What do children need from us when they’re experiencing intense feelings? What are the best things to say and do to calm their emotional storms? Janet responds to notes from three insightful professionals who express concerns that what they’re doing isn’t working. Janet validates their perspectives and explains why. Then she offers specific recommendations for navigating children’s outbursts in a manner that fosters their resilience and a healthy attitude toward emotions while also nurturing trusting relationships.
Transcript of What To Do (and Not Do) When Kids Have Meltdowns, Tantrums, Strong Emotions
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be talking about a topic that I don’t think we could ever get too much support on: What do we do, what do we say, how should we act when our children are upset, maybe tantruming or having a meltdown? I talk a lot about this topic, but I don’t often describe in detail what we can actually say and do to help children share their feelings, process their feelings. Helping them develop emotional health, resilience, increasing the trust between us and the trust that children have for themselves as capable of handling their feelings and the ups and downs of life. I have three notes here that I’m going to be addressing, and then in the end, I’ll get into my specific recommendations.
Now, one really interesting thing about these notes is that they’re all from people who work with children professionally. They’re not from the parents of these children. So I thought that was interesting in itself. And these caregivers, and in one case an ER doctor, as often happens, all of them already have a sense of what they can do to improve these situations, and what isn’t working as well. So I’m mostly going to be offering my encouragement and agreement with their instincts. I just want them to feel even more confident about the direction that they sense they want to head in. And also in these notes are some really common ways that we all tend to respond that are not as helpful.
So here’s the first note:
I am a nanny to a 2.5-year-old who I’ve been with for two years. She is strong-willed and very articulate for her age.
For some context, she gets a lot of one-on-one attention from the adults in her life, because I am with her about 30 hours a week. Her mom works from home. Her dad is essentially retired, so he is around most of the time. And her grandparents are around a lot as well. While this amount of quality time is a huge blessing and a privilege in a world where most parents and caregivers are stretched so thin, there are times where I wonder if it is overwhelming for her, specifically in moments where her emotions are running really high.
For example, this week she had a really intense meltdown because she woke up from her nap and wanted her mom, but her mom was not home. At first she was just crying, but her dad heard her and came in the room, and after that, it really escalated. Both her dad and I are always calm and reassuring during meltdowns like this, but I came away from the situation wondering if, as a child, having two adults sitting next to you waiting for your emotions to subside feels like a lot of pressure.
The next day I asked her if she wants someone to stay with her when she is upset or if she wants to be alone, and she said she wants to be alone. I don’t take that statement as absolute fact, but everything that I was witnessing in the moment the day prior corroborates that idea that she truly wants space, even if it feels counterintuitive to us. I know you have a lot of experience working with kids while their parents are nearby. I wondered if you might have any thoughts on this or any specific advice.
So what a perceptive nanny this is. She saw how the child escalated and expressing her feelings seemed to last so much longer because of the way that she and the parent were there. I have the sense that they’re stopping everything and sort of making an event out of the child’s feelings. And while it’s wonderful to be available to the child—and that’s a common time that children sometimes have feelings. It’s that transition of waking up in the afternoon, it can be a rough one for some children. But then if people are sort of witnessing you like an audience, yes, it can extend the whole experience. And it can give the message to a child that this is a big deal to us. This is not just the normal passing through of feelings. Now we’re stopping everything and saying, This is an event. This is a situation that needs all this attention and care. That’s obviously very loving coming from the parents. But yes, sometimes we don’t realize that the message is that this isn’t just a normal, natural part of your day. This is a problem. This is, Whoa, I hope she’s okay, and we’re going to wait for her to feel better.
What I would do instead is definitely not just walk away and leave her alone. That can also give a message, the message that we are trying to avoid you when you feel this way. So I wouldn’t recommend that either. What I would recommend is keeping the flow of your afternoon as best you can, rather than getting stuck there. And maybe that means confident momentum, helping her up. Come on, let’s go. We’re going to go in now and help you get up because you’re having a rough one. So helping her to move forward and for you to move forward so you’re not just stuck waiting for her.
