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How to calmly set limits when your child is melting down

As parents, we do so much to support our children in their happiness. We make sure to get just the right balance of peanut butter and jelly on their sandwich, stock their favorite cereal, keep their comfiest pairs of socks washed and ready, and give them their favorite color cup at lunch, along with a hundred other little actions to show we care about them each day.


Often these actions can feel like sweet bits of love we shower on our children to say, “I see you,” “I care about you,” and “I want your life to go well.”

We ardently want their happiness! And yet, life cannot always run the way our children want or prefer.

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Much like us, if our children are feeling generally good inside, they weather these little disappointments well. They willingly have toast for breakfast instead of cereal or wear the socks that don’t feel quite as good as their favorites.

But also like us, they can go into crisis mode over the littlest things. Think about the barista not getting your coffee order right when you’re already running late, or the wifi being down right when you want it most. These are the adult equivalents of not getting your PB+J made just right or the red cup you wanted!

When our children tailspin into a fury of upset over what seems like a small disappointment, it’s hard to be patient.

In these moments we often just want our child to relax and realize it’s not the end of the world. We try to reassure them, “I’ll get more cereal tomorrow. Have toast instead,” or, “You can wear these socks. I’ll get the other ones washed today.”

But when the meltdown continues, these moments can send us to the brink of frustration and anger. We feel that all of our efforts to make their life go well are unappreciated. How dare they complain about the dinner we worked so hard to prepare for them? Or fuss about the laundry not being done or their cereal running out?

To get through this kind of moment, though, our children don’t need a limit on their feelings, but rather a loving expectation that they can make it through these feelings.

If your children ‘lose it’ over what seem like small matters to you, there’s a good chance some unresolved tensions are making it hard for them to see beyond their upset.

These are good times to step out of fix it mode and step into listening mode, offering your confidence in them to work it through.

Listening to a highly emotional child isn’t something that has been modeled for us well, and most of us feel quite unsure of ourselves as we try.

To help your child through the emotional storm in a way that builds confidence, connection, and resilience, you can experiment with these steps:

1. Listen

Find out what’s happening for her in the moment by taking a moment to just listen. When you jump straight to logic or fixing, your child may receive a message different from what you intended.

She may hear she shouldn’t feel the way she feels now because it will be different later. Or she may internalize the message she can’t handle her own feelings because you jump in to fix each thing she doesn’t like so that she doesn’t get upset.

Try to simply stay in the present moment with her first, and listen. For her, there is a problem, and listening to her will begin to help her resolve it.

2. Is an adjustment or reassurance needed?

After listening, you may find your child needs more information, some help fixing a problem or simply some reassurance that all is well. Letting your child know the socks they like are in the wash or that you plan to pick up more cereal tomorrow can reassure them you’re thinking of them and in charge of the situation.

The adjustments or reassurances you offer can vary from situation to situation. This is where you need to rely on your own good thinking as a parent. You know your child the best.

For example, If your child struggles with accepting new foods, it may make sense to offer her something different at one meal but not at another.

Use your best judgment as you take in the whole situation, what you know about your child, and your own state in that moment. If you do offer an alternative and it doesn’t help, there’s a good chance some built up feelings are blocking her way toward accepting the solution.

3. Stay close + let her experience the feelings she’s having

If your child’s upset continues, then the best thing you can do is stay and listen, what Hand in Hand Parenting aptly called “Staylistening.” Stay close to your child. Let her know you care and will stay with her while it’s hard.

You don’t have to convince her of anything. Your job is to stay loving and confident that life can still be good even though she’s not getting the exact thing she wants in that moment.

You can show your confidence in your child by using simple statements like:

  • “I’m sorry it’s hard right now. I’m here for you.”
  • “I know you can find something else to do. You’ll figure it out.”
  • “I really want things to go well for you. This won’t last forever.”

These types of reassurances, where you offer support and listening, can help your child move to the next step of working through the tensions blocking her ability to be pleased with herself and life.

With some children, a supportive listening time like this can lead to big changes, and you may notice hot-button issues disappear overnight. For others, the issue is more complex, and it will most likely take many listening times to work through the anxiety. Hand in Hand calls releasing these more deeply rooted feelings an ‘emotional project.’

When holding an expectation for your child, remember to keep it small and appropriate for your child. And when there is a good chunk of fear or anxiety, it’s important to keep the expectation even smaller and move very slowly. In time, you will see your child’s confidence and resilience grow as you support them through life’s little and big disappointments.

Originally published by Michelle Pate on handinhandparenting.org.

By its very nature, motherhood requires some lifestyle adjustments: Instead of staying up late with friends, you get up early for snuggles with your baby. Instead of spontaneous date nights with your honey, you take afternoon family strolls with your little love. Instead of running out of the house with just your keys and phone, you only leave with a fully loaded diaper bag.

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This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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