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:
(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!
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.