And at the same time, welcoming those feelings as you move her along. And if she doesn’t want to come, she doesn’t have to come. We’ll be right here waiting for you. As soon as you feel better. We’ll be getting your snack ready. Whatever it is that you would do next, just invite her to come along while you acknowledge, Oh, it’s so hard to get up out of bed sometimes. Waking up, yeah, you have feelings about that. Normalizing this.
And that not only helps our child, but it helps us not be exhausted by the ups and downs that a child has. Not have to think, Oh gosh, now we’ve got to wait this one out. And this problem, oh boy… Instead think, Yeah, you know what? It’s going to happen. It’s good for her to get it all out. We’re not going to rush that, at all. But we’re going to show her that life goes on, feeling however we feel in whatever state we’re in. But we’re not a stuck audience to this.
So I agree with this nanny. Not that she should be left alone, but that it doesn’t help this little girl to have people stuck there with her waiting for the emotions to subside. That is pressure. And then if this little girl said she wanted her mom and her mom wasn’t home, Oh, you wanted your mom, you’re stuck with us. Ah, that’s really hard. But we’re saying that from the understanding that she’s safe, it’s okay. It’s just a feeling, comes and goes.
Okay, here’s another one:
I’m a childcare worker who uses positive discipline, discipline without shame. I was working with 15- to 32-month-olds, but I’m now working with three- to four-year-olds. Typically, how I would deal with crying would be to let it happen and trust the process and be there for them while not accommodating, which worked wonderfully.
Since switching age groups, the adults in the room seem to be a lot less okay with crying. Instead of letting it run its course, they put a huge emphasis on taking deep breaths, calming their body, etc. This calms them for a while, but then they become upset again within 10 minutes. With this age group, should I be helping move their emotions with these calming techniques? I guess to me it feels like they’re not getting a chance to really feel it and move through it. What is the right time to start teaching these skills? What would you do?
Thank you so much.
So again, we have a very insightful caregiver here. There is, I think, encouragement for this that’s around and about in parenting advice and childcare advice that there’s some kind of lesson-teaching that we need to actively give to children around their feelings. I don’t agree with that for the reasons that this childcare worker is noticing. Which is that instead of giving the message that your feelings are healthy and normal and they pass, we can give the message that this is something we have to work on with you to make it go away.
Obviously, that’s not what these teachers or caregivers are intending at all. But usually when we do this, the impulse to want to help children work through their feelings this way, it usually stems from our own discomfort with the situation. We want the child to feel better, and maybe we feel like we’re not doing our job if we’re allowing feelings to run their course. But we can still be there for the child while we move on and help with this other child, And you’re still with me. And maybe sometimes all the children are upset, And you’re also upset right now. You’re having a hard time since your parents left.
And I think this is also why people will sometimes say to me, Oh, I can’t possibly do this. I have more than one child, or, I’m a teacher, I can’t do this thing that you’re talking about. Because I think what they’re imagining is working each child through their feelings in this active manner. And young children especially have a lot of feelings, so if each time they express something, we have to do all this work around the experience, then yes, that would be impossibly overwhelming.
What I’m suggesting is passive acceptance that doesn’t use up our energy or stop us in our tracks. It’s a big difference. We can be there, we can acknowledge, without making this into an event or a problem that we have to fix, that we have to help our child through and do something active to make better. I know it’s really hard to be with children when they’re upset, but as much as possible, our comfortable presence, that’s what helps children through. That’s what teaches them through our modeling, through showing them this is a healthy, normal, acceptable state. This is nothing to fear, not a problem. We don’t feel good for a while, and then we feel better. And we’re here for you, the whole way through. We think it’s okay. We think it’s normal. That’s the message we want children to get.
And when we’re saying, We’ve got to breathe and we’ve got to do all this, we are turning it into, without meaning to, a scarier situation, an unnatural crisis, even. And again, if we really look at that in ourselves, what makes us want to do this? It’s like we’re not comfortable with our child in this space. Not that we’re ever going to be completely comfortable, but that’s the challenge. That’s the whole thing right there, that practice that we build on to let feelings be. To know that every time our child expresses something, they’re healing something, if we can allow it and be the safe presence. And sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it’s shorter. It’s not our process to do anything about, it’s really theirs.
