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What Not to Say to a Wound-Up Kid

Help them calm down on their own

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In her book "The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What to Do About It" (PublicAffairs), author Katherine Reynolds Lewis dug into the latest research on discipline. A big takeaway: Kids who are having a tantrum or melting down aren’t being “willfully disobedient.” Instead, they need help self-regulating: learning to express their big feelings in appropriate ways; calming themselves down when they’re upset; and cheering themselves up when they’re blue.
What Not to Say to a Wound-Up Kid . . .

 When your child is wound up, “connect before you correct,” says Lewis. When Lewis encounters her own children misbehaving, “I look for a way to connect with them—even something as small as a hug or a compliment—before . . . guiding them back on track,” she writes.

Try This, Not That
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Beyond the research, Lewis offers the practical applications of her findings. Here’s what she recommends when you’re faced with a child who’s upset or spiraling downhill.

1. Don’t yell. The first reason is your child needs you to model “how to stay calm and regulated in the midst of conflict,” as Lewis writes. And second, yelling is likely to beget more yelling—from both of you.

2. Avoid lines like “Don’t say that” or It will be fine.” These discount your child’s feelings, which are real even if you’re sure, from your adult perspective, that he’s being irrational.  A better response to a tearful tirade: “I know.” This reassures your child that you hear him, a first step toward helping him understand his feelings.

3. Reminders are OK, but lectures aren’t. “Use as few words as possible, in a very neutral tone,” to remind your child about a rule or consequence, says Lewis. “We have our agreements posted on the wall so we can point to them if needed.” Skip “I told you” responses. They might feel good, but they won’t help. And lecturing (along with yelling) gives your child attention, which reinforces the behavior you’re trying to quash.

4. Resist the power struggle. Got a junior prosecutor on your hands? Resist the urge to lawyer up. Don’t let lines like “You don’t love me!” or “But other moms let their kids!” affect you. Remain firm—calmly, of course—and refuse to negotiate on rules or agreements that are already in place.

5. It’s OK to walk away. Don’t stick around for a tantrum. Let your kid’s rant burn itself out, rather than giving it oxygen with your presence and attention. Aim to de-escalate a situation, rather than ramping it up.

6. Don’t jump in with solutions. “Perhaps the most positive thing you can communicate is confidence in your kids’ ability to navigate their own lives,” Lewis writes. “Only by having space to tackle their own problems can our children make mistakes, experiment, and eventually succeed on their own.” So if your child has lost his favorite shirt or he’s having a conflict with a friend, express care and concern—but avoid solving the problem. Instead, help him embrace personal responsibility and a sense of independence.