Whether you’ve got a tantruming 3 year old or big teenager feelings, it can feel awful when our kids are upset. Sterling breaks down five steps for helping your kids to calm down and unsurprisingly, it starts with you.
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I’m Sterling Jaquith, and today we’re talking about what to do when our children are upset. And when I laid out this five step process, I really wanted it to apply to little kids and to bigger kids. So I’m going to give you these steps, and I’m going to teach them to you for a three year old and an eight year old. But then at the end, I will give you some ways to deepen it for that teenage crowd to add a little bit more complexity and depth to it. But the steps are the same for how we can help our children who are upset calm down. So step number one, you need to get and stay calm. When your three year old gets their finger caught in the doorway, it’s interesting how often anger is the first feeling that flashes up, like, why was his finger there? What was he doing? You’re just going to have a big stress response, and it’s often anger. And so that’s going to happen quickly.
You’re going to get the kid’s finger out of the door, and then in your mind, I want you to tell yourself, I need to calm down. I’m going to calm down. I’m going to help him by being calm. Now, you may be calm already, but especially if the child was screaming or crying and you’re a little bit overloaded on noise, you might be upset. So you have to calm yourself down in your brain, which only takes a few seconds. So when I see a kid who’s upset and then something has made me upset, I’m just like, hey, mama, you got this. Take a deep breath. Let’s be calm.
Let’s show this kiddo what calm looks like so we can help them to be calm. Don’t rush. You’ve got time for this. I have six kids, so when they’re upset, sometimes annoyance is the feeling that comes up for me. I’m like, oh, my gosh, this is so annoying that I have to deal with this, especially if it’s like a silly sibling thing. And I will often want to rush through it. That’s just kind of our default position. Usually I’m busy, so we’re rushing. And I’ve just learned that it saves me so much time to go slowly both in the moment with the child, the whole event and calming them down will go faster if I stay calm and slow down.
But also in the overall training of the kids to be emotionally regulated to learn how to calm themselves down, which is what we’re trying to do. So step number one, you need to get and stay calm. You’re going to be coaching yourself in your mind, I love you. You got this. This is a great mom moment. Let’s show them what emotional regulation looks like. Step number two is you want to get down on their level, and you want to speak in a soothing tone with simple language. Okay? So you’re kind of setting the scene.
You’re going to get down on their level. You’re going to speak in a soothing tone and use simple language. I know so much information about Catholicism, about the Lord, about the Bible, about psychology, and I love teaching, and it is just not always the right moment for teaching. And children are not always ready to receive that level of information, okay? So when they’re still upset, your job is just to speak in a soothing tone and use simple language. That kind of sets the stage. Step number three, this is the talking part, is we want to validate their feelings and ask for more information. And so when Peter got his thumb closed in the door the other day, I said, oh, what happened? I closed the door, my finger in the door. And I said, oh, that sounds so painful.
It hurts so much to get your finger pinched. How does it feel? It hurts. So I’m asking for more information. I didn’t actually need to ask that much more information about what happened because it was pretty obvious what happened. And again, it’s usually at this phase where I want to go, why did you do that? We’ve talked about this before, right, but in this better way, right, which is what we’re shooting for. We’re validating their feelings and asking for more information. If your eight year old is upset that her younger sibling is following her around all the time and asking her to play with her, your questions will be around that. You’ll just say, hey, what’s going on? Well, she follows me around all the time, and she never respects that I want to be alone.
And she’s just so annoying. What was she talking about that was annoying to you? Right. You’re just going to ask probing questions, and this is important because it shows the child that you’re interested in them and that you care about what’s going on. Right. They can tell when we’re, like, Speed it up, kid. I got things to do today, and I don’t care about this silly kid thing. Asking more information and asking probably even more information if they’re at that teenager level without judgment, without assumptions, just gathering information and validating their feelings does not mean that you have to validate why they feel like that. They may be completely wrong.
They may have a completely unreasonable idea about something, and now is not the time to explain that to them. You just want to say, oh, I know what it’s like to feel really annoyed. I don’t like it when I feel frustrated. I don’t like when I feel rejected or unwanted. You can always validate what they’re feeling. So step three is validating their feelings and asking for more information. I feel like you kind of naturally know when they’re done telling you information and you can move on. So the next step is to offer comfort and or distraction.
And let me explain that we want to show them what emotional regulation looks like. They don’t know, they don’t know what to do when they have these big feelings in their body. And so we have to show them what it looks like. But I like to ask them that. Why do you want to offer comfort? Do you want to hug? Do you want me to kiss it? Would you like to take some deep breaths with me? And when I ask that question right afterwards, I will take a deep slow breath and blow it out so they can see what it looks like. Would you like to count with me? Should we get a stuffed animal and hug it? Would you like me to wrap you up in a soft blanket? Okay. So those are all ways to kind of model emotional regulation and offer it to them. And then for the younger set, I also sometimes just distract them.
