The Most Powerful Response When Your Child Is Inconsolable.

The first thing is to realize that when your child is inconsolable is that he is overwhelmed. Your response might be to problems-solve, offering options to feel better, however your child won’t likely be available even to your best idea. Avoid the temptation to ‘distract’ your child from his emotions. Part of his developmental journey is to feel the full range of his emotions robustly and to be able to recover from them.

Comforting child
Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

The best thing you can do is to be present, sitting with your child in the “puddle” of her emotion. Specifically, being in close proximity, little to no verbiage and offering comfort through touch if your child seeks it. This can take a short time or quite a long time.

Physiologically, when your child is in an overload state, she is simply not available for talking things out or problem solving. In fact, words will likely escalate your child’s emotion. Big emotions are so overwhelming and your child needs to experience her emotion getting smaller and moving to a calm state.

Helping your child to calm applies even when he has done something wrong. You still want to help him learn to calm in order for him to be able to process with you what happened! Here are some other specific strategies to support your child to self-calm:

  • Little to no talking from you; wait until she initiates and then respond with empathy “yeah, this is tricky”
  • Deep breaths are the fastest way to help your body calm, so you can model taking slow deep breaths while beside your child
  • Once your child has started to calm, drinking something will further help to regulate your child’s breathing
  • If your child is calm enough to drink, offer a snack; continue to be present
  • Once your child is calm, it still may be too soon to go back and reflect on the situation (your child may go back to being inconsolable) so you can offer to “check-in” about it later in the day
  • Later, with a drawing medium such as a large white board, paper, sand, you can offer to draw out what happened as your child narrates it to you
  • You can then discuss if she liked the way it turned out and problem-solve other options together. If your child needs to repair the situation with a peer then you can plan that out too.

Congratulations! You have supported your child to tolerate his big emotion, to self-calm, to be reflective about his actions and to problem solve, all important life long skills.

Originally published in Maui Family Magazine.