Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

Toddlers, Tantrums, and Time-Ins, Oh My!

[Portions reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

When a little person feels frustrated, overwhelmed, or just plain old out-of-sorts (read: tantrum time!) it’s tempting for parents to focus on correction rather than connection. But when children are intensely stressed, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (which in early childhood is an under-developed, mushy ‘ball of playdoh’ waiting to be formed) is flooded with cortisol, aka the ‘stress hormone.’ The result is what is known as the fight-freeze-or-flight syndrome in which higher brain functions (learning, reason, self-control) are markedly hampered and lower brain functions (instinct, physical reactions) take over. This is an in-built survival mechanism that gradually comes under conscious control through years of growth in a safe and supportive environment.

Expecting young children to have the maturity and self-control to overcome this God-given survival instinct is unrealistic. Threatening, punishing, or even reasoning with them while their higher brain functions are suppressed is futile and actually just adds more stress to the situation (more stress=fuel on the tantrum-fire!).

What they really need is help…first, help coping with their big emotions…then, help reconnecting with their source of safety and security (you!)…and last, help processing the problem that sent them into a maelstrom of emotion in the first place. Punishing them, yelling at them, sending them to their room, or putting them in time-out disconnects them even further from their source of security and not only delays a resolution of the issue, but misses an opportunity to equip them with the tools they need to handle future problems.

Drawing them close (time-in), offering words to help them express their frustrations (reflective language), and modeling coping skills and self-control for them are all ways of reconnecting with them to help them successfully navigate their present difficulty as well as cope with those they’re confronted with in the future.

One effective tool for use in helping little ones cope with big emotions is a Calm-Me-Jar.

Here are our Calm-Me-Jars~

They are made from the little round plastic Coke bottles sold around Christmas time. (Other times of the year you can get Aquapod water bottles which are similar.) I like them because, first, they aren’t glass (who really wants to hand an upset toddler or preschooler a glass anything?!?) and, second, they are perfect for small hands to shake and manhandle to their heart’s content.

Glitter glue gel didn’t work at all because it stayed all clumped up. Just basic craft glitter glue from the Dollar Tree worked really well, though. Cold water kept the glue clumpy, too, so lukewarm tap water is the best bet. I used colored glitter glue with a tiny drop of food coloring in the colored Calm-Me-Jars, and just silver glitter glue with the clear one. I also added actual glitter to each jar because the glitter in the glue was itsy bitsy. The combination of the two types of glitter really turned out pretty. Add about one ounce of glitter glue in each bottle and then as much glitter as you like and a tiny bit of food coloring if you want to make the colors deeper.

When each of the bottles had the look we wanted, we glued the tops down with hot glue, then added ribbons for decorations. Our original Calm-Me-Jars are approaching a year old, and they haven’t become cloudy or clumpy, etc, so it seems that as long as you keep the lids on, they’ll last indefinitely! Here’s a closer view:










The Cat in the Hat Can Help You with That!









(If you’re really into Dr Seuss, here’s some Seussical fun for your little one!)

When my littler ones have meltdowns (or, if I can catch it, before they reach that point), I pull out one of the Calm-Me-Jars and shake it up and just let them hold it while I hold them or, if they aren’t ready to be touched, I stay close by and talk or sing quietly. When I feel their body relaxing and their breathing slow down, I might say something like, “It’s sad when we can’t have a toy, isn’t it?” or whatever else will reflect what they seem to be unable to express.

If they’ve hit someone or thrown something, I first reflect what my little person is feeling (after tending to the other child if they are hurt or upset), then, when they’re a bit calmer, I go on to reflect what the other person might be feeling, “It hurts Sissy when you hit her.” Then I offer a suggestion about the next step. “Why don’t we go ask Sissy if she’s okay? If she has a boo-boo, we might need to get a bandage for her.” It’s very intriguing for little ones to feel like they can ‘fix’ something, and often the idea that they have that kind of power makes all the difference in the frequency and intensity of meltdowns, not to mention the positive impact of learning to think and care about the feelings of others.

When an older preschooler/early elementary-aged child is about to have a meltdown, I first try to help them begin to recognize those feelings by verbalizing for them, “I see you’re feeling upset. It’s hard not getting things we want, isn’t it?” (Or “having to do things we don’t want to” etc). Then, depending on how much they seem to need connection vs. simply calming down, I either ask if they want to use their Cozy Corner (see below) to help them calm down, “Do you want to head over to your Cozy Corner for a few minutes and grab one of your Calm-Me-Jars so you can have a break for a bit?”

Or if they need to connect, I scoop them against my side into a big hug and head into the Cozy Corner with them (or just my rocking chair) for a cuddle (aka a time-in). While we’re cuddling, or before if they’re feeling too angry to be touched, I let them shake the Calm-Me-Jar as hard and often as they want right at first as a physical outlet for their intense feelings, watching to see when their breathing begins to even out and their body to relax. When they’ve calmed just enough to hear me, I quietly talk them through the calming process, “Look at all that fairy dust bouncing around like crazy! I bet that’s how it feels inside when you’re so upset. Look at how it’s starting to slow down and settle to the bottom. If we breathe really slowly, we can feel ourselves settling like the fairy dust.” Sometimes we sing a quiet song or I offer to read a book or pray with or for them, depending on the circumstances.

