I was reminded recently of a great technique to quickly calm children. This is really the fastest way to calm a child, it is simple, extremely effective and also works for many children with special needs.
Put simply, you build empathy with the child by describing how the child must feel right now as accurately as you can.
This enables the child to completely express how they are feeling. This is a major blocker for children who are still developing language and their expressive capabilities. Naturally it is very frustrating not to be able to express how you feel and also to feel that no one understands you.
Once you allow the child to feel understood, this is so massively relieving for the distressed child that pain, frustration, anger, etc. simply disappear. This can be done by accurately describing the emotions and facts from the child’s perspective:
- the pain
- the frustration
- the anger
- the sadness
- the hurt
- the thirst/hunger
- the cold
- the unfairness
- the actions
- the situation
Mirror the child’s emotions and viewpoint in words and you will find that the child will calm down then recover quickly. Have a few runs at it, use repetition and refinement. Paint the full picture for them, this builds rapport. Your goal is to state exactly how the child feels right now. Be a little patient, and you will be rewarded. I avoid using the word “I” at all. because stories rarely have “I” in them, this story is all about the child and it is easy to accidentally make judgement statement like “I see you are upset” which sets you up for you being wrong. If you are unsure what is wrong, you can ask the restate what they tell you.
Child: Finally someone understands me!!
As follow up, you may need to deal with the child’s feeling of safety and resolution.
If the child is hurt, accurately describe how the pain must feel.
- Child: (Crying uncontrollably)
- You: Your finger must really hurt.
- Child: (Crying)
- You: Is it this finger? (Explore)
- Child: It is my little finger and my hand.
- You: Your little finger and your whole hand hurts because it got squashed. (Restate)
- Child: Mary stepped on it.
- You: Your little finger and hand got stepped on and now they both really hurt, especially your little finger. There is a graze too and it’s all red. (Restate)
- Child: Yes ! (Getting to yes is a good sign)
- You: And it does hurt so much when your hand and finger gets stepped on, it makes your whole hand really hurt. (Empathy)
- Child: Yes ! (Regaining control now that the situation is understood)
- You: Little fingers hurt so much when they get stepped on (Repeat again if needed or use a generic example)
- You: Provide security (hug/empathy) then suggest a band-aid.
- You: Now shoe, don’t step on that hand again (Personification and story telling can help too.)
Success rates and where to use
This is one for the tool-kit. With a little practice, it is extremely effective (expect 80%-100%). Verbal Empathy is way more effective than Distraction and can be used for real pain, hurt and meltdowns. It can be used with any child and doesn’t need any pre-existing relationship, so can be good to practice where you only occasionally mind a child.
Other areas to use
I originally saw this verbal mirroring technique used for children with anger management and concentration issues. It was used to maintain states of calm and concentration for extended periods as practice for the child and to build empathy/rapport. The adult would simply state the actions of the child as the child was playing. Eg “Now you are moving the train, and you are making it go along the track.” It can definitely also help build concentration and focus skills.
- Children don’t see the world as adults do. Feel free to use personification like with my example of talking to the shoe.
- Calming a child who is either cold or hungry will only last a short time. If in doubt, feed.
This really is an exceptionally fast way to calm a child even if they are in full melt-down. I have even used it where I’ve caused the melt down by taking something away like a knife (for safety reasons) or chocolate before dinner. Give it a try and let me know how you go.