Menu

Because saying ‘calm down’ never works: How to help your worked-up kiddo

Anyone who’s been told to “calm down” knows that doesn’t work—and that’s especially true for kiddos.

Because saying ‘calm down’ never works: How to help your worked-up kiddo

My husband and I usually think of our 9-year-old as our “easy child.” She is a good listener and she rarely complains. But, lately at dinner time, she has been falling apart. Some nights she laughs like a crazy person and refuses to cooperate with even the simplest requests. Other times she puts her head down on the table and refuses to answer questions. As a parent, it can be so confusing to figure out why one minute our children seem perfectly capable and the next they are needy or out of control.


The key to this mystery is a term called “regulation.” When we are experiencing regulation, we are capable of being fully present and productive in the moment. We are able to get things accomplished, and when little problems pop up, we handle them and then move on. Over time we each learn self-care strategies that help us stay in the zone. For some it is making it to the gym regularly. For others it is carving out down time or grabbing coffee with friends.

But even as adults with lots of life experience, we know what it means to get thrown off course and become dysregulated. Maybe we skipped a meal or maybe we’re stressed about an upcoming presentation and suddenly we enter a less productive state. You can think of regulation as the magic “sweet spot” balanced on a scale between feelings of helplessness and feelings of being completely stressed out. The unbalanced states are dysregulation.

When children experience regulation, they are capable of encountering a problem and then solving it effectively. When parents experience regulation they are able to face a stressor, such as a tantrumming child, remain calm and then think of a plan to make the situation better.

The problem is that this sweet spot of regulation is relatively small and it takes practice to widen the zone.

By using functional MRIs, scientists have identified what is happening in the brain when we are regulated and when we are dysregulated. One second you are in the sweet spot going about your day. Then a frustrating situation pops up. The amygdala acts like a guard on a watchtower always scanning your surroundings for signs of stress or danger. When it detects something stressful it diverts most of the blood in the brain to the brain stem which kicks into survival mode.  We experience this as the fight, flight or freeze response. In this moment, our brain goes into autopilot and we react.

This survival strategy is perfectly adaptive when the risk detected is a hungry bear.  The problem is that most of the stressors in our modern world are not actually life threatening events. Our amygdala picks up on a silly argument between siblings or a child complaining about the dinner options—and we enter dysregulation.

Have you ever yelled at your child or your spouse and seconds later realized what you said and regretted it?  You were in dysregulation.

Another relevant discovery in brain science is that the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the logical part of the brain, does not finish forming until the age of 25.  Imagine being a child who is facing stress without the benefit of a fully formed PFC.  In fact, it is our job as parents to act as an external PFC in order to help our children “co-regulate.”  Imagine a baby who needs to burp (stressor) and starts to cry (dysregulation). Instinctively a mother scoops the baby up, makes soothing noises and starts to pat the baby on the back. The baby’s cries subside as her needs are met. The mother and child are in the sweet spot co-regulating.

What we often fail to recognize as parents is that this need for co-regulation doesn’t end as our children become verbal. When a child is in dysregulation, it takes practice for him to return to a regulated state on his own. Co-regulating serves as a shortcut, bringing a child quickly back to the sweet spot because he doesn’t have to access his logical brain while he is overwhelmed. Children quickly pick up on cues that they are safe from their parents and this allows them to return to a regulated state. A parent’s job is to serve as an external PFC for his or her children well after they have left the baby years.

When a child starts to show a pattern of behavior that is frustrating or annoying (like my daughter at dinner lately) it is a sign that she is in dysregulation. As an external PFC, our job is to look for signs of what is causing stress in our children, so that we can help them return their brains to a regulated state. The following are a list of possible stressors to keep in mind.

Too much screen time

Many people think of screen time as down time; it is something to do after a long and exhausting day in order to let your brain rest and reboot. Unfortunately, screen time leads to the opposite response in the brain. The amygdala is on high alert as it takes in fast moving images and loud sounds. In fact “attention engineers” have figured out exactly how to trigger your amygdala to keep you interested for the maximum amount of time.

Pay attention to your children's behavior the next time they are on a screen and just after you ask them to turn them off or put them down. You will likely see the results of over-stimulation. In my house, it usually looks like arguing and bad attitude that lasts for 10 to 15 minutes after the screens go off.

Lack of sleep

If you’re not sure how much sleep your child should be getting, look up the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and you may be surprised by what you find. Some children are able to function perfectly well with less sleep than what is recommended, but if your child’s behavior has you concerned, one of the first places to start is making the amount of sleep they get each night a priority. Try making a change and increasing sleep by even 30 minutes a night for a week to see if this impacts your child’s behavior for the better.

A post shared by Motherly (@mother.ly) on

Not enough down time

Consider whether over-scheduling could be leading to undue stress in your child’s life.  It is important to balance your child’s schedule of organized activities with much needed downtime. If they are in school for seven hours a day and then they have karate and gymnastics to follow, then their brains are not getting much time to unplug and re-regulate.

