When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Press Pause


The parts of our brain that are involved in reacting to emotions can quickly hijack our ability to reason and control our intentional spotlight. Think of all the times you regret saying something because you were wound-up or overly emotional. If only you’d pressed pause to think about your reactions before blurting out your feelings. Kids need this pause space too, although it is difficult for them to recognize when they need it. Often, when our child is upset or emotional, we feel the immediate need to do something about it – to argue back, to cuddle her, to yell, or to put our face right up close to hers so that she will concentrate on what we have to say.

However, the best strategy is to press pause and wait for your child to calm down. By doing this, you give your child the opportunity to practice calming herself down. Once she has calmed down, she will be in a much better state to express what she wants. There are cues that your child will use to let you know she needs to press pause – she might back up against a wall, fold her arms, avert her eyes or run to the other side of the room. Don’t take this personally and don’t get into a battle of wills chasing your child around the room. Instead, take the opportunity to step away and take a break yourself, process your own emotions, and demonstrate a calm response for your child. A parent’s own ability to self-regulate is an important predictor of their child’s success at self-regulating.

  1. Take Five
    One simple strategy that you can model and teach your toddler is to close your eyes and take three deep breaths. For preschool-aged children, you can teach a breathing strategy called, ‘Take 5.’ Teach your child to breathe in as they slowly raise each of their fingers on one hand and then to breathe out as they close each finger.
  2. Turtle Shell Technique
    For older preschoolers, you can use the ‘Turtle Shell Technique.’ When your child is mad or over-excited, teach him to go into a quiet corner, hug himself and take a breath, then come and tell you what the problem is and how he feels about it.
  3. Hot Cocoa Breathing or Cleansing Breath
    Model to a child that you are holding a mug of hot cocoa. Then demonstrate by breathing in through your nose for three seconds, like you are smelling the delicious chocolate smell. Then breathe out of your mouth for three seconds like you are blowing to cool it down. Do this four to five times until you feel more relaxed. A child who is three may only do this a few times and will breathe in and out through his mouth. This is okay as it is helping him become aware of the power of his breathing, and begins teaching him how breathing can bring him out of a reactive, out of control feeling.

Showing your child these techniques and praising him when he uses these techniques will be more effective than getting into an escalating battle of wills. Of course, it isn’t easy for your child to remember to use these techniques when he starts to lose his cool. The key is to practice regularly when your child is calm. If you make these strategies a habit, your child will be more likely to use them when they start to spin out of control. Remember, you can’t protect your child from feeling stressed out, angry or sad. What you can do is teach him ways of managing his stress.


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