if you choose to support your child to do as much as possible for herself?

Last edited April 27th 2010