Sometimes they’re upset about it. So for example, right now, my four year old sometimes cries when he has to go to take a nap and it’s usually because he’s tired. He’s tired and I say, okay, it’s time to go to nap. And he just insta cries. And so in that situation there’s not going to be a lot of talking. We are going to take a nap. And so sometimes I can distract him by saying, would you like some water before you go to nap? And no joke, I cannot tell you how many times my kids will just immediately stop crying and go, yeah, I would like some water. And so I don’t want you to think that distracting them is being dismissive or not caring about them.
For the younger ages, sometimes that just is the right thing to do. And then when they’re drinking the water and calming down, you can say, okay, prepare your heart, we are going to go to nap. I’m going to go with you. I’ll tuck you in. Which stuffed animal do you want? Right? Directing their brain in a different direction to distract them from being upset is a completely lovely tool to connect with them and get them to calm down. I would not do that when they get older. So if my eight year old is upset about something her sister is doing, I don’t go, you know, I bought you that book the other day, you should start reading that. That’s a trick, right? But I might say, would you like me to make some tea so we can sit down and talk about it? Let’s go pick out some tea.
And then she goes with me to the kitchen and we pick out the tea and then we sit down and we’re going to talk about it. So that’s what it looks like at the older ages. But at younger ages, I just think distracting them is such a powerful tool and it works so often. So you want to offer comfort to them. Your children are different. What they want will be different depending on the time of day. And so that’s why we just want to check in and ask with them. And this is what you should do for yourself, too.
When you’re upset, you will not always want the same thing. So I ask myself, I’ll go, oh, Sterling, do we want a soft blanket right now? Do you want some tea? Do you want to walk outside? I offer myself examples of what I can do to calm down. And then step number five, which is kind of a mix of steps, but you won’t need to do all of them, is to kind of bring it together. You’re going to reassure them like, I love you, you’re safe, we’re going to figure this out, do some teaching if necessary. So you might actually need to teach them something like, hey, this is why I was not going to teach my three year old about the doors. He kind of knew. I think I probably just said, oh, let’s make sure we keep our hands away from the doors. If it’s siblings, you might need to teach them about setting boundaries and, hey, it’s important that we actually do spend some time with our siblings, but then we feel safe to say no.
Maybe we involve the other sibling. Maybe we are talking about virtues. So we want to reassure them, teach them something if that’s necessary, and make sure it’s not too long of a lecture. They’re not going to listen to that. And then pray. Let me pray with you. Let’s pray about this. Now, I didn’t pray when Peter got his hand stuck in the door, but if it was a sibling issue, I would pray about that.
When a child was feeling frustrated about school or their capability on the soccer team, I would just pray, lord, help me reveal these gifts to this child. You have given this child gifts. Help her to see them send down the Holy Spirit to inspire her. Lord, help us to love with our whole hearts, to act charitably. And so for the younger set, I’m not praying with them as often for physical things, sometimes for heart things, but they’re usually kind of ready to just move on. This whole process might take two minutes with a younger child, and I’d rather have a positive experience where we end before they’re done in their mind than drag it out and have it feel kind of negative to them because I made it too long. And then with the older kids, sometimes I don’t always pray with them. I’ll just be honest.
Sometimes I can feel that they don’t want that, but I will usually bring it up again with them in the evening when I pray with them. So step five is kind of that wisdom piece, which is you kind of checking in with yourself and you should be praying in your mind like, Holy Spirit, guide my words reassure the child, teach them something if necessary and pray with them. So let me go through those again. Step one is that you need to get and stay calm. Step two is you want to be down on their level and speak in a soothing tone and use simple language. And I think this is true even of the teenager set, too, because if they’re upset, you just want to be calm and soothing and use simple language. Step three is to validate their feelings and ask for more information. Step four is to offer comfort to model emotional regulation by taking deep breaths, or maybe you hug a stuffed animal, or making some tea, or saying, hey, let’s go for a walk outside, or offering a distraction for that younger set just to see if you can’t get them to snap out of it.
And then step five is to reassure them, teach them something if necessary, and pray. So again, you can do these steps with any age kid, but let me add some kind of emotional regulation 2.0 things for the older set. So as they get older, I begin working more with them on emotional vocabulary. Because when we’re young, we are kind of mad, sad, and happy. And by the way, that’s true of you as an adult, if you have never spent time learning about how to name your feelings. And so teaching them about how they feel and giving them more vocabulary is really powerful. Frustrated is a great word for children to learn, and annoyed is a great word for them to learn scared. And then you can break that down by explaining, sometimes we’re anxious.
You can print out a list of feelings and you could put feelings for kids and get a list like that. So as they get older, I really ask them to explore what they’re feeling and where they feel it in their body. Now, I also use wisdom to decide when to do that, because if they’re really upset, that’s an annoying thing to go through. If they’re calm enough that I’m talking to them, particularly for the older crowd, they will hang for that. Another higher level concept, and it’s not hard to understand, but it’s hard to do, is to really avoid all judgment and criticism. And as parents, we know that it is our job to teach and instruct the kids, but it isn’t our job to do that all the time, in every moment. And so wisdom sometimes says, just listen to this kid. Don’t offer your opinion because you’re going to have a lot of opinions about your child, but if you come in too strongly with judgment or criticism, they might shut down and then they may even look calm, but they might not be calm on the inside.
