What Do I Do When My Child is Upset?

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In my line of work, the question I hear the most often is, “What do I do when my child is upset?”

I’m currently a Behaviour Consultant who works with families and children with unique needs. After 20 years in the field, I’ve easily addressed this question thousands of times. When I give my answer, the person I’m speaking with often looks worried that I’ve lost my mind (and I may have, but I promise, not on this). What do I usually tell them? The magical answer is “nothing”.

But wait, don’t worry, nothing doesn’t mean NOTHING. It means the nothing that adults do while supervising a child who is exploring their world. The nothing that a parent does while allowing their child to learn a lesson in a safe, controlled environment. The nothing that takes all the mental and emotional effort in the world to do.

For a loving, caring adult, the most effective thing to do with an upset child is to treat moments of upset as teachable moments. They aren’t moments to avoid or cut short. These are the moments where children gain critical life skills. Basically, it’s something to be embraced. But how do you embrace it?

When Your Child Is In A Good Space For Learning (e.g., calm, happy, able to listen to your words)

  • DO: Talk about feelings. Your feelings, their feelings, their favourite characters feelings and others in the world around them. No feelings are wrong.
  • DON’T: Hide big emotions

 

  • DO: Provide praise and reinforcement for problem-solving and trying to calm.
  • DON’T: Focus only on ‘good’ emotions and behaviours. Honour expressing all feelings.

 

  • DO: Provide models of problem-solving and calming. Explain why you take a big breath or need a break.
  • DON’T: Forget to explain what you are doing. Children are not mind readers either.

 

When Your Child Is Upset. (When They Aren’t Able To Hear You Because They Are Busy Listening To Their Feelings)

  • DO: Stay with your child.
  • DON’T: Hover or follow them if they want space (by asking for it or walking away).
  • DO: Honour their feelings by allowing them to have them. Acknowledge their feelings and give them a voice.
  • DON’T: Talk too much. A simple “I see you are mad, I’m here when you are ready” is enough.
  • DO: Model calm. Be the lighthouse guiding them through the stormy feelings.
  • DON’T: Join them in the storm.
  • DO: Be Patient
  • DON’T: Try to fix – even if you can! Giving them things to fix feelings can create bigger issues later!
  • DO: Be positive (or Neutral/calm), and Praise any attempts you see to calm or problem solve!
  • DON’T: Threaten, scold or negotiate.

The biggest strength we as adults have is our years of experience. We understand that while doesn’t feel good at the time, we will live. The biggest gift we can give our children is the space to explore emotions, practice strategies to manage them, and to honour their right to have their feelings. All of them. Even when it is uncomfortable.

Sarah McMillen, Behaviour Consultant

Big PLANS for Little Kids Ltd.

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