Children should be seen and not heard.’ Fortunately this old saying does not hold as much weight as it did in years gone by, but we still hear constant complaints about children just being children. How quick are you to praise your youngsters if they are quiet and ‘good’ when you are socialising with other adults? If you live in a communal complex, how often are you asked to keep them quiet, and not let them play ball on the grass or climb trees?
Perhaps we have forgotten what it is like to be a child and see the world as exciting. Children shriek when they are happy, they laugh loudly, they shout when annoyed, and they want to explore and discover everything around them with eager enthusiasm. Children are not mini-adults. They have big emotions and do not always know how to control them. They are not being naughty when they are overwhelmed and act up – much of the time this is because they are out of their depth and still need to learn the skills that will enable them to cope.
How can we as parents help our children when their emotions overwhelm them, and are there ways to calm them that don’t leave us frazzled and them constantly scolded and berated?
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
As a parent you need to be one step ahead – and I say this as someone who hates too much planning and doesn’t have very much routine. But it’s important to have a realistic, age-appropriate idea of what your children can handle in a particular situation. There is no point setting them up for disaster by expecting them to be ‘good’ and quiet and sit still in a situation that they may not be able to manage.
Be mindful of their normal routine and when they are going to be hungry or tired. A child will act up much quicker when hungry, tired, cold, in a strange place, or starting to get sick.
Think about the child-friendliness of a place before you go. Some things, such as a flight, can’t be avoided, and often overlap with less-than-ideal times such as mealtimes or bedtime. Be prepared and have things to do and to distract your children, and make things as close as you can to what they are used to, such as pyjamas for the flight and a toy they are used to going to bed with.
A fancy sit-down restaurant without a play area is not a good venue for a family meal out! It’s unreasonable to expect children to sit still while food is being ordered and wait while it is being prepared. They get bored and wriggle – some sooner than others, but when it happens you end up getting annoyed when it’s not really their fault. If there is no way to avoid a place like this, again plan ahead and take things for them to do – toys to play with, or colouring-in books. Take turns as parents to be on ‘kid duty’, and even go for a walk to alleviate boredom.
Monitor your child’s reaction to sugar and colourants. Try to plan healthy snacks and meals and limit sugar, sweets, fizzy drinks and foods high in preservatives. Sometimes these things are unavoidable, such as at parties and other people’s homes, but be aware of the probable effect and don’t expect the child to sit still soon afterwards!
Some children cope with change and spur-of-the-moment things better than others. If your child needs a bit of warning and prior knowledge of events, let him know what’s planned in good time so that he can prepare himself. Some children need time to adjust to leaving a place, and throw a huge tantrum when it’s time to go. Again it’s helpful to prepare them. Give a warning about needing to leave and that they have 10 more minutes, then 5 minutes, then 2 minutes, and then help them get ready to go. This does not always prevent a tantrum, but it can help.
Children are natural bundles of energy, so make sure you set aside enough time in each day for them to burn it off. Sports, playgrounds, the beach, the swimming pool, a trampoline are all good ways to help them get rid of energy in a positive way. Be mindful of safety with all these activities and have an adult present.
A tired child is not going to be at his or her best. Even as little as 30 minutes less sleep than they are used to can really throw them out of sync. Try to be at home for naps and bedtimes, or plan a place where they can sleep if you are out.
It’s not easy to preplan everything, but some forward thinking really does help. So does realising when a visit, outing or activity needs to be cut short because the child is not coping.
CALMING THE STORM
My daughter screamed for 45 minutes one day because her toast was cut in squares and she wanted triangles. What can you do in the heat of the moment?
- Use physical contact if the child will let you. Get down to their level and be present. Some will let you hold them, and some will only accept you being close. It’s very scary for a child when their emotions are out of control – they feel as overwhelmed as you do, and often have no idea how to stop what they are doing.
- Deep breathing can help in returning to a calmer state. Get the child to copy you, and help them regulate their breathing and relax their shoulders. This will also help you not to lose your cool – a screaming child can push all the wrong buttons in us adults, and we get as cross and worked up as they do.
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings. You don’t have to agree, or accept the behaviour, or even change the outcome, but everyone wants to know that their feelings have been acknowledged – ‘I can see that you are really, really cross at the moment, but it is not OK to hit.’
- Have a bottle of rescue remedy in your bag. It will help you as much as it helps the child.
- Sometimes you just need to remove yourselves from the situation and go to a quiet place. Not only will this help the child calm down, it also saves them (and you) the embarrassment of everyone watching the tantrum.
It’s only when the crisis has passed that you can talk to a child and teach them anything. The heat of the moment is not the time for lessons in behaviour – your goal then is just to calm things down.
Talk about the child’s feelings again, and ask them for reasons why they think things got out of control. Make your own suggestions, and plan what you can do next time. Talk about getting cross and how it feels in your body, and skills to use when the child feels out of control again – these can include breathing exercises, walking and stamping the frustration out for a while, or having an ‘anger pillow’ to shout into when ready to explode. Talk about how the body needs help to calm down after this. Explain that when the child starts to feel out of control he might need to walk away for a while. Suggest a calming warm bath, or a safe place in the house to go to. This should be a nice place rather than a punishment place. The ‘calm-down corner’ can be for anyone in the family, and should have comfortable pillows or a chair, some books, and maybe music. It’s helpful for children to see you use the calming corner from time to time.
YOU AS A PARENT
Parenting is not easy, and we have to accept that there are times when we, and our children, are not going to cope. Be kind to yourself. Get enough rest, and eat well. Get help if you need a break, and most of all keep in mind that ‘this too shall pass’.