4 Alternatives to Telling Your Kid to 'Calm Down'

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I like to think of myself as a fairly even-keeled person. I have 20 years of training in the mental health field and I work daily at finding ways to be a more self-actualized mother, daughter, sister, wife, and employee. However, if there is one thing that sends me to the stratosphere, it’s when someone tells me to “calm down.” And yet, I say those words to my daughter all the time.  

It is so challenging to dig deeper than a “Calm down!” and find another strategy. But I’ve begun to appreciate that helping kids cope with big emotions is a two-way street. By identifying and managing my own triggers, I’m better-equipped to show my daughter how to identify and manage hers. Here are a few things that I am currently trying myself:

  1. Take a deep breath When you feel those words (“Calm down!”) about to come out of your mouth, it means that you’re approaching your kid’s level of agitation. Before you escalate the situation, take a moment to consider why you’re so worked up. Are you irritated because your kid is having a meltdown at the DMV, or because you made a mistake at work or you feel guilty that you forgot yet another important appointment? It’s important to remember that our everyday stressors often amplify our reactions to our kids’ behavior. Taking a deep breath, or even stepping away for a moment, allows me to put aside whatever may be bothering me and treat your big-emotioned child with more compassion and less frustration.

  2. Ask a question You’re probably used to making demands (“Don’t do that!”) when your child is acting out. Instead, try asking a question: Why are you feeling the way you’re feeling? What’s going on that’s making you have a difficult moment right now? Kids have more emotional intelligence than we give them credit for. They’re not often asked to self-reflect, though. Asking a question like “Where is this coming from?” gives your kid the chance to move past the immediacy of their feelings and think about how they got there in the first place.

  3. Use humor! My husband is an expert at cracking a joke when my daughter’s in the middle of an outburst. Ninety percent of the time, it helps defuse the tension in the room. Once, when my daughter was writhing on the floor and we were running late for school, my husband asked her, “Who taught you how to breakdance?” We all immediately started cracking up. You of course don’t want to demean or ridicule your child, but cracking a joke when things are intense can be really useful.

  4. Check in with their body Most adults know about the connection between our emotional states and our bodies. Does your kid? When they’re mid-tantrum, see if you can get them to feel their heartbeat. Then encourage them to try to slow their heart rate down. This trick, a type of mindfulness, is one that your kid can use in other situations when they feel themselves losing control.

All of these tips show that helping your kid deal with Big Emotions is a collaborative process. Telling them to calm or stop will only get you so far. What you can do instead is work together to figure out why they’re feeling how they’re feeling, find fun ways to feel better in the moment, and learn how to deal with their emotions in a healthier way in the future.

The full version of this article appeared on PsychCentral and is part of a guest contributor series with Mightier’s Dr. Erina White.