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How to de-escalate Big Emotions in your Toddler

We’re going to tell you something that may sound strange: The best way to de-escalate big emotions is to NOT TRY to de-escalate them.Try following some of these steps next time your toddler expresses big emotions.

We’re going to tell you something that may sound strange: The best way to de-escalate big emotions is to NOT TRY to de-escalate them. Yeah, we know… you found this article to learn about de-escalating big emotions. Stick with us, we promise it will make sense soon enough. Just think about it; when you are really mad or sad about something that happened, how does it feel to have someone telling you “just calm down”? It’s the worst, right? When we feel like someone is trying to stifle our feelings, we can feel angry or even shamed. This can cause us to feel even more emotionally dysregulated.  The truth is when people are upset, we need someone to lean in closer and say, “Oh wow, that stinks, I can see why you are so mad.” When children receive empathy, it helps them co-regulate and begin to calm down. So how do we lean in? Try following some of these steps next time your toddler expresses big emotions:

Try following these steps:  

  1. Stay Calm: This is the most important step for parents. Children’s brains have the ability to attune to their parents’ emotional states. This means that if we stay calm, children have a better chance of calming down, than when we get frustrated or upset.
  1. Stay Close: We recommend the “time in” approach. This means staying close to them in the same room while they are expressing emotions, rather than sending them to be alone. Toddlers are at the developmental stage where they need our help to regulate big emotions. This helps them feel safe and lovable in the face of these big feelings. This can help with emotional regulation in the future.  
  1. Check your own perspective: The most common thoughts when children start to a tantrum is “something is wrong and I need to stop it.”  These thoughts can actually increase parent-anxiety leading to more stress. Yes, we want to make sure our kids are safe, but the expression of emotion can be very healthy and even therapeutic for children. Try saying to yourself, “my child has some big feelings, this is important, I wonder why they feel so strongly about this,” our whole attitude and even our experience can change around our children’s feelings.
  1. Set boundaries: When our child’s brain is hijacked by emotion, their ability to keep themselves and others safe can be compromised. This is not their fault, but they need us to set clear boundaries in a calm manner to help them feel safe and secure. If your child is being physically aggressive say, “I’m not going to let you hit me” and move your arms or body to help block the hits. Remember, that there will be time later when your child is calm to “repair” and talk about alternatives to hitting, but the heat of the moment is not usually the best time for discussion. Just block the aggression and move on.
  1. “Lean in” with empathy: This is the most important step, like we were discussing earlier. Even if your child’s perspective seems wild to you… try your best to empathize and reflect understanding. You might say, “Wow! You are soo mad. It’s so hard to stop playing when you are having fun with Legos.”
  1. Allow space: Feelings will rise and fall with time, and if we just allow space for emotional expression, welcoming in the crescendo with a calm presence, our children will learn that emotions are not so scary. Allowing space can lead to shorter tantrums in the future.
  1. Repair: After everyone has calmed down, it’s important to find ways to connect again. Try not to “lecture” to your toddler. If we shame or scold our kiddos, it can cause them to shut down even further and have more tantrums in the future. Repair really means to come back together and heal, or even learn together from the situation. It can be a chance to explore what happened and think up new ways to handle the situation in the future. A parent can model this by saying something like, “It really surprised and upset you when I told you it was time for dinner, I wonder if maybe next time it would be better if I gave you a five-minute warning so you know what to expect.” Remind your child that you are on their side, and that you can work together to solve each challenge.

The more you practice these steps, the easier it will get. We bet you the outcome of doing these steps at home, will be that your child, with time, will be better able to identify, express and cope with their big feelings. If you are interested in more social emotional learning tools,  check out some of our creature collections at Slumberkins.com.  We have tons of books, resources and tools to help children learn about a variety of big feelings and how to cope with them. At the end of the day remember; it’s a learning process, and these messy outbursts are all part of the learning. 


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