Why “use your words” isn’t a Helpful Phrase in Parenting

Your child comes running to you. They are crying. They throw themselves on the floor and flail
their arms and legs. You don’t know what happened or what started this behavior. You pick them
up, pull them to you, and they continue. At this point, you utter one of the most common phrases
a parent knows, “use your words”. The intent of this phrase is to better understand what your
child is experiencing so can better attend to their need. Unfortunately, when this behavior is
occurring, your child is not able to use their words as they have moved from their thinking brain
into their emotion brain (limbic system). In this emotion part of the brain, logic and words hold
no meaning. Instead, connection and validation is the language that needs to be heard.

Importance of Co-regulation
During a tantrum, there are two main tasks for parents; 1) keep yourself calm and 2) help your
child get calm. What’s even better than only having two tasks, if you can complete task 1 often
task 2 will happen automatically. This is called co-regulation. Through co-regulation you are
actively showing (not telling) your child how to calm their emotions. The reason co-regulation
works is because of mirror neurons in our brain. In a general sense, the mirror neurons take on
the behaviors/actions of another person and makes it their own. For children, if they see their
parent taking slow deep breaths, they will begin to take slow deep breaths as well. On the flip
side, if our child sees us become increasingly frustrated, this will only feed into their tantrum.
Co-regulation needs to continue until your child is fully calmed down. This can take a while
which is why task 1, keep yourself calm, is so important. You will know when your child is and
calming down (and moving out of their emotion brain) when they can follow a small, benign
direction like “can you grab a tissue for me?”. Once your child is calm (regulated), a discussion
about what happened and the emotion they were experiencing can be had. This is a good time to
start planning with your child behaviors they can do when experiencing different large emotions.
Many times our children do not know options for behavior around large emotions which is why
tantrums occur.

Keeping Yourself Calm
There is no one right way to keep yourself calm. What one method works for you may not work
for your spouse or the parent down the street. A skill that worked for you on the first three
tantrums may not work on the 4th or 18th. Create a set of skills and practice during calm times so
that when your child builds into a tantrum, you are prepared and ready. Below are 7 common
skills to keep you calm:

  • Take deep breaths. This keeps your blood pressure low and gives the sensation of calm.
    Start with a breath in for 5 counts and hold 5 counts. Then breathe out 5 counts and hold 5 counts. Repeat as needed.
  • Hum your favorite tune in a slow and low tone. Lullabies are great for this as it mimics times that are quiet and comfortable.
  • Name what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. This is a skill for when you really are trying to stay focused and thinking.
  • Mantras such as “I am relaxed, I am calm”, “Breath in, I calm my body. Breath out, I calm my mind”, and “This is only temporary” helps you to remember your primary task.
  • Grab a snack for yourself and your child. Staying calm takes energy. Food gives energy. When giving food to your child don’t ask if they want to eat it just hand them something you know they like. If they refuse that’s ok.
  • Do a body scan. Close your eyes and find where your muscles are clenched and purposefully un-clench.
  • Switch off with another adult. If this is a particularly long meltdown, it is okay to take a break, grab a glass of water, and share the emotional load.

If you fail in keeping your calm, just remember to give yourself some grace. No parent in the
history of the world has been able to stay calm for 100% of their child’s tantrums. When the
calm returns to the home, because it will, enjoy the calm and plan for next time. Work with your
child on developing skills to manage their emotions. Alongside teaching them “a cow goes moo
and a duck says quack”, teach them “when I’m angry I take a deep breath and when I am
confused I ask for help”. These are all skills to learn and learning takes practice and repetition.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Christina Maki, MS, LMFT