If you have a preschooler, chances are you’ve seen them have a meltdown...in a public place...at an inopportune time...and maybe you’ve felt a little helpless. All you want is for them to calm down, but the more you try, the louder they scream. It can be overwhelming, frustrating, and even scary for you (and the witnesses that you fear are judging you).
Now put yourself in your child’s shoes. You’re so distressed that you feel like your world is ending. You’re distraught and you don’t feel safe, but someone you look up to, someone you trust to care for you and always keep you safe, is simply telling you to “stop” or “calm down.” You’re so overwhelmed that you can’t think or speak clearly, but they’re still trying to reason with you in between shushes. Do you feel better yet?
If you were upset, would it help you to have someone dismiss your feelings and tell you “You are fine.”? Or would it make you feel better to have someone calmly acknowledge your upset, validate your reasoning, and then help you constructively choose a solution that would make you feel better? To your preschooler, not getting a turn with a shovel can feel like the end of their world. However, if you take the time to acknowledge that feeling, empower them to breathe and self sooth until they are thinking clearly enough to make an alternate, satisfying choice, you will ultimately be setting the framework for your child to be able to cope with any upset all by themselves.
Sounds too good to be true right? You're saying, "But I've tried, and it's just not that easy."
Conscious Discipline can teach you how to teach your preschooler several life skills to problem solve, communicate, and build relationships positively, but it’s the conflicts and the challenging moments where it can be most helpful. For those moments, it comes down to three key elements of Conscious Discipline: Composure, Acknowledgement, and Choices.
In Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline, she states, "Self control is mind control. It is being aware of your own thoughts and feelings." Be aware of your own state. Are you calm enough to help your child calm down? After all, no one can make you mad without your permission. When you let someone else upset you, when you place them in charge of your feelings, you are putting them in control of you. You are giving up your self control, and if you can’t hold on to your self control, how can you expect your child to control themselves?
You’re saying, “Okay, keep calm. Stay composed and in control. Sure. But how do you keep your composure when your child is tantruming in the middle of a restaurant?”
|Take a deep breath|
Research has shown it only takes three deep breaths to change your brain state. (Note, there are the occasions where it might take many more...just keep breathing.) Multiple studies have also shown that physically smiling and physically frowning can influence your mood positively and negatively, respectively. In any situation, if you physically stop and S.T.A.R. (Smile, Take a deep breath or three, And Relax) you’ll notice that you feel more relaxed and more equipped to handle the current stressor.
It works the same way for your preschooler. A child in the middle of a tantrum is typically in a survival brain state. You can’t reason with them because they can’t hear you. The only way to help a child in a survival state is to make them feel safe. Take those deep breaths for yourself, and then take some deep breaths for your child. Encourage and empower them to breathe for themselves, but don’t be discouraged if they can’t hear you. Just keep breathing. Give them time while you calmly narrate, “I am right here with you,” and, “You can handle this,” so that they know they are safe. If you can be sincerely calm, they will realize that the world isn’t ending.
It is extremely important to remember that your child is not acting with you in mind. They may not even realize that their actions are affecting you at all. Preschool age children haven’t fully developed the ability to read other’s emotions, so when they’re in an emotional state, you can bet they’re not thinking about how their screaming could be stressing you out.
Instead, it’s up to you to acknowledge their feelings. No one wants to be dismissed when they’re upset, so we have to remember to give preschoolers the same respect. Even though certain problems may feel trivial to you, they feel huge to children because it’s all they know. Validating that feeling, (whether it’s sadness that they can’t have a certain toy or disappointment when playtime is over,) will help your child identify and understand what those emotions mean for themselves. This is an extremely important step in being able to self regulate.
In the same way that you are working on keeping your composure and your self control, your child wants to be in control too. Here’s what you can do. If they are able to voice their needs, give them clearly defined choices and let them be in control of their own choice. It’s when they feel they’ve lost control that they push back the hardest, but when you present the opportunity to choose something safe, it empowers them. But remember, they have to be able to voice their needs. If they are still in their survival state (huffing and puffing, arms flying, legs kicking, tears falling fast, mucus dripping, screaming) go back to breathing with them or maybe even humming or singing that special song you have together.
Every situation is different and there is no quick fix, but if you remember to breathe and stay in control of your emotions, you will be able to help your child breathe and guide them in taking control of their emotions (bringing them from their survival state into their emotional state). Once they are in their emotional state this is when you can begin to acknowledge their feelings, and give them safe choices.
Parent - “You seem mad.”
Child - They nod their head yes
Parent - “What do you need?”
Child - “I want the purple crayon.”
Parent - “You can ask your sister for it or you can wait until she is done using it. What would you like to do?”
As they begin to communicate more with you, you have helped them in moving from their emotional state to their executive state and you turned a challenging moment into a teachable one. You Did It!!!!!