So I totally agree with this childcare worker that what she’s seeing is not as helpful as what she was doing before with the younger ones. And children will learn. Again, they learn through our message of acceptance and the way we’re perceiving the feelings as normal and healthy and a passing thing that we trust. That’s how children learn to move through the feelings better. Simply through that example that we’re giving them. I think a lot of times too, that when we’re in a field of teaching, or even, you know, as a parent, we feel like we’re supposed to teach, right? And that means we’ve got to do something. Instead of actually facilitating an environment for learning. And this goes with every kind of thing that children learn, especially in the early years, this precious window of time. We want to work more on facilitating the right environment instead of teaching.
Because children are such expert learners, they’re learning all the time, but they’re not always learning what we want them to learn. That’s Magda Gerber’s famous quote, “Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.” So we think we’re teaching how to work through emotions, how to relax yourself, how to take deep breaths. But what we might be teaching instead is, Ooh, this is kind of scary and not normal and you’ve got to help yourself to feel better. It’s not okay to be in that sad place or that angry place. You’ve got to get on with it and get past it.
Okay, so here’s one more question. This one, I think this came on Instagram and I responded to it. Here it is:
May I ask a question? I work as a doctor in the pediatric ER and often have to do painful procedures on children. I always try to be kind and truthful with them about what’s going to happen. I use numbing agents plus sedation and avoid restraining them as much as possible, etc.
However, understandably, they will still usually become very upset both during and following the procedure. When this happens, I can see that not only are they distressed by the situation, but that their trust in me and nurses/doctors in general has been compromised. I’m not sure of the best way to address these two issues. Often I will say, “I’m so sorry you’re upset,” or “I’m so sorry that hurt you.” But I wonder if there’s a better way of approaching this in terms of validating their feelings and reassuring them. Would you have any suggestions?
Thank you so much.
Okay, so she really nails something so important here. Trust. This is one of the results that we want when children are upset, right? We want them to trust in us, trust in themselves, trust that their feelings are okay and healthy. So here’s what I responded to this doctor:
I would be completely honest and open about every detail. Sounds like you are already in this direction, but maybe even more. This part sometimes hurts, stings. And then you will actually build trust if you can, in the moment, welcome whatever the child shares. So not only, “I’m sorry that hurt,” which is great, but also being there receiving in the moment. Ah, you didn’t like that part. That was uncomfortable, wasn’t it? Whatever they’re giving you and what it’s related to, if you know. In other words, you’re not only apologizing for and commenting on the feelings, you’re welcoming them as they come.
And if a child is too upset to hear, just be in that welcoming, accepting place. Nodding your head a little, looking at them with empathy but not sadness, obviously. Ah, I know. That one can be especially uncomfortable, you didn’t like that. If it’s a situation where the parent isn’t there, I might say, Ah, I bet you wish your mom was here. You’ll see her soon. But it’s hard not to have her here right now with you. In other words, saying all those truths that most of us are afraid to say. We fear it makes matters worse, but it actually does the opposite.
And she wrote back:
Hi Janet, thank you so much for your reply. I appreciate it so much. I could definitely adjust what I’m doing based on your advice, as I am guilty of taking kids’ emotions on board too much and showing that in my face, i.e. looking sad. Thank you again for everything that you do. Kind regards.
And I wrote back: Not guilty! Totally normal. And it’s great that you are aware.
So yeah, when we’re not the parent, we can still get our buttons pushed. It can still be so hard for us, as in the case with this ER doctor and also the caregivers that were trying to get the children to breathe and work through their feelings. As parents, it’s even harder for us because we’re so deeply invested in and connected with our child.
