What to do instead of saying “Calm Down”

It’s time to stop telling our kids, “Calm Down”!    (or any version of calm down)

“But I thought that was the goal when my child is losing it—to get her to calm down,” says the disgruntled parent who is dealing with meltdown number 53 of the week—and it’s only Tuesday.

Here’s what I say: Our goal is to help children feel whole—grounded and connected to themselves in an authentic way. When a child is having a blow up, they are in an authentic expression of their emotional experience. And this emotional cycle needs the space and the time to release and express itself. In other words, children need to process their emotions to completion and we are there to provide the space, time and support to allow them to do this. 

Asking or telling children to “calm down” in these moments is not only virtually impossible, but actually teaches them to suppress and override their emotions without integration. This was likely our own childhood experience if we are someone (like most) who become triggered by our kids’ big emotional expressions. We were not taught that it is ok to truly have, feel and release our emotions. So our unconscious mind actually projects this unresolved part of ourselves onto our children.

In that moment of meltdown, blow up and big emotions, your child feels scared, overwhelmed and helpless. They are not freaking out in order to intentionally disrupt the family or manipulate a situation. They are overwhelmed by their emotions and don’t have another way of expressing those feelings. So they get their point across in the most effective way they know how, with a nervous system response that looks like a tiger in fight mode. 

The way to bring them back to a feeling of safety is to connect with them. And the only way we can authentically do this is if we are working on our own deep-seated triggers. Here’s the thing—our children are our greatest teachers. They are literally here to reflect back to us the parts of us that haven’t been healed and are still hurting. So when we see that our children are losing it, as much as we want to “calm down” (aka control) their behaviors, what we need to do is connect with ourselves. Take a breath, feel the sensations in your body, notice what emotions have come up for you. Are you angry, scared, helpless, overwhelmed, sad…? THIS is the part of you that needs your own love and support right now.

Now let’s come back to our little one—the one having a colossal meltdown and tearing apart his room, making threats, destroying things he’s worked hard on. He too is scared. He too is overwhelmed. He too needs love, support and acceptance. But he is little with an undeveloped frontal cortex, and he isn’t equipped to give it to himself at this point. So the honor goes to you. And here is what I suggest. Allow him to have his feelings. Let him know it is safe to feel what he is feeling. You can ask, “Would you like me to hold you while you have your feelings? I am in this with you. It’s safe to feel this. You’re not alone…” Then allow the feelings to move through while you become the container for his experience. Hold space, hold him close, let him know he is safe and he can let it out as he needs to. That you are here and you love him no matter what. 

And finally, when things have settled and you take a moment, come back to yourself. Journal. Move your body. Breathe. Do what you need to do to release your energy. But then become a detective for your own emotions by using the gift your child gave you. THIS is what needs to be healed in you. And the more you heal it, the less you will see it reflected back to you by your littles. Life becomes more harmonious, joyful and fun.

If you are in need of support for going deeper into your own journey with this, please reach out to your therapist or to me. I am here for you and I’d be honored to help you navigate your own healing through this amazing journey of parenting.