My daughter couldn't find her favorite bunny stuffed animal. The one that she slept with every night and used whenever she needed an extra dose of comfort. I could start to see the tears spilling out.
Losing a favorite lovey is kind of a big deal. For the both of us!
You would think that after teaching preschool for over a decade and having three kids of my own that an upset child wouldn't phase me.
But I was almost as upset as she was. Where could bunny have gone this time?
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I've got this. I've soothed and comforted children for years and years, and I know the secret to calming an upset child. And to finding runaway loveys.
As someone who has wiped away lots of tears and kissed hundreds of owies, I know how important it is to have powerful phrases that can help defuse a meltdown and tools to help children regulate their emotions.
When a child is swept up in her emotions, it can feel like walking through a mine field. We say something helpful and logical, and BOOM! It has completely backfired on us.
In the past I would have thought it might be reassuring if I told my daughter that we would get her a new lovey if we couldn't find hers.
That solution might work at times -- such as when an ice cream cone falls onto the ground.
But with this beloved stuffed animal, there is no other item that could ever replace it. That could smell like it. That would feel the same way as Bunny did.
When it comes to an upset child, there are two simple steps that nearly every parenting expert and child development specialist agree on.
And these two simple solutions have been sanity-savers in helping children navigate their emotions.
2 Simple Steps to Calm an Upset Child
As my daughter started to break down about dear lost Bunny, I was there beside her.
I got down at eye level with her -- something I learned from being a preschool teacher.
I gave her a moment to release the tears, while hugging her.
The first step to calm an upset child
Then I tried to imagine myself in her shoes -- emotions and all.
I set aside all of the logical thoughts that we would come back to later and replaced them with the real and raw feelings of losing something dearly loved.
As I was able to see and share her feelings of distress, I was showing empathy.
Empathy is one of the most effective tools to understanding another human being, and it is the first step to calming an upset child.
I tried to remember what it was like when I lost something I loved that I carried with me on a daily basis. What came to mind was the moment when I couldn't find my wedding ring.
In those first few minutes that I couldn't find my wedding ring, I felt frazzled. When I couldn't think of any other location that I likely left it, my emotions elevated to a level of panic. My breathing changed, and my heart started beating faster. All I could think about was retracing my steps to find it. I just had to find it!
I sure didn't want anything as a replacement. And nothing else in my schedule that day mattered as much as finding my ring. At least for those few minutes.
Losing Bunny didn't feel like just misplacing an object to my daughter. Her world was momentarily flipped upside down as her most loved possession was gone.
And she couldn't think of anything else either.
When we are able to connect with another person and how they are feeling right then and there, we have accomplished an incredible breakthough.
Once we have been able to step into the emotions of the child and feel what they feel, our own reactions change completely. This makes step 2 a piece of cake.
The second step to calming an upset child
Once we are able to empathize with another person's feelings, then we are able to speak to them where they are at. On an emotional level.
It isn't a lengthy process. But it is a careful one.
How would I have felt if my husband didn't acknowledge what I was feeling? If he found me looking for my wedding ring and calmly replied, "It's fine. It'll show up eventually."
I probably would have told him, "It's not fine! And this is something I need to find right now!"
If I was being nice that is.
Step two is to validate what the other person is feeling.
Again, set aside the logic and problem-solving ideas. Those will come soon, but it's not time for them yet.
The best thing to say to an upset child is that we see how they are feeling.
When I saw my daughter on the verge of tears because of her dear lost bunny, I told her in a genuine and gentle tone,
"Bunny is lost, and I can see that you are so sad about that."
Narrate the emotions as you see them and show your child that you notice how they feel.
I used to try and soothe children by saying things like, "Oh, don't cry, it's going to be fine."
But that just didn't help. And now I know that it is because they weren't able to logically think in that moment. We have to warm them up a bit to get to that point.
After I told my daughter that I saw how sad she was, we embraced for a few moments.
She took a deep sigh, and after a short while, I could feel her tense shoulders loosening up and her sobs quieted down.
Now was the time for me to throw in the problem-solving solution. "Can I help you find your sweet bunny, honey?"
We were lucky and found him right away. But sometimes, there isn't always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Sometimes children have a need, want, or desire that can't be fixed so easily. In those times, follow these two steps, and then listen to the child. Hear them out and let them talk about their emotions.
Or just hug them until they are the first one to let go.