You are in the check out aisle at the grocery store and your little sweet pea sees a lollipop that looks like zebra. You know instantly that you are in BIG trouble. Little Sally not only loves lollipops, she is crazy about zebras.
“Zebra!” she says with bright eyes. You know that this is not going to go well. You do not want her to have the lollipop, and she has already spotted it. Gotta just love those aisles filled with candy, especially if you have a toddler.
“Yes, it is a zebra,” you say.
“I wanna have the zebra,” Sally says, just a little louder.
“No, we are not getting the zebra today,” you say.
Sally then begins to cry, “I want the zebra!”
You have been here before. Sally is getting ready to enter an emotional hurricane. In several seconds, your little sweet pea will resemble a cyclone in full force.
Recently, I have written several posts on emotional regulation for adults. These posts focus on ways in which we can insert a pause between an upsetting event and our reaction. In doing so, we are able to respond from our logical or wise mind and not from our out of control extreme emotional mind. Emotional regulation keeps us from entering that hurricane where we do things we often regret.
As parents, we can help our children with emotional regulation and reduce the risk of Hurricane Sweet Pea showing up in the grocery store or anywhere else.
Emotional regulation for toddlers and young children involves distraction and reducing vulnerability. When you see that your child is heading for an emotional hurricane, there are several things that you can do to reduce the risk of a total meltdown with hurricane force winds.
- Reduce vulnerability through HALTS– HALTS stands for Hungry or Hurried, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Sick. Just like you, when your child is hungry, hurried, angry, lonely, tired, or sick, he or she is at high risk for emotional meltdown with no triggering event at all. Throw in a triggering event and say goodbye to any logic, reason, problem-solving, and self-control.
To reduce vulnerability, feed your children scheduled healthy meals, give them plenty of time to get ready (children like predictability), allow them to talk about their feelings, make sure they are getting enough sleep, and do what you can to prevent physical illness (wash hands, doctor’s visits).
- Pick Good Times to Go- No matter how hard you try, children at one point or another are going to be hungry, hurried, angry, lonely, tired, or sick. If at all possible, do not take your child out when he or she is in the high risk zone. This may seem to be common sense, but many parents take their child to the grocery store when the child is hungry. This is absolutely asking for a hurricane- a very intense one at that.
- Distract– Emotional regulation with toddlers and small children centers around distraction. The moment you see that a meltdown is coming, distract. Let’s use Little Sally as an example. As soon as Little Sally spots the zebra lollipop, ask Sally to do something totally unrelated- anything to distract her attention from the lollipop. You may ask her to show you her hand. Then you may ask her a series of questions. “How many fingers do you have on your hand? How many fingers do you have on two hands? What is your favorite color? Can you name three things that are red? What about blue?” (Just stay away from black and white or her attention will be right back on the zebra.) You get the picture, just distract.
- Stay Calm– It is counterproductive to enter the hurricane with your toddler. Young children need you to be calm and weather the storm. They need you to model appropriate behavior. You do not need to yell and scream and enter the hurricane, too.
- Don’t Give In- If none of this works, which I think it will, don’t give in to the meltdown. No matter how big the scene and no matter how big your embarrassment, if you give in and give Sally the zebra- after you have told her no, you have just taught her to throw a tantrum every time she wants something. Kids do what works,
If you missed the posts on emotional regulation for adults, please check them out. We all can use some help calming down once in a while.