My oldest daughter can cry. When she starts, my husband and I brace ourselves that she may cry for another half hour if we let her.
I have to be honest. My patience for it wears thin. I’ve read everything under the sun and do consider myself a good parent when it comes to being understanding and acknowledging feelings.
But sometimes it’s hard. It’s bloody hard because it doesn’t work like the ‘guru nannies’ describe it. “If your child is sulking or having a hard time with something, acknowledge why she might be upset and validate her feelings on the subject- that, yes, it might be unfair. Then, offer her an alternative.”
Sounds easy, right? Well, here’s how mine went down.
Daughter finishes gymnastics. Comes outside, plays awhile in the playground, never mentioning anything is amiss. I say it’s time to go. Five minutes into walk home, whining starts: “I’m thirsty”, she says. I say, “wait ten minutes, we’ll be home soon”.
Whining gets louder and more insistent. Now turns to cries. We’re literally seven minutes from home. “I’m thirsty!,” she cries.
I say, “I know, I’m sorry, I should have brought water. You must be thirsty after gym. Can you wait?” “NOOOOOOOO!”
Sobbing starts. Real tears. I try to reason. I acknowledge her frustration, her thirst, I encourage her to hurry and it will take less time. I tell her her crying is probably making her more thirsty. It goes on… and eventually, I get angry and threaten her with all sorts of punishments/consequences if she just doesn’t stop.
Not my greatest mum moment. I get it. It’s tough when you feel “h-angry”- as we like to call it- a combination of hunger and anger. But this was long. So hunger is a trigger. Now so is thirst. What about when she got home and had some water?
My daughter later confesses she couldn’t stop crying. She just didn’t know how. Heart brakes. I know she’s a good kid. Though I tried to get her to calm down, she just didn’t have the tools to manage her emotions.
It got me thinking, what can we as parents do to encourage our children to manage their emotions and calm down in those moments? Just like adults, kids get overwhelmed and don’t have the tools or understanding to know that the moment will pass or to put it into perspective. In reality, I’ve been known to have a tantrum or lose it because I just needed to let it out.
So how can we allow kids to do the same without it getting out of control?
Here are a few tips..
- First step is realising that getting kids to calm down with words or distraction is not always possible. I was on my way home for example and I was doing everything I could to just speed through and try to talk her down. But I’ve found it goes a long way if I can just stop what I’m doing and hold her. Creating a space where she can feel safe and calm almost immediately helps her to calm down, stop crying and move on. At least until we can sort out the matter that’s upsetting her. The sobbing stops and she lets her body fall (literally) into me.
- Listening and responding. If I could, I would have gotten her that water. But I couldn’t at that moment and I didn’t have access to any. If she had said she wanted it ten minutes earlier, I would have needed to run back inside the gymnasium to get some. Because at that point, I would be able to see it coming. So the earliest signs should have been there to alert me to sort it out before it erupts. We talk about that later, knowing her body and when she might need to drink before it gets that bad.
- That’s where the third tip comes in. Recognise and anticipate trigger points. By tracking her meltdowns, we’ve understood that my daughter gets ‘unreasonable’ (i.e. not herself) when her blood sugar is low. Carrying around extra snacks or recognising hunger or thirst before it happens is one more way to limit these episodes. Tiredness, attachment to certain things or people can also be triggers that you may wish to avoid if you know your child is triggered. I now make it a point to always have water and a snack. She in turn, is more aware of her hunger or thirst when the crying begins.
- Safe words. When my daughter told me that she couldn’t calm down because she didn’t know how, it made me realise she needed to tell me something but couldn’t. We’ve since developed ‘safe words’. A word she can say to me to let me know she just needs me to hold her, no questions, no debate, even if she’s in trouble. It’s been mind blowing how much effect it’s had in calming us both down when we’re worked up.
- Talking about it and discussing it after it happens when the child is calm. We’ve joked about how, when we’re about 50 metres from home, she begins to whine and sometimes cry about being tired or hungry. It’s always in the same spot so we joked that it’s like the switch has been pushed. It makes her more aware of how she’s reacting, what her body is saying to her in that moment and how she can control it knowing it’s coming.
- Breathe. I try to remind my daughter to become aware of her breathing, to take in deep breaths. It’s a distraction but it’s also effective in calming her down. She focuses on breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth and eventually, it works. Mindfulness.
- Let go of expectations. It’s not going to sort out every tantrum but it goes a long way in her understanding her emotions. I don’t force it, if she needs to cry, I let her cry but she does tend to calm down sooner than she might have before because she is more aware.