Temper tantrums, life, and calming down

Last week I took Sally to the park. When we pulled in, she completely freaked out. She started crying and yelling.

No! Not here! Go back out, mommy!

I responded as I normally do.

Sally, it’s okay, calm down. Tell mommy what’s wrong. … Honey, just take a deep breath, calm down, and use your words. … Sally, I’m trying to listen to you, but I can’t understand what you want while you’re crying.

This went back and forth for a minute or two, with her crying and me trying to figure out what was wrong. Finally, Sally paused.

I need calm down, she said. Sleeping help me calm down.

Do you want to go home and take a nap? I asked.


Do you want to take a nap in the car?


So I turned the car off and sat back in my seat. Sally laid her head on her car seat and began to play with her hair as she is like to do. After about two minutes, I heard a perfectly calm and controlled voice coming from the back seat.

Mommy? I not want go to this park. I want to go to OTHER park. Can we go to other park please?

And so we went to the other park.

The longer I’ve parented the more importance I’ve placed on calming down. There are so many times when Sally gets so worked up that she literally can’t communicate let alone reason or broker a compromise, and the solution is always the defuse the situation and help her calm down. There are evenings at home where she becomes overwrought and I suggest she lay down on her bed and take a short nap – and she frequently takes me up on that, willingly. If, in contrast, I don’t try to defuse the situation and instead join Sally in escalating by responding in anger at her inability to communicate or at the amount of noise she is making, the situation simply gets worse rather than better.

Positive Parenting resources actually recommend having a “calm down corner” for your small children for exactly this reason. The idea is that the calm down corner isn’t a punishment, it simply gives the child time to calm down enough to actually handle the situation.

And of course, calming down isn’t just for the child. Sometimes it’s just as important for me to calm down as it is for Sally. And really, when I calm down, maybe step outside or sit for a minute with a cup of tea or simply take a deep breath and remember what really is important and what isn’t, well, the world looks just that much easier to handle – for me as well as for Sally.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • machintelligence

    And for adults on the internet, we have the following: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23113977@N03/4647807839/

    • Karen

      Sometimes I use Icanhascheezburger.com to calm down.

  • http:.//thisbitchwontshutup.blogspot.com EEB

    This is so important! My mother and are both very emotional people, and when I was younger, we would end up hyping each other up so much that we could no longer hear each other. My dad (as a cop, he has an amazing gift for defusing emotion and hysteria in about five seconds), would come up, talk calmly, and everything would resolve. The times he didn’t come in resulted in screaming fights that lasted hours.

    Now we’ve learned the importance of taking a break. I cannot relax until something is resolved, but my mom doesn’t have the ability to talk about tense things for more than a few minutes at a time. So I respect her need to take time to breathe and think, and she respects my need for resolution: we break, but promise to come back and finish up. It’s changed our lives.

    When your daughter is older, another thing we learned to do that is very helpful is just write it out. Take a break when you see the breakdown in communication, and each person writes out how they are feeling and what they want to say.

  • Mike

    I’ve had a lot of trouble getting to a calm place with my son. Part of the problem is that he views calm-down space as punishment rather than a path to solution so it isn’t something he will voluntarily suggest and he gets even more frustrated if it is suggested (for a long time he adamantly refused to acknowledge he even slept at all, ever). Also if I leave him to himself for a while to calm down he can (although only when exhausted) start taking out his frustration by breaking things or, if I ignore that, even hitting and I don’t feel comfortable sitting by in either of those cases. Any suggestions?

    • A Reader

      That’s a really tough situation, and I definitely don’t have any solid answers. He could be the type of person who really needs to vent his anger, and sitting quietly isn’t doing it for him, so he takes it out physically. One way to help him might be some type of sport, like karate, running, dancing, or something of that sort? Even a little punching bag could help (there were times as a kid I got so frustrated that I’d just scream into a pillow). Even if there’s something that can just get him to express his anger in a more “collected” way could be an improvement. I’m sorry I can’t give a better answer, but I wish you luck.

    • Rosa

      How old is he?

