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How to respond to your child when they are in distress.

Our relationship with our child is our most powerful “tool” in helping our children through their distress. When we take a moment to connect first, before correcting or directing their behaviour, we immediately begin the process of helping our kids manage their emotions more effectively and therefore help to ease their distress.

What does Connection do?

  • Calms and soothes the stress and distress reaction 
  • Increases feelings of security, belonging
  • Motivates positive behaviour

So how can we best respond when our children are displaying big emotions?

  1. Respect your child’s feelings and experience
  • Notice out loud that something is bothering them and acknowledge feelings
  • Empathize with how difficult the situation is
  • Listen to their description of what is happening or what they are feeling
  • Avoid minimizing or dismissing their feelings
  • Help them put words to what they are experiencing, help your child name the emotion they are feeling (“I see you are angry about what happened in the school yard today.”)

Putting feelings into words changes the brain’s activity from the emotionally charged “reacting brain” to the smart, reasonable, calm “thinking brain”.

Active listening and asking some questions helps you to understand what your child was feeling, and why. Feeling understood on it’s own alleviates stress.

2. Practice “calm and comfort” techniques

  • Know in advance what techniques you will use: slow, deep breaths,back rub
    • say a rhyming song together
  • Do them together, you could take turns and/or model the action, or do them at the same time
  • Resist saying “calm down”, instead, say “let’s take a deep breath” or “let’s relax our shoulders” (or whatever part of your child’s body seems tense)

3. Comment on the behaviours that are helping your child regain control

  • “I see that your hands are relaxed and your breath is gentle”
  • “ You are sitting down now and that really helps so much for us to talk”
  • “I will know we can speak when your voice is soft”

4. Maintain your limits with kindness and firmness

  • Structure and consistency help children feel safe
  • As possible, prevent your child from avoiding the situation that is causing them distress
  • Help your child think of solutions and make a plan of action, brainstorm and encourage various ideas
  • Have expectations that your child will participate in planning and follow through, active participation helps build confidence
  • Encourage brave or courageous behaviour (the skill to try even when upset or worried)

5. Be aware of your own reactions and feelings

  • Practice calming techniques for yourself
  • Monitor your voice tone and “non-verbals”—what are you “communicating”?
  • Children take their cues about how they should feel from us

6. Provide comfort and hope

  • Let your child know you will help them get through this difficult situation
  • Communicate “I’m here for you”
  • Be the one who truly believes that things will get better or easier
  • Give the message of “yet”….it’s not working out yet, but it will!

Just be there. Keep in mind that children don’t always feel like talking about what’s bothering them. Let them know you’ll be there when they do feel like talking. Even if they don’t want to talk, your presence makes a difference.  Just keeping each other company, taking a walk, playing a game, spending time together.

Connection helps to ease distress and often if a child didn’t speak about what was bothering them initially, they will eventually when they feel more calm.

It hurts when we see our children stressed out or sad.  Resisting the urge to swoop in and “fix” it can be very, very hard.  If we consistently practice the steps above, we are laying the foundation for our children to eventually be able to regulate their emotions when they are distress.

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5 Responses to “How to respond to your child when they are in distress.”

  1. this is too important to respond and understand according to kids, other wise it will more harmful for them.

  2. Nadia says:

    Thanks for sharing. A great article to avoid and deal with stressful situations.

  3. Omkalthoum says:

    It is a very helpful tips.

  4. teresa says:

    What an amazing article!! Such great reminders when our kids are in distress.

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