One of the most challenging moments in parenting is when our children are upset. We are wired to experience distress in response to our child’s distress (we call it empathy) so that we are motivated to care for them – feed them when they’re hungry, bundle them when they’re cold, and so on.
However, children are sometimes upset about things that don’t need fixing. At these times, what they need is help learning how to regulate their emotions. This is the case when they are frightened by something that will not hurt them, like a loud noise or a bug, or angry about having to share a toy with their sibling, or not getting another cookie when they have had enough.
Learning to remain calm when your child is upset can be enormously valuable, for both of you. It is particularly important if your child is easily or frequently upset. The first step is to identify the situation as okay. No one is hurt, or in danger, or in need. The child is suffering, but it is their emotions that they need rescuing from.
And you cannot help them if you are upset as well. You cannot be an emotional life raft if you jump into the rough water with them. But we do tend, in this situation, to get upset. We have determined that the situation is okay, and then get annoyed, or even angry, that the child is crying and carrying on about nothing. To recognize this, when it happens, is a huge step. Of course, no child ever stopped crying because an adult yelled at them to stop.
Acknowledging and accepting the child’s distress is the best first step toward helping them to feel better, and to teach them how to calm their own negative emotions in a healthy way, without suppressing them or lashing out at someone else. If you get upset too, you give the child a new and different reason to be upset, making things worse.
Once you have established that the situation is okay, tell that to the child, without insisting upon it (they will likely disagree). Don’t talk to the child about how they are feeling, or why they are upset. You can talk about it later, when they are not upset. Just model being calm and okay, while acknowledging the child’s distress (“I understand that you are very upset”). Then start doing something that the child may want to do with you. You may be able to sit in a comfortable chair together, or take a walk, or look at a book. But don’t worry if your child continues to be upset for awhile. They will see that you are okay, and that therefore everything else is really is okay too.