“He’s a terror when things don’t go his way … We’re always worried that he’s going to make a scene and embarrass us … We find ourselves walking on eggshells, trying to avoid one of his meltdowns.”
I hear a lot of that kind of thing from parents of children I work with in my practice. They tell me they often feel stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted from their child’s frequent struggles and outbursts. Parents jump at the opportunity to learn some effective strategies for coping with this common challenge.
As children move through their day, they are bound to bump into situations that are potentially upsetting. Some children are born with calmer temperments and better self quieting skills, while others need to actively learn and be taught how to cope with everyday disappointments and frustrations in a positive way. This is one of the most important things a parent can help a child do. No child enjoys being out of control … it’s simply the only tactic he knows. The good news is you can help your child learn strategies to cope with his emotions constructively and have an easier time getting along in the family, with peers and in school. The bonus — you get to have stress relief, too!
Creating a “My Hard Times Board” (suggested by Peg Dawson EdD and Richard Guare PhD in their book “Smart but Scattered”) with your child utilizes an excellent tool for teaching him new calming and coping strategies. Remember these few tips before you begin:
- Child and parent collaborate throughout this entire process.
- Choose a time to design this plan when your child is calm and receptive. Nothing constructive can be developed during an outburst!
- Make sure there’s plenty of opportunity for practice each day. After all, Tiger Woods could never make those spectacular putts without lots of it. Even he misses on occasion and so will your child. Mistakes will happen – you can bank on that. But, your child will be reassured when you let him know that there’s always another chance to try again later.
STEP I: Together with your child, identify and record a couple of the most common triggers to your child’s outbursts (i.e. parents say “no,” plans don’t work out as anticipated, your child is told to stop doing something fun to do something less enjoyable, your child thinks things aren’t fair).
STEP II: Together, list and record your child’s “can’t do” behaviors that he often uses when he is frustrated (i.e. yell, hit, throw things).
STEP III: Together make a list of your child’s “can do” behaviors to replace the undesirable ones that occur when he is beginning to feel upset. This list is most effective when your child’s personal interests are represented so that his choices are engaging and interesting to him. (Examples of “can do” strategies follow after Step IV).
STEP IV: Now that the board or chart has been designed and your child is invested in the process, it’s important to keep it going by implementing the following concepts.
- A good way to get started is to have your child choose one of these strategies (that follow) and practice the technique with your child for a few minutes each morning and after school. During each practice have your child pretend he is getting upset, describe the body sensations he feels when he is angry and rehearse his calming strategy. Expect to practice these strategies many times before seeing your child using them successfully. Research tells us that it takes 21 days to make a new habit.
- You and your child might want to develop a special signal, a visual or verbal cue, that is a reminder to use one of his calming strategies. Remember, when your child chooses one of the positive behaviors on his “can do” list, it’s time to offer up enthusiastic praise and even tangible incentives such as stickers, rewards or special activities. Everyone loves a prize for a job well-done!
Here’s a sampling of “can do” strategies for calming and redirecting behavior. Personalize this list by creating names that resonate with your child.
- Happy Birthday: Teaching children to take deep breaths when they begin to get upset may seem simplistic, but it’s a lifelong skill for managing stress that has emotional, behavioral and physical benefits. Explain to your child that we all have warning signs that tell us we are getting angry. Help your child recognize the signs his body is sending out that lets him know that he’s getting angry (i.e. face gets red; fists clench; heart pounds; breathe faster). When he feels the warning signs, have him take three deep breaths. Next have your child hold up his hand, palm toward his face with fingers spread. Coach your child to blow on each finger as if he is blowing out five birthday candles, one at a time and very slowly. When you see your child getting frustrated, you might say, “Now might be a great time to blow out the candles.” In the beginning you might want to do the breathing along with your child. Set the pace, modeling for your child and letting your calm presence soothe him.
- Cozy & Cool: With your child’s help, create a “safe spot” where he can go to regroup. This special, positive place in the house is where he can go to calm down, sort things out or just chill out when he needs to be alone. It could be a teepee, a beanbag chair, a hammock, or any space your child sees as comfortable and inviting. In the “safe spot” include soft items like blankets, stuffed animals and a basket of quiet time activities that he can play with while relaxing (books, puzzles). Encourage your child to go to his “safe spot” when he feels himself becoming upset. Teach him that sometimes in an angry situation it is best to walk away, go to his “safe spot” and cool down.
- My Never Never Land: Use relaxation visualization to design an imaginary place that makes your child feel calm. Help your child create a mind picture of a special place that makes him feel peaceful with all of the colors, sounds, textures, and smells that go with the memory. For example, a child may have a happy memory of a time at the beach. When he feels upset, he can take a “trip to the beach.” He can close his eyes, smell the ocean air, feel the sand between his toes, and feel the sun shining on him. Given the opportunity to run with this, your child may add props to further enhance the experience. One child I know took his towel and sunglasses to his “beach retreat” whenever he needed a “beach break.” How clever is that!
- Picasso’s Playground. Build a spot that includes an array of art materials that can be used independently as a calming and quieting activity. For some children, working with clay, drawing, or doing crafts is soothing and distracts them from the dilemma at hand. As time goes on, try adding new items to keep up the novelty and high interest of the center. Parents, keep a ready supply of items to have on hand so that you can change and rotate art supplies as needed. Keep your eye out for those treasures that might hold your child’s interest.
- Shake, Rattle & Roll: Your child can take a walk, shoot baskets, jump rope, swing on a swing, kick a soccer ball, bounce a ball, or dance to his favorite music. Some children get calming benefits from physical release.
- Beatles & Beethoven: Create a listening center with a CD player and earphones where your child can go to listen to music, books on tape or sing a song into a microphone. Dust off that old karaoke machine!
- Splish Splash … Takin’ a Bath? For some children, water is soothing and comforting and gives distance from the problem at hand. Try bubbles in the sink, sprinklers in the yard or an old fashioned bubble bath.
There is no single strategy that is good for every child and every family but with lots of practice, role playing, and simulations, children learn new calming techniques that can help them think before they act. Over time, the goal is for your child to develop both the skill and confidence to handle difficult situations on his own without getting upset and losing control. Remember the best way to teach kids how to manage upsetting feelings constructively is to model calmness through your example. Together, and with a lot of patience, much love and lightheartedness, you and your child will find a calmer and more joyful path.
Doreen Fay EdD