With all of my daughter’s meltdowns, I began to wonder if we were going to survive age three. Everything was a big, drawn-out process. My requests were met with “no” and when I said no, I was met with hitting, kicking, and screaming.
I felt like I was drowning in the parenting pool and was signaling for an SOS. I knew I wanted to parent respectfully but felt I was lacking the tools. I was pit-falling to what I knew - yelling and time-outs near daily - and those seemed ineffective, leaving us both feeling detached.
One day, as my daughter napped, I read a mommy blog hoping for some answers and looking for some reassurance that I wasn’t ruining my kids, and that’s when an ad for Generation Mindful’s Time-In ToolKit popped across my computer screen.
As I read through the description and looked at the posters, videos, coloring sheets, and mantra cards, I began to realize that this kit was not only for my children but for me as well.
I spent the next few days hyping up the kit we'd recently ordered to create our new calming corner because, legitimately, I was excited. My daughter must have picked up on my energy because the day it was set to arrive, we were both eagerly waiting by the door. And when our postman finally delivered our package, we broke into an impromptu dance party. For the first time in what felt like weeks, we were on the same page about something.
I read the mini-manual that came in the box during my daughter’s afternoon nap and, when she woke, we got started. Goodbye to time-outs and hello to sanity and a child who listens to me without being yelled at or threatened (or at least I hoped anyway).
The first thing we did (per step one in the Time-In manual) was search for the perfect place for our calming space. We pretended to be explorers as we scouted the lay of the land and we both got really into it, talking with accents that sounded more like pirates than explorers. After some serious hunting, we decided that the book nook in my daughter's bedroom was the perfect place.
We pulled in her new Purple Elephant SnuggleBuddies plush, books, Legos, and some squishy balls that she liked and put them all in a basket we marked with a printable from the kit. We hung five of the posters that came in the ToolKit and talked about each one as they went up on the wall, including the 32 Feeling Faces poster (which really piqued her interest), and then spent the next hour cuddled up, reading books and playing in our newly created calming space.
After our Calming Corner was created, I spent the next week teaching my daughter about emotions using the games and activities that came in the kit. We pointed to the emotions on the posters and mimicked them in the mirror, played matching games with the Feeling Cards, and when we read books, we paused to talk about how the characters might be feeling. We continued this ritual for about two weeks before ever using the space for discipline or managing tantrums.
I found myself using our Calming Corner when I felt overwhelmed or frustrated, too. I invited my daughter to join me and, when she did (which was about half of the time), she usually mimicked me as I walked myself through naming my feelings and using the calming strategies.
After about two weeks of this, our Calming Corner was working to help us manage a number of big feelings as a family, but I was still stuck on how to use our new approach when our child was already in a full-blown temper tantrum. There was no “inviting her to the space” or helping her there. Her heels were dug in, and she didn’t want to go.
We were smack dab in survival mode, otherwise known as fight, flight, or freeze. This left me wondering ... What was I supposed to do?
Picking her up and putting her in her space felt like punishment, and we worked too hard to move away from that in the past few weeks. I'd already seen improvements in my own temperament as well as my daughter's, and I felt more connected to her in using the tools so I didn’t want to confuse her by sending her to her calming space when she didn't want to go.
Rarely as parents do we feel like we have the time and space to listen to our children when they are feeling so overwhelmed or upset, especially if we feel the reason for our child’s tears is illogical or silly. But what I found when reading the rest of the larger manual that came with my ToolKit was that when I better understood the mechanisms behind why children have tantrums and meltdowns, I was better able to empathize and connect.
From what I read, children cry because they are expressing an unmet need or want, and their tears often serve as a natural stress-release mechanism that allows them to release physical or emotional tension.
When we rush our children through unpleasant emotions or halt them all together, we hinder our child’s natural recovery process. Rather than resisting crying and tantrums, I learned to embrace them for what they are - a way for our children to communicate and regulate.
Understanding Our Children’s Brains
The primal brainstem and the emotional hub called the limbic system is fully developed at birth. Because of this, humans are biologically programmed to be in close proximity to one another as a way of regulating and aligning our inner emotional and physical states.
