Parenting

Tips for dealing with Cranky kids

Like adults, children want to be understood, but trying to communicate their needs can make them feel frustrated, cranky and unhappy. Here are some tips on how you can help smooth the waters.

Make eye contact

The first step in calming a cranky child is to get his attention, because if he isn’t paying attention to you he’s unlikely to listen to what you have to say, or to change his behavior.

 Keep it simple

Just like adults, kids who are angry and frustrated get caught up in their own thoughts and feelings, which makes them physically and emotionally less able to listen to reason. So save the detailed discussion you’d have at another time, and limit your message to just a few words, perhaps even just one word if the child is less than 2 years old. Deliver a clear message that is easily understood, and be consistent.

Find out what’s wrong

It’s normal for little kids to be sad, angry, frustrated, tired, hurting—or some combination of those Conditions. Rather than focusing on simply trying to stop your child’s behavior, start by trying to find out what’s wrong. This approach can pay dividends in the heat of the moment as well as long-term: you are encouraging your child to speak up about why she’s unhappy, which puts you in the best position to help solve the problem. And down the line, demonstrating respect for her feelings will help her feel loved and may encourage her to do the same for others.

Acknowledge feelings

One way to calm a very young child, who doesn’t have the language skills to express her feelings, is to mimic her body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Using single words or very short phrases, express in words what you think she’s feeling, and match her body language. It can calm her down to know she’s being understood, and she may be so fascinated by what you’re doing that she forgets why she was upset. 

Teach deep breathing

This technique works for adults and it works for kids, too. First, practice it yourself so you know what to do, then demonstrate it for your child. Put your hand on your chest or diaphragm, and show your child how to take slow, deliberate and deep breaths. Make it look like fun, and your tot may be too intrigued by what you’re doing to remember that he’s upset. When he calms down, reward him with lots of hugs and smiles for paying attention and trying to follow your example.

Use the feelings chart

The laminated chart with simple line drawings of a face in a range of expressions from happy to mad to sad is a useful communication tool for parents. Start using it when your child is calm and happy, so that she gets comfortable pointing to the face that best expresses her mood. When she’s upset, bring out the chart and encourage her to use it to tell you what she’s feeling.

Reward good behavior, not bad

The time to bring out a favorite snack or treat is not when your child is misbehaving. Even very young children can learn that their actions have consequences. Some children act out because they want more attention from their parents; if that sounds like your child, schedule extra play time and together time. When your child misbehaves and the situation starts to escalate, a time-out (meaning a few minutes away from you) might be just the incentive she needs to change her behavior.

Master the time out

It may be heart-wrenching to walk away from a crying child but many child-behavior experts advise that, when used correctly, a time out can be an effective and kind way to let your child know that he has done something wrong. Not all misbehavior deserves a time out, so decide in advance which behaviors make the time-out list and let your child know what they are. When a time out is needed, calmly settle the child in a safe place and stay nearby, but don’t interact with him. Keep the time out short—start with a minute or two—and when the time is up be sure to reconnect with a hug and to reinforce good behavior when you see it.

Use rewards wisely

If your cranky child is at least 2 years old, he’s old enough to learn that good things happen when he demonstrates good behavior. Choose something you’d like him to do, such as going to bed without a fuss, and offer the reward as an incentive. When he does what you ask, he gets the reward; when he doesn’t, don’t give in. Use rewards judiciously, and make your child earn them. For rewards to have value, they can’t be something he knows he’ll get whether he’s good or not.

Get moving

Babies respond well to movement such as walking, rocking and bouncing. Movement can also help older children shift their focus from their emotions to their feet, in what is known as walking meditation. Another bonus when you engage your child in movement is that he gets your undivided attention in a positive way.

Play a tune

Music has the power to soothe a troubled mind, so take advantage of that when your child is out of sorts. If music is important to you, and an integral part of your family life, teach your child early to enjoy and appreciate music.

Take a drive

If a young child’s frustration or sleepiness escalates into non-stop crying, try putting her in the car and going for a drive. The motion of the car, the sound of the road and the support offered by the car seat may combine to calm your child and rock her to sleep.

Play with your child

Rather than being a response to a child who’s already unhappy, this suggestion may help to prevent some crankiness. What your child wants more than anything is your attention, so try scheduling more short but frequent playtime activities. By doing so, you’ll be spending time with your child and helping him burn off some of the excess energy that may be making him cranky in the first place.

Ask for help

Children enjoy helping their parents and taking part in adult activities. That’s especially true of younger kids. So when frustration sets in and tantrums ensue or tears begin to well, ask your kids to lend a hand with something you need to do, anyway. Toddlers love to help load the washing machine and reshelve picture books. Older children may enjoy choosing an outfit for a younger sibling or helping you clean the bathroom. Asking your kids for help could end up making your day a little easier in more ways than one.

Ask her to consider another point of view

In the heat of the moment, your child is probably feeling a lot of anger and frustration, but little or no empathy. This might be a good time to ask her to put herself in someone else’s place. How would she feel if someone she knew threw a tantrum, refused to eat or hit someone? By asking her to think about someone else, you distract her from the tantrum and engage her thinking process.

Check your mood

Children take many emotional cues from their parents. That’s why cheerfulness is one of the best ways to respond to a cranky child, and why a big smile is often the easiest way to sweeten a sour face. But it’s difficult to provide the emotional sunshine your child may need when you’re in a bad mood or when the pressures of the day are making you cranky and short-tempered yourself. If your child seems persistently unhappy, do a quick assessment to see if you may be part of the problem, and then take a few moments to calm your mind and reset your attitude.

Don’t fight fire with fire

Whether you’re dealing with a tantrum-throwing toddler or a screaming teenager, responding in kind is never a good idea. Rather than showing your kid who’s boss, you’ll just be amplifying the argument while failing to model a different and better approach. Take charge of the situation and put your child (and yourself) in a time out until tempers cool and you can discuss things calmly.

Remove unnecessary temptations

Toddlers and young children hear “no” dozens of times each day. Imagine how frustrated and unhappy you would feel if someone you loved was always making you stop or taking away something you wanted. One way to lower your child’s frustration level is to avoid some of the temptations that inevitably lead to “no” by keeping counters clear and cabinet doors closed, and providing kid-friendly toy versions of off-limit items such as cell phones and computers.

Don’t help too soon

Toddlers and young children like to do things for themselves, but they often become frustrated when their developing skills don’t measure up to the task at hand. Conversely, they may get even more frustrated if you try to jump in too soon. Let them struggle a bit, offer encouragement now and then from the sidelines, and try to keep the mood light as they work to overcome their current challenge.

Don’t negotiate with your child

Many well-meaning parents create little monsters by allowing too many parental decisions to become debates. It’s important to teach your child the value of expressing her choices and advocating for them, of course, and you can do that when talking about where to go for lunch. But important parental decisions—bedtime, personal hygiene, not being a bully—are non-negotiable.

Tips from Sharon O’Brien - a licensed professional counselor and freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.


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