You’re in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, carefully scanning each box when you feel a small tug on your arm. When you look, it’s your preschooler, looking up at you with those puppy dog eyes as they hold up a box of cereal with zero nutritional value whatsoever. You try to calmly explain that there are enough sweets at home, but like clockwork, an epic meltdown ensues.
It doesn’t take long for your kid’s shrieks to turn heads, so in a desperate attempt to control the situation, you utter the first phrase that pops into your head: “Calm down.” But to your dismay, the shrieks get even louder. Why isn’t it working?
Almost every parent has been there at least once, and it can be easy to respond with “calm down” when your kid has a tantrum. But here’s the thing: Repeatedly telling children to calm down is not only dismissive, but it’s essentially telling them that they don’t have permission to feel angry.
“Reciting platitudes and inundating the conversation with toxic positivity could exacerbate children’s anxiety and anger,” says child psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, M.D. “It is detrimental to minimize their feelings or express apathy in response to their sentiments. This could exacerbate their mood state and the severity and frequency of emotional outbursts.” Not surprisingly, the same rings true for adults. Think back to the last time someone casually told you to “calm down” when you were angry. Made you feel worse, didn’t it? Now, imagine how much more damaging it can be for kids who are still learning to understand their emotions.
Another important point to remember is that “calm down” also encourages kids to hide the way they’re actually feeling instead of dealing with them in a healthy way. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible for them to actually “calm down.” Parenting expert and behavior analyst Reena B. Patel LEP, BCBA explains, “If a child does not have the coping tools to calm down, how will they know what to do? Emotion regulation is something a child needs to be taught. Crying, feeling sad, or even having a tantrum is a natural behavior a child is using to communicate their needs because they have not been taught an alternative way to respond.”
And how do we teach our kids to manage their feelings? By modeling that behavior, rather than expecting them to do as we say or, worse, shaming them for acting out. “When we use general phrases such as ‘calm down,’ ‘be nice,’ ‘be good’ or ‘show respect,’ that could mean a carpet of things,” says Patel. “If we do not clearly define, model by showing, and create an opportunity for them to show us what we mean, we as parents cannot expect our children to exhibit any of what we want.”
We know, we know—it’s not like you’re trying to hinder your child’s emotional growth or coping skills when you say “calm down” after 15 straight minutes of kicking and screaming. If anything, you want your preschooler to be able to process their anger and understand that it’s their behavior that’s not OK. But how can parents do so without saying “calm down?” We enlisted the help of Magavi and Patel to come up with a few alternatives:
1. “I see that you are sad or upset.”
We know it sounds a bit odd to state the obvious (because yes, everyone within a half-mile radius knows your kid is upset). But by acknowledging their emotions, you’re validating what your child is feeling.
2. “Tell me about it, I’m here to listen.”
According to Magavi, active listening helps children who struggle with their emotions remember that they are valued and cared for. So when your child starts to act out, offer to communicate with them about what they’re feeling. Magavi says, “Open communication allows children the opportunity to speak about their mood and anxiety symptoms. This can help ensure that children are safe and supported.”
3. “This has been a tough time. I’m here to support you in any way I can.”
Showing your continued support, even as the child throws a tantrum, goes a long way, Magavi explains. “Reminding children that they are not alone by creating a safe place to express emotions and reiterating the fact that help is available could help assuage their anger and anxiety.”
4. “I will wait until you are ready to use your words and tell me what you want.”
In those instances where your child is having the ultimate meltdown, communicate that you’re willing to wait until they’re ready to open up. According to Patel, asking them to let you know when they are ready and providing them with choices creates a safe space and allows them to feel in control.
5. “Let’s try again.”
If previous attempts to communicate fall through, it never hurts to try again. But Patel strongly recommends using the word “let’s” rather than “you.” “This shows a child that you are not blaming them and wanting to work as a team to find a solution,” she says.