And this is very difficult. It is very difficult for me not to judge the ridiculousness of my kids when they are upset that we just spent a week in Boise and I took this very special icon class where he teaches you how to do an icon. And it’s an incredibly prayerful experience. And the kids had the most wonderful time with their Godparents, and they played and they did sensational things. They took them to a trampoline park, and the mom made them sushi rolls where they all got to pick out their own things and it was really fun. And so they just had an amazing week. And so then we drove 8 hours home and then the next day they were just like, we’re so bored. And so I will fully acknowledge in that moment in my mind, I have a judgment about that and a criticism about that.
I’m like that’s ridiculous. They shouldn’t be doing that. They shouldn’t think that. They shouldn’t say that we just gave them this amazing experience. But I know as a life coach and life coaching has just made me such a better parent that it doesn’t help anyone for me to come in with judgment and criticism. I can say, oh, I know how it feels to be bored and do you want me to give you a hug? Would you like me to help you make a list of things that you can do? What are some things that you are grateful about? But if I do it with a judgy edge, with, like, almost a sarcastic voice, it won’t go as well as if I really stay calm and avoid judgment. And I’m just open and curious. Like, this is the first time anyone in the whole wide world has ever told me that they were bored.
I don’t always do that, but sometimes if I want to help them emotionally regulate themselves, I will come in with that soothing voice, oh, what does boredom feel like? Why are you bored? Why do you think this is coming up right now? And if I can stay calm and get them to think they might go, oh, well, we just had so much fun yesterday that today feels kind of lame. Like, yeah, I totally get that. Which is true, isn’t it? I totally get that. I want my life to feel good and fun all the time. I don’t ever want to have suffering or have it feel bad. So avoiding judgment and criticism, and that’s a challenging thing to do as a human, and then particularly if you’re feeling overwhelmed as a mom, another thing to do with the older crowd is to hold boundaries. And I do this with the younger crowd in a slightly different way, but to hold boundaries for safety and for rules, like, no, you cannot punch a wall. You cannot be grumpy with everyone in the family in the living room.
Like, we were all here just living, and then you came in in a storm of anger and started griping at everybody can’t do that. It’s okay that you’re angry. I love you. I’m happy to go talk to you. There’s many things that we can do to help you calm down, but you can’t come in and affect the environment like that because they live in our home. It is okay that we say that. If you’ve never taught them that before, though, while they’re upset is probably not the time. Right? Make a note and go, oh, I got to talk to this kid later about what is an appropriate way to be sad and upset.
And we have that with our little kids. It’s okay to cry, but it’s not okay to wail about non physical pain in the living room. You may go cry in your room. I can come with you. But it is not okay to just cry as a four year old. So we don’t say that when they’re two, but even by three or four, if they are just crying because it’s nap time, that has a natural consequence because I said that we couldn’t get Plato out. It is totally fine that you’re upset, but you may not just sit in the living room and cry loudly in front of everybody that you don’t get to have play doh. You can go calm down in your room.
So holding boundaries for safety or for house rules, but again with love and a soothing voice and then with older kids, I really like to problem solve with them, but they have to be calm in order to problem solve. Okay, what are we going to do about this? What are some ways that we can give you some space from your siblings? What are some things that you like doing with her? How often do you think you should play with her versus not play with her? What do you think we should do about your schoolwork? Should we talk to your teacher? Should we get a program? I really love involving them in problem solving and I usually will tell them too. You seem calm now, so now we can problem solve. I really want my children to understand that as humans we are very bad problem solvers when we are upset so that they learn not to do that. So I hope this episode is helpful for you. I know that as a mom it is just maddening to watch children be upset. I mean, it just is. And then it’s our job to be empathetic and to comfort them.
But I just want to fully acknowledge that watching a kid get his hand stuck in the car door is annoying. Watching them have sibling fights is not fun. Watching them be entitled or have friend drama or struggle in school like none of us parents like that. It involves some amount of suffering for us to watch that. That’s okay. You don’t need to judge yourself for your initial reactions. But I know you want to be a good mom. And the way that we are good moms is we are emotionally regulated and we teach them how to be emotionally regulated, and then we want to problem solve from peace.
So follow these five steps. Bookmark this episode. I don’t know how that works, but just make a mental note. Oh, yeah, there’s that episode about what to do when my little kids are upset, my middle kids are upset, or my big kids are upset. And I would encourage you to go through these five steps for yourself when you’re upset. The better you are at being emotionally regulated, the more you will be equipped to teach them this skill. And I think that this is such an important skill to help us have more peace in our homes. You all right, ladies? I love you.
I’m praying for you. You were Made for Greatness.