12 Steps to Helping an Upset Child
1. First and foremost, outside of the upset moment, develop your own practice of regulating and calming YOURSELF. Know how to get grounded and centered. Intellectually knowing this is VERY different from doing it. You must set aside time in your day to regularly do this. You must practice before it’s game time. I use belly breaths. I pause at the top and bottom of the breath, and make the out breath twice as long as the in breath. Make this part of your life so that when you need it, it is there.
2. Cultivate the idea of Healthy Separation and being able to create your own calm and safe internal environment regardless of the what is happening on the outside. You are in charge and in control of your internal environment, no one else. You regulating you is TOP priority. Healthily detaching from the child’s emotions allows you to not get caught up in the emotions of others or take them personally. Other’s emotions belong to them, don’t make it about you. Do not make meaning of or take on your child’s feeling or actions personally.
3. Recognize that emotions are natural. They get felt, and they move on, especially if there is a safe place for them to do so. This is true for both you and your child. Remind yourself that you yourself are safe and that you are going to be okay. While you breathe, make this your mantra. “I am safe, I’m okay. I got this. Emotions come and go”
4. Be okay with not taking immediate action. In fact, your immediate action is to do nothing. Resist the urge to teach, correct, or blame. You’ll know you are getting the hang of it when the child gets upset and you just remain calm, compassionate, and positive. The first few times will be hard, know that. It might feel like you need to do more, fix more, or control more. Get comfortable with this discomfort
5. Let your child see you be calm. When you make eye contact with them, take a big deep breath. Often times your child might take a breath too.
6. Use the child’s upset or (mis)behavior as a cue to get curious. The child’s upset is a sign they need some help, that is all that it means, no more. Do not label the child as rude or disrespectful. This doesn’t help. This puts you in a negative head space which will have you going back to reactive disconnecting kind of parenting behaviors. Replace anger and judgement with curiosity and a desire to help. Look at your child with loving eyes and try to understand what they are going through. This might be hard to do at first. It might take longer than you want to get past the discomfort and through to the love, but it will happen. An example that may help is to try to imagine how you would be present and hold space for a friend who was really upset. Could you be this present and non-judgmental and calm for your child?
7. Make it clear that you are okay and that their upset is not a problem. Take this as an opportunity with the number one goal being that get to teach calm by modeling calm. Allow yourself to move slowly and deliberately. Don’t make any big moves. Ask your child to take a few deep breaths with you if they will.
8. When the child has calmed down a bit. Let them know you see them. “You seem upset” If they respond and tell you why, you can nod and acknowledge. Keep the slow pace. Do some more breathing, waiting, and being present. Notice how we have not given advice, fixed, or blamed. (and we are not going to).
9. Offer a hug. You can let them know it’s okay to be upset, and that you are there to help. Oftentimes this where the child will give over to your loving leadership and melt into you.
10. When the child is calm, you can listen and start guiding the solution-finding process. Ask some questions in positive tone like “How can I help you here” “What would you like” “What do you need”. These questions allow you to start a conversation and to further understand what is going on for you child. If the child feels safe, they will tell you what going on and how it isn’t what they want. That’s okay. It’s good actually. Children want to be heard. And you get to create that space for them. If they get upset while talking to you, help them pause and breathe.
11. Empathize and validate the feelings and the wants of the child. “That makes sense, you are angry, you wanted _________” “I understand that.” Don’t be threatened by what they want, or what they think. Don’t try to stop them from thinking a certain way. Validating is just showing that you understand. You don’t need to agree and you don’t need to make them wrong for anything or for wanting what they want.
12. After listening and validating and creating a calm and connected place, this is where you can talk about solutions that work for everyone. This is where you can model, teach a skill and and help guide. This is where you can help the child understand other’s perspectives. This is where you can set a limit. For example: “It’s hard, you want X and you can’t have it. I understand. That’s hard for you.”
This is where you can collaborate and empower. You can ask them what they think would be best. This is where you get to help develop their internal compass. You’d be surprised how many children rise to the challenge of solving their own problems in completely reasonable and positive ways. As the parent, you get to facilitate the conversation so there is never a need to feel out of control. The idea is to remain at your best so you can bring out the best in your child.
If any point this goes off track, head back to #1 and repeat. Good luck and let me know if you need any help. 😀