What’s Wrong with Saying “Calm Down,” to a Child Who is Upset, Frightened, or Angry?

For the most part, parents generally have good intentions for dealing effectively and appropriately with their child’s upset feelings; yet, the words they say, the tone of voice they use to say these words and the expression on their face often produces the opposite results they seek.  Their children become even more upset rather than calmer.  Let’s look at why “the meltdown” frequently occurs with children younger than 8 years old when parents tell or command them to “Calm down!”

When children cry or act out in any way because they are afraid, confused, hurt, angry or feel an unpleasant emotion that they are too young to analyze and understand–they want and need their parents’ attention and they want it NOW!  The more they need their parent to assist them–the louder and harder they will cry; they want the problem to get fixed and they need mommy or daddy to fix it.  In desperate need of help–they cry and/or physically cling to the parent. This is normal and healthy; babies and young children crave connection with their caregivers in a time of strong emotion and genuine need; it is an intrinsic survival behavior.

So, what happens when the parent says, “Calm down” either in a gentle or not-so-gentle voice? The child’s brain, which is already experiencing an amygdala hijack, becomes more desperate to get the adult’s attention because her/his need for assistance and desperate plea for comfort and aid is being ignored and/or rejected!  The reactive/impulsive part of the brain (amygdala) triggers the chemicals that cause the child to scream louder or cling harder to get help; this is simply how the human brain functions.  The parent mistakenly assumes the child is having a “tantrum” or a “meltdown” and responds by further withholding that which the child needs the most in that crucial moment: empathy, connection and understanding.  As the scenario develops, the more upset and demanding the child becomes, the more withholding and distant the parent responds by continually commanding or imploring the child to “Calm down.” The child screams louder and more frantically.  This continues as parent and child disconnect further. The child, who has less power, ultimately wears down physically and emotionally.  Red-faced and exhausted from the trauma of crying, the defeated child finally appears calm–almost as if in a stupor. At this point, the parent approaches the child, possibly with affection, and assumes the child has learned that comforting comes only after the child has obeyed by “calming down.”

But, in truth, what has this child really learned?

Let’s explore this.  Something happens to hurt or frighten the child; the amygdala in the child’s brain takes over and the child cries for help.  Rather than help, the parent instructs the child to calm down first before help will be administered.  The child physically can not obey this command because the brain already released the toxic chemical cortisol, that is driving the hysterical crying. The child wants to please the parent and calm down but is not capable of doing so.  The scene then plays itself out as described above but this is not an isolated incident that happens once in this child’s life.  The requirement from the parent to “Calm down,” when the child is physically and emotionally unable to do so, is one that happens repeatedly–maybe daily, weekly or monthly until the child gets it.

And what exactly does the child get?

In the example above, when the child finally appeared calm, what actually happened was that the child surrendered to the hopelessness that Mommy/Daddy would empathize, understand and respond to the genuine need for help. Intuitively, energetically, the child also gets that Mommy/Daddy doesn’t want me to show my feelings, doesn’t want me to feel my feelings, doesn’t want me to have feelings.  And perhaps the most psychologically damaging message the child gets is that Mommy/Daddy will only listen to me, pay attention to me, or help me if I am subdued, passive–or in their words–“calm.”  And to take it one step further, the child learns that Mommy/Daddy only gives me love when I act the way they want me to act. If I don’t, they will withhold their love from me and since I’m afraid to live without their love, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win it–even if it means pretending I don’t have feelings–even if it means learning how to not feel!

Is this really what we want our children to learn–that we will only give them love if they suppress their authentic emotions?

There is another way to interact; it’s based on empathy–the intrinsic capacity of our brains to connect with others; empathy engenders understanding and compassion.

Empathy Warriors teaches how to listen, speak and act with empathy.  Learn more; private message me or buy my book and start your own Empathy Warriors Support Group with your peers to learn and practice these new behaviors.  I am available to support you in your efforts; it’s my gift to you.

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