(This is a guideline. It is, of course, harder than this page makes it sound.)

I’m Upset and My Child is Upset

 When necessary, I start with a “Time-Out”* (for me, for my child,
or for both of us) until:
I know that I am bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind, and
I remind myself that no matter how I feel, my child needs me.
(* A “Time-Out” can be helpful as a first step, but not as a punishment.)

  •  I’m Calm (enough) and My Child is Upset

  We can build a safe “repair routine” together  (remember: the first 1,000 times are the hardest!).
I take charge so my child is not too out of control. We can change location.
Go to a neutral place that is our “Time-in” spot, where we sit together and let feelings begin to change.
I maintain a calm tone of voice (firm, reassuring, and kind).
We can do something different (for several minutes): read,
 or look out the window, or attend to a chore together.
I help my child bring words to her/his feelings.
(“It looks like this is hard for you.” “Are you mad/sad/afraid?” )
I talk about my feelings about what just happened.
(“When you did that, I felt…”)

( Rule of thumb: Stay in charge and stay sympathetic.)

I’m Calm (enough) and My Child is Calm (enough)

I use the following to support our repair and to make repair easier in the  future.
 I help my child use words for the needs and feelings that s/he is struggling with
by listening and talking together.  (Remember KISS—
Keep It Short And Sweet)

 I help my child take responsibility for her/his part and
I can take responsibility for my part.

(Rule of thumb: No blaming allowed.)

 We talk about new ways of dealing with the problem in the future.
(Even for very young children, talking out loud about new options will establish a pattern and a feeling that can repeated through the years.)

What’s Time IN?
If you want to teach your child emotional self-management, that’s only effective before a meltdown starts and the child can still access the reasoning capacity of the prefrontal cortex. When you see the warning signs, take your child to a “Time IN” to help her calm down. This signals to your child that you understand that she’s got some big emotions going on and you’re right there with her. If she’s just a bit wound-up and wants to snuggle or even read a book, fine. If she’s ready for a melt-down, you’re there to help. Just let her know you’re there and she’s safe.

Once the meltdown starts and your child is swept with emotion, it’s too late for teaching. Don’t try to talk or negotiate or convince him of anything; he’s in “fight or flight” emergency mode and the thinking parts of his brain aren’t working right now. Just stay nearby so you don’t trigger his abandonment panic, and stay calm. Don’t give in to whatever caused the meltdown (in other words, don’t give him that cookie you said no to), but offer your total loving attention. Tell him he’s safe. Be ready to reassure him of your love once he calms down.

What is a calm down area for?
This is a place for a child to go either with the parent or willingly alone. It is not a punishment but a place to learn emotional intelligence followed by learning better behaviour. What I’ve learned about children in my years of research is that their brains do not take information in when they are dysregulated (or very upset). During times of emotional upset, children are functioning from their lower brain (which controls the fight, flight, or freeze response) and need to calm down before they can access their higher brain (responsible for logical thought and reasoning). Therefore, the calm down area should be a soothing place for the child to engage their higher brains so they can then best learn the lesson we want to teach.

Wait, isn’t that a reward for misbehaviour?
Think of it like this. When you get angry and are about to blow up at your child or spouse, do you take a few minutes to calm yourself first? You should. That ensures you are able to respond thoughtfully rather than react irresponsibly. When you take that time to breathe or repeat a mantra or go to the bathroom, you’re essentially going to your own calm down area, even if just in your mind. Is that a reward for your anger? No. Does taking that little break in the bathroom make you want to get angry more often? Of course not. No one likes feeling out of control. We all need to learn how to take time to calm our brains down so we don’t react, and it’s best to start learning that as young as possible.

What’s the difference? Don’t they learn to take that break in the time-out chair?
The difference is that the parent acts as an emotional coach in the calm down area. We talk through the emotions that the child is feeling and discuss ways to calm down and regulate our brains. A toddler isn’t able to process all of that alone in a chair. Furthermore, sitting with a nose in a corner doesn’t help most children calm down and often fuels the negative emotions. They may even feel rejected or isolated. Certainly, they aren’t thinking about what they will do better next time, and even if they can repeat why they just had to sit there for 4 minutes, did they really learn what triggered their strong emotions or how to handle them better? Knowing what not to do is not equal to knowing what to do.

What goes in the calm down area?
What you put in your calm down area is unique to your child. Find items that will suit them best. One of my children liked to draw or be read to and the other liked to pop balloons to calm down. I kept a box with several books, a glitter and water jar to shake, pencils and paper, rice for sensory play and balloons in our calm down area, along with a comfortable pillow to sit on.

How do you use the calm down area?
When your child either does something wrong or is experiencing heavy emotions like anger, take her to the calm down area immediately. Name the feeling you think she’s experiencing and talk about what triggered it. You may say, “You’re feeling mad because he snatched your toy. You were mad so you pinched him. I won’t let you pinch because that hurts. I’ll help you calm down.” Then, engage the child in the tools you’ve placed in the calm down area until you see their anger subside. Once their thinking brain is back online (when they are calm), talk about what anger feels like coming on and how to handle it in that moment. Give them real ideas they can use the next time someone snatches their toy, such as assertively asking for it back, walking away to get an adult, or taking a giant breath and blowing it out. It takes practice, and it won’t be a one-time deal, but neither is the time-out chair.

As they get older, they will likely begin going to their calm down area themself as they learn the valuable skill of emotions regulation, especially if it’s been modelled by their adult caregivers as well as taught with consistency in their early years.