When my five-year-old is mad at one of her siblings, she’ll often bring one of her Calm-Me-Jars (Goodnight Moon is a favorite at night!) and work out some of the upset physically by shaking the jar like crazy and telling me how angry she is. When she’s a bit calmer, we’ll have a little cuddle and watch the glitter settle while saying goodnight to the moon, all the furniture, and whatever other silliness we come up with until she’s calm. If there’s a discipline issue, we’ll work through it at that point because I know that’s when she can hear me and really process what I’m saying. (With Starry, Starry Night we sometimes sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; with Hello Kitty Princess Ballerina she likes to dance her frustrations away while the glitter dances with her; and with Nemo Under the Sea we speak ‘whale’ like Dorry or make fishy faces at each other.)

The key to all of this is being in tune with your little one enough to understand their personality and work with it instead of against it. My five-year-old is spunky and silly, so having a long, serious talk would drive her nuts and accomplish nothing, whereas when some of my older ones were little they really liked to talk things through (and still do!).

Here are some Cozy Corner ideas for when your little people need a little space to cope with this great big world:

Set aside a small corner of the family room so they can still be close to you and let them help decorate it and choose a favorite blanket, some comfy pillows, and a few special books and stuffed friends to keep there. Here’s a cool tutorial for how to make this tent for under $25!

Let them help name their special place so they’ll know it’s theirs. Some suggestions are Cozy Corner, Comfort Zone, Quiet Cave, or Happy Place. And keep in mind, the Cozy Corner is a place for little ones (usually preschool and older) to go when they decide they want a break, not when we decide they need a break (or that we need a break, lol!). It’s a safe, comfortable, quiet place for them to relax alone if they want to or for us to join them for a time-in cuddle or chat.




And, for times when all else fails, sometimes a little fairy magic is all it takes to turn a bad day into a good one or to help a little one fall asleep. When your toddler/preschooler is a bit cranky, sloooww down, give lots of cuddles, listen, listen, listen, and ask if they need you to sprinkle some fairy dust on them to turn their frown upside down! For sleeping issues, sprinkle a bit of fairy ‘sleeping’ dust on their bed and stay with your little one, softly humming, stroking their back, or just quiet and reassuring, depending on their needs (they’ll let you know!) until they’re asleep. It’s typically the long, dark, lonely separation from mama causing the problem, instead of a sleep issue, anyway!

You can click on the picture to follow the link to buy these adorable fairy dust jars filled with microfine glitter, or you can go to Michaels and buy some cute little bottles and microfine glitter (You can find it next to the fabric paints and t-shirts instead of with the regular glitter, for some reason. Lol) and make your own little bottles of fairy dust!

Related posts:

12 Steps to Gentle Parenting

Practical, Gentle, Effective Discipline

200 Ways to Bless Your Children with a Happy Childhood

Testing the Boundaries~What’s A Parent To Do?

When Children Hit~10 Tips for Parents

Easy Peasy DIY Parenting Tools

One Slippery Sock & Other Silly Tools for your Parenting Toolbox!

You’re Not the Boss of Me!

The No Zone

Jesus~The Gentle Parent

Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

49 Responses

  1. Pingback: There’s something so…magical…joyful…inviting…about bridges! Let’s build some! « Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources

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  4. Tammy

    Can you tell me where I can get that tent? What a great idea!

    December 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      It’s actually just two tab-top curtains and wood slats bolted together. If you google ‘children’s tent playhouse’ you’ll get a TON of links to all kinds of tents you can buy!

      December 29, 2011 at 4:10 pm

      • Leslie

        Did you make this? If so, what length are the slats or did you just make them fit curtains you had? How do you make it keep it’s shape? Is there a brace slat across the back bottom or is it propped between the wall and a piece of furniture?

        I must make one of these. My special needs 5yo has started having behavior problems.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:10 pm

        • L.R. Knost

          This one is store bought, but a very simple design you could adapt to fit a set of tab-top curtains. There are lots of ways you can make your own calm down spot to suit your child’s needs and personality, though, from using a cardboard appliance box and brown wrapping paper to create a ‘cozy cave’ to using tulle, ribbons, twinkle lights, and a hula hoop to create a ‘fairy house.’ The key is to make something small enough to be cozy for a child, but big enough to fit both parent and child for time-in cuddles. 🙂

          February 28, 2012 at 10:56 pm

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  8. I love your jars! And that tent is lovely – would love to make something like that for my littles!

    March 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      Thank you! Luckily I found the round plastic bottles at Christmastime because apparently no one can find them now. I have seen similar bottles in Health & Beauty at Walmart, though, with bubble bath in them. I’m hoping your clear egg idea will translate well! Thanks for visiting 🙂

      March 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm

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  11. Denise Lui

    This is good information not only for parents, but also for caregivers. Patience and wisdom combined will empower our next generations with positive emotional and mental health.