      Mine is quite similar, right up to claiming he never sleeps and he was secretly awake all night. And the hitting/throwing. Sometimes I make him walk with me (park is best; around the block is fine; the playground where all the other kids can see is the WORST) until he’s calmed down. Stuff for kids with sensory issues helps him too – a shiny spinner, a ball to bounce, jumping on a trampoline – when he was younger we would pick him up and drop him on the couch, it’s called “crashing”. (he just turned 7).

      • Mike

        He’s 5. The “I never sleep!” thing is so weird. I’m glad to head we aren’t the only ones:) I really wish I knew what’s going on in that head when he says that.

      • victoria

        Five can be really rough. When mine was five the feeling we and some of the families we’re close to with kids the same age had was that at five the highs are higher than 3 & 4 — they’re more independent! they come up with such neat ideas! they’re capable of being really helpful and polite! — but holy crap, the lows are lower.

        Mine was kind of similar to yours — she’d sometimes go calm down on her own, but more often I’d try to remove myself from a situation for a couple minutes to de-escalate, and she would. not. let me. It does get better with age but there are things we tried that helped.

        One thing you might try is some kind of behavior chart. This book sounds really over-the-top, but it’s not, and its author is very reputable. It’s 100% consistent with positive discipline too. The big things he emphasizes are that 1.) you want to define positive behaviors that you want your child to do. So “I want him to take a minute to calm down when he’s stressed,” “I want him to only use touch in a gentle way,” and “I want him to respond to me in a pleasant and polite voice,” not “I want him to stop throwing tantrums.” 2.) Give him chances to roleplay and practice the positive behaviors. Come up with a list of positive things he can do when he’s upset and every day spend a few minutes pretending that he’s upset and choosing to do one of those things. 3.) On the behavior chart, give him points not only for behaving properly, but also for practicing. Kazdin suggests you have a variety of awards available, the smallest of which (this can be something like a little toy from a grab bag or an extra bedtime story) can be earned for 1-2 days of mostly doing the behavior you want. 4.) Praise/comment on the behavior you want and, as much as possible, ignore the behavior you don’t. Eventually the good behavior should be much more common, and you can make it more difficult to get points. And soon it’ll be a habit.

        Sorry for the novel here :). Just couldn’t resist, being someone who’s been there not too terribly long ago.

      • Caravelle

        I don’t remember ever claiming or thinking I never slept, but I do remember my lifetime goal as a small child being to stay up until midnight, and never quite understanding why I could never make it.

        Sleeping is so weird. You don’t realize when it happens (although now I’m more adept at recognizing when I’m in the twilight zone between sleep and waking, it’s only after years of experience), and sometimes you don’t even realize it did happen, you think you just closed your eyes for a second and in fact you were asleep for hours (there again I’m better at recognizing it now, but only after years of experience).
        And Gods did I hate naps as a child. Actually I didn’t quite believe they weren’t an evil plot by adults until I worked in a preschool and observed for myself that most children do indeed sleep under these circumstances. (the still-6-years-old part of me was like “COLLABORATORS”, even though I rationally know she probably slept with everyone else and just didn’t realize it)

        So I think if you’re a small child and don’t happen to remember your dreams (maybe you should ask him about if he ever dreams ?) it actually makes some sense to think you don’t sleep. Maybe you could be evil/rationalist about it (I’m not saying those two things are synonymous, I mean it’s “evil” if “I don’t sleep” is actually a cover for something else and you ignore it, and it’s rationalist if it’s a sincere belief and you’re teaching the kid to analyse those) and elaborate tests and experiments with him to determine if he sleeps or not, like “write the time on a piece of paper every hour” or something.

        I sympathise with your problems though.
        Others have given advice for how to dissipate the energy of a child who doesn’t want to rest; I hope I won’t offend you by throwing this out there just in case, but is it possible you’ve inadvertently cued him at some point that resting/calming down was bad, or a punishment, or synonymous with losing ? Or might he have gotten the idea somewhere else ?
        I think it’s more likely he’s naturally active and that everyone else’s solutions are the way to go but I figure one might as well bring up as many possibilities as possible.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I don’t know if it’s the case here but sometimes parents say sentences like: “He is behaving like this because he is tired” when the kid is being difficult or having a tantrum and even if that’s the truth in many occasions, children link the fact your parents think you are being annoying with that sentence and think their parents are judging them instead of understanding them deciding they are tired for them. They are telling them how they are feeling and kids can feel they don’t even have control of their own emotions, their parents are deciding for them the problem is that they are tired, not the reason they probably have in their minds for being upset and they can react more virulently. Obviously that’s not the parents’ intention and they’ll be more often right than not that the kid being tired is at the root of the problem but from the kid’s perspective it might feel like they aren’t being heard or understood.