According to Daniel Siegel’s research in interpersonal neurobiology, our minds are connected and play a powerful role in healing through attachment. Imagine our brainstem and limbic systems as an antenna, tuning into their surroundings searching for safety and connection. When these parts of the brain sense the relational signals from others, they are better able to access and coordinate with the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in more complex executive functions such as problem-solving, impulse control, and conflict resolution. When the limbic system is unable to sense connection, the brainstem and limbic systems override the prefrontal cortex and the child is less able to logically reason and use good judgment.
I have seen this in my own daughter when I have asked her repeatedly to stop hitting her brother. My instinct wants to yell “STOP!” But when I remember the science, I recall that it is likely that my daughter’s limbic system is full of emotional tension from small hurts that have built up over the course of the day and that she is neurologically having a hard time regulating her body at that moment.
When we meet an upset child with safe feelings and connection rather than anger and fear, their brain senses this safety and is better able to authentically move through and manage the emotions that are flooding their system.
Learning this helped because I had a better grasp on why my child was acting out, but I still struggled with what to do about it.
And that’s when I turned to the video course that came with my ToolKit and it reminded me of an important concept when it comes to raising kids, namely, listening.
When my daughter is in meltdown mode, wherever we are, my job is to stop what I am doing and listen. It doesn’t matter if we are at grandma’s house, aisle five of the store, the park, or at home ten feet from our Calming Corner... the best tool is often to listen.
Here are a few things I learned about how to listen to my daughter as we moved from using time-outs to using Time-Ins:
1. Talk less
Research shows that when children are in their reactive and emotional brains, they need less talking, which means that at least 75% of our interaction with our children needs to be in the form of listening. Active listening means listening with our whole bodies - getting down low to our kids level, eye contact if your child is soothed by it (many are, some are not -- there is no one right way), leaning in, putting distractions away, and saying little or no words at all. This tip might sound basic but as someone who generally talks too much, I found that having permission to say nothing was a complete game changer.
2. Show you care
Let your child know that you empathize with what happened and validate their emotions around it. “I see that you are upset. You are showing me hurtful hands.” Avoid railroading your child’s experience by naming their emotions for them. This pulls them away from their limbic system and toward their prefrontal cortex, which dampens the release of their feelings. Remember, the key to this process is in your listening.
3. Communicate safety
Helping your children feel secure helps them shift out of their brainstem and into the higher levels of the brain. You may say something like, “You are safe, and I will stay with you while it’s hard. I have room for you in my lap if you’d like.” We recommend that you avoid saying things that indicate that you will “stay with them until they calm down” as that often directs the child’s attention toward ending the emotional release process.
4. Touch on the sore point
During this time, your child isn’t required to do anything. By releasing this expectation, you give permission and time to notice and work through how she feels. When the crying begins to slow, touch on the experience that brought up her feelings. If your child still needs to work on part of the emotion, this mention may bring her to tears or tantrums, in which you stay listening.
5. Continue to co-regulate
When your child has fully worked through her emotions and is more receptive, then move forward to the Calming Corner where you can further explore feelings around what happened, calming tools, problem-solving, and making amends if needed. If there is not a Calming Corner nearby, complete this step wherever you and your child are. The goal is that you stay together and co-regulate through the process.
What To Do If Your Child Tells You To Go Away
In the midst of a deep red brain tantrum, some children will tell you to go away or to leave them alone. In these moments, use little to no words, staying near your child, offering respectful distance. Sometimes that distance is a few feet away, others it is across the room, and sometimes it is on the other side of a closed door where you silently peek in every few minutes to communicate that you are still there and will be there while it is hard.
As your child’s brainstem and limbic system move through the emotion, they will begin to accept eye contact or closer proximity. Move slow and follow your intuition coupled with your child’s lead.
There may be moments where your child does not want to visit your Calming Corner, but it doesn’t mean that connection and co-regulation are put on a halt.
Parenting brain-to-brain and heart-to-heart is about being in the present moment and using tools that serve you and your child in that space. Avoid rushing the process and release any notions of “doing it wrong.”
Each and every time you communicate safety and listen, new circuits are being built within your child’s brain, allowing for emotional processing and the foundation for important life skills.
This parenting gem has transformed the way I have approached those moments where my daughter is melting, attacking, or running away from me. I now know that I can use positive parenting anywhere, and all that I need is a listening body and an open heart.
On Introducing Time-In's and Managing Meltdowns
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