“Calm down!” some parents are heard shouting. They demand that the children calm down, but their voice and gestures convey another message, usually tinged with frustration, anxiety, anguish, or even anger. Children capture these emotions and, far from calming down, they feel more restless and insecure. It is simply unreal to ask children to calm down and maintain their composure when adults are unable to do so.
Do what I say, not what I do
Emotional self-regulation is a capacity that is insufficiently developed in children. The management of emotions and impulse control depend fundamentally on the prefrontal lobes of the brain, which are the last areas to develop. That explains, at least in part, why young children are often so impulsive and impatient. It also explains why they have a hard time calming down when they get irritated or frustrated.
On the other hand, the little ones do not have the emotional management strategies that we adults have been developing – at least in theory. They still have to figure out what things help them feel better when they’re sad or allow them to calm down when they’re angry. They are also unable to translate their emotions into words, so they feel the need to express them physically.
To calm a child down and help him/her develop the skills that allow him/her to take control of his/her emotions, adults must become their role models. However, when adults are unable to remain calm in the face of their children’s tantrums, they are demonstrating that more primitive responses are a valid behavioral choice.
When adults get rushed, or overwhelmed and lose their patience, they are becoming poor role models. Of course, it is understandable that from time to time we lose our temper. Everyday life can be very stressful. Between work, social and family responsibilities, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, if losing patience becomes our daily bread, we cannot expect our children to react calmly to unforeseen events, problems and frustrations in their lives.
Growing hand in hand with our children
Children are, in a way, like a blank canvas. Although each little one has its peculiarities, it is the task of adults to teach them to manage their emotions in the best possible way. However, it is impossible to teach a lesson when it is delivered with shouting, acid words or even violence.
Raising your voice can calm a tantrum. No doubt. But it is a temporary solution because it will not allow the children to improve. Yelling at a child will not calm him/her down, it will only cause him/her to suppress the expression of the underlying emotion. That will not help him/her deal with emotions assertively. On the contrary, it will invalidate them.
Emotional Intelligence is a key piece in parenting because it allows validating children’s feelings. After analyzing 170 children and their parents, researchers from the University of Castilla La Mancha concluded that their Emotional Intelligence influences their children’s personality and mental health. Little ones won’t learn to calm down if their parents don’t know how to do it.
For this reason, parents should try to act every day from love and empathy. Sometimes educating a child is re-educating oneself. Sometimes this process forces us to question our attitudes and reactions. Sometimes raising a child is maturing ourselves. Sometimes we just grow with our children.
How to reassure a child?
When we respond to yelling with more yelling and anger with more anger, tantrums will become a kind of competition to see who can speak up the most. If you want your children to learn to manage what they feel, it is essential that you remain calm and teach them to approach these situations with respect and dialogue.
• Keep calm. It’s difficult, especially after a bad day or when you’re in a hurry, but count to 10, 20, or 100 and breathe deeply. Remember that your reaction today can make a difference tomorrow in your child.
• Validate their emotions. If a child is restless, frustrated or angry, demanding that he/she calm down by ignoring his/her emotions is not the solution. When children have a tantrum, it is because they do not know how to manage the thoughts and emotions that assail them. Do not minimize them, validate them by giving them a name and teaching them to express them more assertively.
• Firm voice and clear sentences. When a child is upset, yelling or berating him/her will do little good. Ideally, maintain your composure, speak to him/her in a firm voice, and give him/her clear directions that he/she can quickly understand. Let him/her know the immediate consequences of his/her behavior if he/she doesn’t calm down. Remember that it is easier for your child to calm down when you transmit serenity, confidence and security than when you fall prey to panic. Always talk to him/her looking into his/her eyes so that he/she feels heard and listens.
• Encourages dialogue. Of course, if the child is very upset, the dialogue will not help much, but when he/she has calmed down, you can talk to him/her about what happened. Don’t just let that situation go by. Take it as an opportunity to address how he/she should react the next time something similar happens.
Finally, remember that patience and respect are essential pillars of positive parenting. Do not demand of your children what you are not capable of doing. If as parents you do not know how to control your emotions, you cannot expect children to do it.
Everyday problems can make us lose our cool, but remember that children did not ask to come into the world. It is your responsibility not only to satisfy their material needs, but also to become a good role model, trying to help them understand themselves better and express what they feel more assertively. Their Emotional Intelligence depends to a large extent on you, so if you want a child to calm down, you must calm down first.
Sánchez, M. T. et. Al. (2020) Emotional Intelligence and Mental Health in the Family: The Influence of Emotional Intelligence Perceived by Parents and Children. Int J Environ Res Public Health; 17(17):6255.