        I don’t know if that’s the case for your son… it might be something completely different like he thinks sleep makes him weak or that he wants to be like X being who doesn’t sleep or something else entirely but that’s my 0’02 cents about the not sleeping thing.

      • Caravelle

        @Paula : Oh God my parents telling me I was tired whenever I was angry (or alternatively having an incredible amount of fun). SO INFURIATING. And even moreso if they were right. In general any kind of emotional manipulation felt violating to me, [i]even when it made me feel better[/i] (like my father making some kind of joke that would defuse my anger and make me happy with him again. I was happy, yes, but some part of me was still F*CK YOU FOR DOING THIS TO ME WHEN I HAD A LEGITIMATE GRIEVANCE AND ALL thought not really in those words of course).

        I wonder how much of a difference it would have made if someone had explained to me, as a little child, and not when I was angry and focused on some wrong being done to me, that emotions are related to the state of the brain and can totally be affected by what you ate, whether you exercised, how tired you are and so on. It probably wouldn’t have helped if I’d felt it being used as a weapon against me, but I also might not have felt as if I were betraying myself whenever my parents were proved right and my emotions wrong.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        @Caravelle: I took it so seriously that when I was or 5 I made myself a promise to remember how it felt and not repeat it with my children or other kids XP

    • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

      My family had a “happy cushion”. It was a big cushion that could be punched, thrown, hugged, bashed, slept on top of…

      Get too stressed and emotional, and Mum would hand you the happy cushion and leave you too it. It was a good way of getting intense emotions out on something that couldn’t be damaged or used to damage anything else.

  • A Reader

    This is a great idea and it’ll continue to help both you and Sally as she gets older. Calming down is so important in communication, especially between two very emotional people. My dad and I had a horrible relationship in part because we couldn’t communicate without serious shouting matches. Letting her–and you–breathe will help everyone, short-term and long-term <3

  • Julian

    Thank you so much for posting this. It actually made me choke up a little to read it; it’s such a simple, respectful, compassionate solution to an issue that a lot of children have. Especially for children who are highly sensitive to their environment and who may easily become overloaded by sensory stimulation, being given a chance to simply calm down in whatever way is most soothing for them can make all the difference in the world. I’ve been wired that way myself my whole life, and it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve found people who are able to respond to my seemingly irrational attacks of anxiety with calm and reassurance rather than impatience and contempt, which is what my parents most often demonstrated. I believe that growing up with a parent who allowed me to manage my emotions in ways that actually worked for me and who gave me that autonomy would have greatly increased both my independence and my sense of security in general, and might have helped me to grow into a less anxious adult.

    I’m glad Sally has someone who understands that powerful emotions in a tiny body can feel overwhelming, and who is looking out for her by letting her look out for herself. She’s a lucky child.

  • Rosa

    Thank you so much for posting these; besides a commitment to not hitting, I didn’t come into parenting with very useful skills and I have a pretty high-demand child. Getting these little doses and links at a moment I’m NOT looking for the answer to a crisis has been really helpful.

  • Lee

    Wow. I totally just realized… this is why I like to deal with confrontations and situations right then and there, despite the fact that I’m a lot more rational (and likely to reach a favorable endpoint) when I’ve had a chance to calm down. BECAUSE CALMING DOWN WAS ALWAYS A PUNISHMENT. It was always my mother screaming “Go take a time out!” or my father saying in a dangerously controlled voice, “We’ll talk about this later” after reducing me to tears. Calming down was always a punishment instead of a step in the solution process. That’s how it should be treated: a step needed by both parties, not a punishment for one.


    Now for me to try and translate this into my life now…

  • Riza

    This is absolutely beautiful. Reading your blog, especially these posts about Sally, makes me feel somewhat less Tokophobic.

    Libby Anne, you restore my hope in humanity.