Make sure your child has time for unscheduled play—think spontaneous kickball game in the cul-de-sac or creating a Lego tower in their room—and don’t be afraid to let them be bored. Remember, boredom inspires creativity in a way scheduled play cannot.

The schedule is unpredictable

Children thrive on regular schedules and predictability. In fact, young children who cannot yet understand time depend on predictable events each day for a sense of security. Predictable schedules are more important for some children than others, but if each day is different in your household, consider whether adding some consistency might help to ground your child.

You may soon be surprised how much these little modifications positively affect the peace levels in your household—but, if it’s still a struggle, reaching out to a parenting expert for help is a great option to keep in mind.

10 must-have registry items that will change your life, mama

The baby gear heavy hitters that should be top of your list

Calling all mamas-to-be! It's a fundamental truth of (impending) motherhood that your prepping-for-baby To Do list can feel a mile long, but really the best way to feel organized is to sort out the most important item at the top of your list: your registry. Sure the items you choose to include will end up running the gamut from nice-to-haves to absolutely essential game-changers, but mamas in the know quickly learn one thing: Not all baby gear is created equal.

So while you can and should pepper your registry with adorable inclusions that aren't necessarily can't-live-withouts (go ahead, add 'em!), you should make sure you're ticking the boxes on those pieces of baby gear that can be absolute life savers once you're in full-blown mama mode. From car seats to bouncers and playmats, your play and travel gear will be some of the most obvious important items on your list, but so can unexpected things, like a super comfy baby carrier and a snooze-inducing white noise machine. So to help you sort through the must-have options, we turned to the holy grail of motherhood that is buybuy BABY and handpicked 10 of the very best essential pieces that will change your life, we promise.

Keep reading Show less
Our Partners

I never wanted to be a mom. It wasn't something I ever thought would happen until I fell madly in love with my husband—who knew very well he wanted children. While he was a natural at entertaining our nephews or our friends' kids, I would awkwardly try to interact with them, not really knowing what to say or do.

Our first pregnancy was a surprise, a much-wanted one but also a unicorn, "first try" kind of pregnancy. As my belly grew bigger, so did my insecurities. How do you even mom when you never saw motherhood in your future? I focused all my uncertainties on coming up with a plan for the delivery of my baby—which proved to be a terrible idea when my dreamed-of unmedicated vaginal birth turned into an emergency C-section. I couldn't even start motherhood the way I wanted, I thought. And that feeling happened again when I couldn't breastfeed and instead had to pump and bottle-feed. And once more, when all the stress from things not going my way turned into debilitating postpartum anxiety that left me not really enjoying my brand new baby.

As my baby grew, slowly so did my confidence that I could do this. When he would tumble to the ground while learning how to walk and only my hugs could calm him, I felt invincible. But on the nights he wouldn't sleep—whether because he was going through a regression, a leap, a teeth eruption or just a full moon—I would break down in tears to my husband telling him that he was a better parent than me.

Then I found out I was pregnant again, and that this time it was twins. I panicked. I really cannot do two babies at the same time. I kept repeating that to myself (and to my poor husband) at every single appointment we had because I was just terrified. He, of course, thought I could absolutely do it, and he got me through a very hard pregnancy.

When the twins were born at full term and just as big as singleton babies, I still felt inadequate, despite the monumental effort I had made to grow these healthy babies and go through a repeat C-section to make sure they were both okay. I still felt my skin crawl when they cried and thought, What if I can't calm them down? I still turned to my husband for diaper changes because I wasn't a good enough mom for twins.

My husband reminded me (and still does) that I am exactly what my babies need. That I am enough. A phrase that has now become my mantra, both in motherhood and beyond, because as my husband likes to say, I'm the queen of selling myself short on everything.

So when my babies start crying, I tell myself that I am enough to calm them down.

When my toddler has a tantrum, I remind myself that I am enough to get through to him.

When I go out with the three kids by myself and start sweating about everything that could go wrong (poop explosions times three), I remind myself that I am enough to handle it all, even with a little humor.


And then one day I found this bracelet. Initially, I thought how cheesy it'd be to wear a reminder like this on my wrist, but I bought it anyway because something about it was calling my name. I'm so glad I did because since day one I haven't stopped wearing it.

Every time I look down, there it is, shining back at me. I am enough.

I Am Enough bracelet 

SONTAKEY  I Am Enough Bracelet

May this Oath Bracelet be your reminder that you are perfect just the way you are. That you are enough for your children, you are enough for your friends & family, you are enough for everything that you do. You are enough, mama <3

$35

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Life

10 photos to take on baby’s first day that you'll cherish forever

You'll obsess over these newborn baby pictures.

Bethany Menzel: Instagram + Blog

As you're preparing for baby's birth, we bet you're dreaming of all of the amazing photos you'll take of your precious new babe. As a professional photographer and mama, I have some tips for newborn photos you'll want to capture.

Here are the 10 photos you will want to take on baby's first day.

Keep reading Show less
Life