You and your young child are happily playing, strolling through the grocery store or maybe driving in the car—then, it happens… tears. Lots of them.
Sometimes they are easy-to-understand tears, like a scraped knee or lost toy. But sometimes they are angry tears, scared tears or anxious tears. These types of emotional moments are harder to identify and understand, making them harder to heal and resolve.
The most important thing to remember before addressing the meltdown is that your reactions and words are important in more ways than one. You can not only resolve the “here and now” by making the crying stop but also give your child important tools to help them better understand their emotions and how they can self-soothe in moments of upset.
Here are 10 phrases to prompt healthy resolve and growth when your child is crying:
1. “You’re safe.”
Phrases like “You’re fine,” “You’re ok,” “Nothing is wrong,” are NOT helpful phrases when your child is upset (even if they feel like they should be). However, “You’re safe,” is something your child needs to understand in moments of upset or anxiety.
You can even follow up “You’re safe” by stating other affirming and grounding facts such as, “You’re safe. I’m here, your daddy is here. You’re in your comfortable car seat. We’re on our way to a fun day with Grandma.”
“You’re safe. You’re with your teacher who will take such good care of you while I’m gone. You are going to play with your friends and then I will come back when the clock says 2:00.”
Stating facts, plans and routines help give your child control and ease fears of the new and unknown—which are often at the root of tears.
2. “How can I help?”
Your child might not be able to articulate why they are upset, but offering them the opportunity to ask for what they need from you is a great place to start. It also encourages their emotional development by prompting them to think of solutions to their feelings for themselves, instead of immediately offering solutions for them.
However, if you see that your child can not answer this question, be ready to jump in with a different approach instead of demanding an answer.
3. “I can see you’re feeling very sad/scared/angry.”
If you are totally in the dark to what your child is feeling, do not attempt to label their feelings for them. However, if there is a clear trigger or emotion being expressed, helping your child understand their feelings can lessen the panic and anxiety they are experiencing.
For example, your child builds an entire lego building, only to have it crumble to the ground as they put the final piece on the top: “I can see you’re feeling disappointed and frustrated that you put in such hard work and now your building fell down. Sometimes, even when we work really hard, things like that happen. Can I help you start over? I know you can do it!”
4. “It’s ok to feel sad/scared/angry.”
Let them know that emotions are natural and everyone feels them. It’s not wrong for them to feel emotions like sadness, anger or fear. Start by affirming the feeling but emphasize the importance of their reaction to those feelings.
“It’s ok to feel scared when we have to try something new, but if we say a prayer, take deep breaths and remember that we are safe, it can help us feel much less scared and can give us confidence.”
5. “Let’s breathe together.”
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Breath is an important tool for children and adults alike—and when your child is in the midst of heaving sobs, breath can be critical to help them gain back control. Teach your child the importance of controlling their breath as a tool to counteract stress and anxiety as soon as you can. Breath with them to show them how and talk to them about what breathing does to calm down their body. There are even books that can help teach breathing techniques in an age-appropriate way.
6. “I’m going to...”
Verbalizing your actions is a calming tool and a teaching tool when your child is crying scared or angry tears.
“I am going to wait right here with you while you take deeps breaths so we can talk.”
“I am going to hold your hand so you feel safe and know I am here with you .”
“I can’t understand your words when you are screaming and crying in anger. I’m going to wait here with you until you take some deep breaths and can use calm words.”
7. “Here are your choices”
In the appropriate situation, offering choices can give your child feelings of control over their future, which often relieves upset, anger or frustration.
Your child is having a meltdown because they don’t want to wear their coat to the park: “Here are your choices: you can put on your coat so we can go to the park and see your friends or we can stay home. What is your choice?”
Your child is crying because they don’t want you to leave them at school: “Here are your choices: we can read one book together before I leave the classroom or we can build one lego building together before I leave the classroom. What is your choice?”
Note* there are definitely some situations when obedience without giving choices are appropriate for reasons of safety, establishing discipline, etc. Seek out the “choices” method only when it will be beneficial in the right moment.
8. “I know this is so hard.”
Sometimes someone just acknowledging that life is tough is just what we need to feel a little better. Empathy goes a long way for adults and children alike.
“I know this is hard. Sometimes I get sad when I don’t want to go to work in the morning just like you sometimes get sad when you don’t want to go to school.”
9. “Remember when we…?”
You know your child best. Call upon past success during emotional moments and remind your child about them.
“Remember when you were scared to get in the pool and so we jumped in together? Once you were in the water you loved it and had so much fun! Can we try that again?”
10. “I love you.”
This never gets old and never ceases to help your child feel peace when they are upset. No matter if they are sad tears, angry tears or scared tears.
Pro tip: “I love you,” works for adults, too.