    April 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm

  12. Heidi

    I don’t understand how water is used in making the calm-me-jars. Maybe because I have no experience with glitter glue? Can you explain please? Thanks bunches. It looks like a fabulous idea for my daughter.

    April 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      I fill it about half full of lukewarm water and then add water soluble glitter glue (not the gel kind because it stays clumpy). The idea is for the glitter to slowly settle like a gentle, calming snowfall. Hope that helps, mama! Oh, and for anyone who is still looking for the small, round bottles, look in the bottled water section for the little water globes! 🙂

      April 24, 2012 at 9:56 pm

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  15. Laura

    We found smaller versions of the round bottles at Hobby Lobby …

    May 1, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      Awesome! Thank you for sharing, mama 🙂

      May 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  16. Thank you for this. I’m really feeling at the end of my rope. Lost and floundering with my three year old.

    May 7, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      We all go through those times, mama. I know it’s hard. Hang in there. It does get better!

      May 7, 2012 at 10:48 pm

  17. Thanks so much for the wonderful calm-me-jar idea! I was so bummed I saw this during the summer and wouldn’t be able to find the Coke bottles, until I found a Martinelli apple juice bottle that looks almost the same!

    My 6-year-old daughter and I made three different sized jars, and the whole family is just loving them! What a great idea.

    June 1, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      I just popped over to your site a few minutes ago and saw your giant calm-me-jar. So cool! My dd #3 has asked for a rainbow jar, so we’re going to get a tall plastic jar like yours and see if we can make a rainbow!

      June 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm

  18. Rainbow has definitely gone through my mind as well. I loved the way combining silver glitter glue with blue glitter turned out. Please post pics when you do it, I can’t wait to see.

    June 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm

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  26. Jenn

    What kind of glitter did you use? I have tried 3 different kinds of glitter and it all seems to float to the top instead of sinking.

    September 25, 2012 at 1:19 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Make sure you are using glitter glue instead of just glitter, and use warm water so the glue will liquify quickly. I like Dollar Store craft glitter glue the best for this use!

      September 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm

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  31. Deb K

    Hi there,
    Just revisiting this article as I need reminders on how to respond to my 3yo gently. My question is, what do you do with any other children (esp very young ones/babies) who are in the equation, especially if they were the ‘victim’ of the outburst/bad behaviour? Say my 3yo gets angry and hits her 14mo sister, causing the little one to get upset, surely I don’t just ignore the 14mo while I comfort and help the 3yo? Do I take her with me to the cozy corner and cuddle both of them, or do you see it as crucial that the ‘offending’ child gets undivided attention at that point?

    February 15, 2013 at 6:42 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Here’s an article specifically about hitting, mama: You’ll see in #7 that addressing the injured child first is an important part of helping the child who is hitting (or biting, kicking, etc.) learn that other people have feelings and to model caring about those feelings. Engaging the child who has hurt another child in ‘fixing’ the hurt by asking them to get a bandage or asking if they want to kiss the injury is sometimes a good approach, too, but if the child is too upset at the time that may have to wait. Hope that helps! 🙂

      February 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

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  33. Pati Mattison

    We are going to make the calming jar for both myself and my granddaughter. Thank you

    August 7, 2013 at 11:51 pm

  34. Amy

    We LOVE our sparkle bottles!

    August 7, 2013 at 11:51 pm

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  36. I finally got round to making the calm me jars and used it today after my daughter had a particularly upsetting accident during our potty training journey. Worked very well. After some trial and error i used transparent pva glue and added two types of glitter and filled third of the jar with it and the rest lukewarm water like you said. I couldnt find the right type of glitter glue to work. My daughter is a sensitive soul and we use gentle parenting so this was the perfect way to help her with her strong emotions (we dont do time outs or send her out the room or upstairs). Thank you. And also I love your site and Petey’s ears book (my daughter LOVES it and turns her ears on as soon as she sees it), and ive just received your Two Thousand Kisses A Day book. Thank you for being such an inspiration. Xx

    March 26, 2014 at 7:24 pm

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  38. Hayley

    I am so happy I found this web site, I have an 18 month old who is very strong willed and I absolutely love that about her and want to nurture this gift she was born with not stomp it out, I have been practicing gentle parenting before I knew that that is what it was called but have recently come across some new challenges bringing me to search for tips online, we get through the tantrums together when we are at home or in a safe spot that I can give her space and then cuddles when she starts to calm but lately we have been having trouble when we are out and not in a safe spot for a tantrum like on the foot path after leaving the park and by a road where I am un able to give her the space she needs to calm, I have to hold her when she doesn’t want to be, she dangerously thrushes her self around screaming and if I put her down to walk but hold my hand due to the road she does the drop and roll to get free of my hand and we end up lying on the foot path with her kicking and screaming 🙁 she gets so worked up because I can’t give her the space she needs so I just have to hold on tight and carry her kicking and screaming till we get back home or to the car where I can then try my normal methods that work, this is happening more and more when I leave the house, I can’t go to the grocery store any more in fear this will happen, do you have any tips for tantrums out of the home, I hate not been able to help her through them when we are out and in a place I can’t let her free

    September 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm

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