Children are so often told to “calm down”. Have you been told to calm down as a child or an adult? And if so, how has it felt to you? What effect has it had on you and what was the message you received?
But surely they DO need to calm down?
To decrease stress and distress and become more calm is so often what’s needed when a child or an adult becomes overly worried/ stressed/ distressed/ overwhelmed. Yet there’s a big difference between a child (or indeed an adult) receiving the message that they “should” be calmer as opposed to receiving the message that are being helped to feel more calm. They receive the message that they’re being helped to feel better when they feel heard, understood and cared about. To support the child to come out of high stress or distress, they need to know that help is being offered, that upsets are understood and being listened to with care and sensitivity. This kind of empathy and validation will likely have a much more calming and reassuring effect than the instruction to calm down, which generally doesn’t help the child and indeed can add a lot of pressure, hence more stress.
Empathy helps a child feel more safe and secure. Even though the parent (or other adult) may feel concerned and caring towards the upset child, instructing the child to “calm down” is generally heard as an unacceptance and lack of empathy for the state they’re in. It’s more likely to be heard as a demand to sort themselves out, which a child, or even most adults, is unlikely to be able to just switch into a more calm state without repressing their feelings. And although there is a time and place for suppressing emotions when there isn’t the support or safety to feel, express and work through emotions, yet it’s certainly not a good habit to develop and usually comes at a cost. The old school “harden up” philosophy is based on a lack of understanding of what’s needed for healthy emotional development. Parents generally find it hard to tolerate their child’s upset when it stirs up intense discomfort in themselves.
What does work? Giving a child the message that you are patiently “helping” them return to a more calm state is truly helpful; you can tell them “I’m helping you get all your frustrations out of your body” and offer a hug, or lightly touch them affectionately to communicate your patient loving state, or exaggerate slow deep breathing and encourage them to breathe with you, you can listen with calm presence and reflect to your child that you hear what their problem is, or offer to play a game and spend at least a few minutes of quality time together.
An upset child needs to feel met instead of managed. There are many things we can do to meet another when they are worried, feeling anxious, angry or otherwise upset, many things we can learn to do to help our child to reach a more calm state. Yet if upsets were managed and judged instead of met and treated with sensitivity in your family of origin, responding with more empathy and emotional support may be challenging for you to both give and access from others. Yet so important to learn to increase your sense of satisfaction in both being with the feelings of others and having the experience of being lovingly supported when you are feeling all out of balance.
Other resources: There are many articles here on my blog if you click “self-care and self-healing” under the articles tab or start with this article “Peaceful Self-Parenting“, all aimed at supporting a parent’s journey of self-healing and personal development. ~ Genevieve