So this is what I recommend doing: Working on not letting our discomfort take prominence over our child’s. And really trusting in letting feelings be, that it’s safe, that feelings come and go. And then when we feel ourselves reacting with fear or anger, breathe. I mean, we don’t have to take this unnaturally deep breath. Just feel yourself breathing through normally. Center yourself in your body. For some people, it helps putting their hand to their chest or feeling their feet on the floor. For me, I love using imagery: My hero suit that I would put on when my children were upset or I knew I was going to be upsetting them. It has a shield that deflects my child’s feelings, so, as a sensitive person, I don’t take them in and absorb them. Or I’d imagine I’m a therapist welcoming those feelings to be shared, seeing how positive it is that a child does this, that any person does this. Or being that anchor in the waves, just letting those waves pass by. Not trying to stop them, knowing they’re right, they’re what should be, and that they will subside.
But what has helped me and those I’ve worked with most of all is connecting with this perspective: Feelings are healing if we let them be. This is not a problem to fix, but a passing state my child is in, and this is the healthiest thing for them to be doing right now. And I’m being the greatest parent or teacher or grandparent or caregiver by allowing and supporting this.
And in terms of saying something, I wouldn’t say anything in the beginning when I’m first working on this. Because often those words we want to say are going to come from that place that’s not comfortable in us or that’s trying to achieve something. And the only thing we want to achieve here is demonstrating how safe this is, how acceptable the situation is. So that’s usually better done, at least in the beginning when we’re kind of transitioning into this way of seeing and being. It’s better to just let your shoulders drop, finding that exhale in yourself, and if your child makes eye contact, just nod your head.
And then later, when you are more practiced at this, sometimes words will come out that are always going to be in agreement with what your child is saying, agreement with their right to say it. So whatever they say, you acknowledge, Ah, you didn’t like that, or Oh, you wanted to do that thing that I wouldn’t let you do, or You think I’m the worst mom, it feels like everything’s wrong right now. Just mirroring what they’re saying. And try not to talk for any other reason. If you’re coming from that place of overall acceptance, let that be your guide. So if there’s something you need to do or a place you need to help your child move to, do that while still being in that same mode. So comfortable that I can pick you up out of this situation while you’re upset, I’m not mad at you, I’m not pushing back on this. I can be that hero helping you through.
And then I think it’s important to really focus in on our goals overall as we practice this. And I can’t say enough how profoundly trust between us is increased when we can meet our children’s feelings bravely with empathy or at least acceptance, rather than sympathy or fear or impatience, without stopping everything to cater to them. Being as comfortable as possible, an un-rushed presence. Not letting our own discomfort take prominence over theirs. Perceiving what our child feels as this healthy flow rather than a problem to fix or an ordeal to help them through.
I’ve witnessed the beauty of this hundreds of times with my own children at all ages. And believe me, it never gets easy, though it gets a whole lot clearer with experience that we’re doing the right thing. I’ve done this with children in my classes. And even with children that I just met in an in-home consultation, I see a result. It feels like I see how I’m going from being a stranger, in those cases, to becoming somebody who helps them feel a little safer, maybe, more seen, accepting them as they are. And often they’ll look at you with this kind of surprise, I don’t know, a little bit grateful too, maybe. These are the memories I draw upon every time I need to bolster myself to be this person for children and for all people the next time. So know that this is relationship-building. Really, the safety and trust that children feel with us is everything.
And we’re going to help children to process their feelings fully and completely when teaching them, through these experiences (the best way to learn, experientially!), this healthy attitude toward their feelings and regulation states, fostering emotional health. So we can do all of these things through just this one type of experience, letting the feelings be. I’m sure a lot of you listening already know all of this, because I do touch on these themes a whole lot. They’re so important. But I do feel like for myself, I could never get too much encouragement and too many reminders that this is the groove I want to be in. So, I really hope this helps.
And for a whole lot more help, if you haven’t done so already, please check out my No Bad Kids Master Course. I go into all these topics. Tantrums and meltdowns. What do we do when kids say words to us that are unkind? What’s driving all these behaviors that children have? And how we can effectively ease them, heal them. At the same time, building this incredible lifelong relationship of mutual respect and trust and enjoyment of each other. How we can enjoy our whole experience as a parent so much more. It’s all about the way we see. So I hope you’ll check out that course, it’s at nobadkidscourse.com, or you can also go through my website, janetlansbury.com.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.