If you want to make an angry or upset child angrier or more upset then tell them to calm down.
“Come on now, calm down!” *enter more loud screaming/hitting/throwing (delete as appropriate)*
Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment. When you’re angry over a situation what do you need? What makes you feel worse? What makes you feel better?
For example, if a work colleague has upset you and they then told you to “Calm down!” when you displayed your anger over the situation would you feel calm? If you were to confide in a friend about a situation you were angry about, what would help to make you feel better? Empathy. Empathy and understanding helps us to feel better. We need to have our feelings acknowledged before we can even begin to think about processing them and coming out the other side.
By telling your child to calm down, you are telling them to stop feeling - to stop showing emotion. We aren’t built that way, we are built to feel and our feelings matter; to be told they don’t can really knock the wind out of our sails and stop us from being open about how we feel next time.
Trying to help them to achieve calm by taking the emphasis off them and on to what you want them to do is a more practical and achievable way to ‘be calm’.
Firstly, be what you want them to be, so if you want them to calm down the first and most important thing is to maintain a level of calm yourself. If you are not feeling calm try and achieve calm for yourself before attempting to calm your child.
Tell them what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do.
“Put your hands on your knees” rather than “stop picking your nose”. By doing so you are cutting out a lot of language processing from the equation - keep instructions short and direct to also help with this.
Try giving them strategies there and then “Take big breaths” “Tell me about it” “Let’s take some time by ourselves to calm our anger”. Try taking them away from the area that they began to feel angry or upset in; even moving to another room in the house can help to restore calm.
Use it as an opportunity to continue teaching them important emotional literacy skills by acknowledging and naming the emotion “I see you are angry”
Try and stop any destructive behaviour “Can you put the toy down gently please”
Offer them an alternative “let’s take 10 big breaths together”
Encourage them to ‘use their words’ to talk about it, “Would you like to talk about why you are angry?”
Finally, and this is important, help them to plan for the next time they feel that way. Develop a strategy together. Facilitate them to do this as independently as possible and try not to hijack the process. The more they have ownership over the strategy the more chance they have of being able to use it for themselves.
Children haven’t had the experience of being exposed to their emotions unlike we have. Even with all this practice in place, we can still find it hard to manage our own feelings. Just imagine how difficult it is for our children, without all our experience and without the knowledge of what the emotion is that is causing their body to feel this way!
“I am here; you are safe.”
“It’s scary AND…”
Acknowledge your child’s fear, without making it more frightening for them by using the word AND to add to phrases such as “…AND you are safe” “…AND you’ve felt this before and then it felt better again” “…AND you have a plan”
Model the dialogue you want them to be able to use, so that they can process it for themselves as they grow.
Always reassure them that they will feel better; together you and your child will be able to ‘calm down’.
Jennifer Wyman is founder of Bridge the Gap and an emotional education consultant and trainer. A qualified early years practitioner and mum of two with over 21 years experience within the early years sector.