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The first step to help your child calm down

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The single most important step to calm your child’s tantrums or outbursts is to look calm — even if you don’t feel calm. 

Watch or listen to this five-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn explains why the way you look and sound can have a big impact on your child’s behavior. He also offers tips on how to stay cool during heated moments — or fake it till you make it.

Timestamps 

  • (0:45) Why you need to look calm 

  • (2:39) How to project calm in heated moments 

  • (3:45) What you can practice ahead of time 

Related resources

Episode transcript

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."

I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.

Today's episode is about the single most important way to calm your child's tantrums and outbursts, and that's you as the parent staying calm or at least looking calm. It's harder than it sounds, but I'm going to teach you how and why to project calm during your child's outbursts. 

OK, let's begin.

(0:45) Why you need to look calm

So, let's talk about why you need to look calm. Projecting calm may be the single most important thing you can do as a parent when your child is having a tantrum or an outburst.

I'm going to teach you some other strategies in future episodes that can help you manage your child's outbursts, but this is the most important.

How you respond to your child and how you look while doing it also makes a huge difference in your chances for success. You see, looking angry or frustrated or stressed — that gives your child the sense that you're not in control, and they can ramp up how they respond to you. 

So, you as the parent hold the key to de-escalating your child's behavior, but it's not likely to feel natural to you yet. You know, I've often half-joked with my clients that giving them acting lessons is a form of parent training, and it can be hugely helpful in managing their child's emotional outbursts. So that's why, as part of my clinical practice, I actually give parents a bit of an acting lesson.

You see, during a session, when a child is having a tantrum over game time or some activity, I model for the parent my calmest "pretend" responses to their child. I might not have those feelings. I'm just pretending to try to stay chill and calm for that child.

After a few minutes, the parents attempt to copy my style. And as soon as the child loses their angry battle partner, typically their behavior slows. Talking later with parents, they often admit to me that when they tried, they were also totally faking it. But the reaction is remarkable, and now the parents practice these skills often.

Some parents may find that their children are surprised that they don't react with strong emotions, which can cause an extinction burst. This is the process we talked about last episode where a child may actually increase their behavior for a period of time prior to it reducing or going away. So, don't worry, doing the right things will have the right result. It just takes some time.

Remember: You as a parent hold the key to de-escalating your child's behavior.

(2:39) How to project calm in heated moments

Let's talk about how to calm your child's tantrums or outbursts. Well, first, check in with yourself by asking yourself these questions:

  • How am I responding? Am I loud? Am I angry? Do I have a raised voice? Am I yelling?

  • What does my body show? Am I tense? Are my arms crossed? Am I making an angry face or having a clenched jaw?

Once you know how you look and how you feel, you can try to change it. 

So, what can you do? Well, first, we can start with taking maybe three deep breaths and try to calm your voice. 

Some people may prefer to count backwards from 20 as a different strategy. I tend not to do math when I'm upset, but it works for many folks.

Another option is to soften your face, to work to wipe the expression away, and loosen your jaw. Press your tongue to the top of your mouth and release, doing what you can to really let go of that tension you're showing in your face.

Remember: Keeping your cool takes practice and can play a big role in de-escalating your child's behavior.

(3:45) What you can practice ahead of time

So, let's talk about what you can practice ahead of time. To build this new skill, I want you to practice this mantra.

For those unfamiliar, a mantra is a short phrase you say over and over to help you create an "intention" and remind yourself what you're trying to do instead of staying focused on past struggles or failures.  

So, the mantra is "I can think calm and be calm." Try taking a short breath between each repeat to bring your body to a calmer place. So, repeat the mantra how many times? Three times.

So, what you do to practice this is you would say "I can think calm and be calm. I can think calm and be calm. I can think calm and be calm."

And you'll do this three times. And I'd like for you to practice that three times this week.

OK, folks, that's it for today's episode. 

I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to de-escalate a tantrum or an outburst by asking your child for some space or having both of you take a break from the situation.

If there's one thing you can take away from this episode, you can impact your child's behavior by being calm or at least faking calm. What we do directly affects how our children behave. 

You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network. 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.


What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. 

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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