Have you ever traveled through the mountains? On mountain highways, there are timely placed off-ramps when the roads decline steeply down the mountain. Brake failure happened often enough to trucks carrying heavy loads on these descents that off-ramps were built as a safe place to get off the road and come to a stop. Without the off-ramps, the trucks would speed out of control, running over everything in their path, until they came to a crashing halt.
It seems similar in how it is to parent young children. As little as they are, young children carry heavy feelings that overload their systems. They haven’t developed many emotional regulation skills yet, and the few they have are overwhelmed quickly like brakes on a heavy truck barreling down the mountain. This can look like tantrums, poor listening skills, destructive behavior, and so much more. As parents of kids this age, one of the best opportunities you can offer is off-ramps – safe places for them to slow down and come to a safe stop.
Particularly right now in the midst of a global pandemic with rapid change, stress and different limitations, young children will need a lot of off-ramps. Due to the perfect storm of their developmental stage and the current circumstances, it’s inevitable that they will display big feelings and get easily overwhelmed. However, parents can anticipate and build strategies to slow down the out-of-control feelings until they come to a safe stop.
Creating off-ramps in parenting looks like having a series of strategies ready to respond to your child when they get overwhelmed by their feelings. There are many strategies beyond what will be shared here. It’s okay to experiment and find what works for both you and your child. And remember, just like a truck may miss its first opportunity to take an off-ramp, a child may miss the first strategy you test.
When my child’s feelings are speeding out of control, what do I do?
First, recognize there is some UN-learning to do at the same time as learning new strategies to help your child when they’re speeding out of control. In moments of pressure and stress, often parents will respond out of their own big feelings of anxiety or anger. Caring for your own needs and creating off-ramps for your overloaded feelings is essential as you work to help your child. These common reactions speed up out-of-control behavior in a heated moment:
- Denying feelings: “It’s silly to be mad about that.”
- Over-explaining: “You only want toys when others are playing with them. You have plenty of your own toys. You don’t need to be taking them from others. Learning to share is important.”
- Questions: “Why did you take that toy from her?”
- Comparison: “Look! Your sister is sharing her toys.”
These strategies don’t work because as you work to squash the behavior, you also steamroll their feelings. It’s like pounding on the brakes of a speeding truck when the brake system has already failed. By shifting your focus to creating off-ramps, the child learns how to slow down and regulate their emotions.
What strategies can I use as off-ramps?
Naming the Moment
Learning to accept your child’s negative feelings is a real challenge. Parents want to shield their children from disappointment and frustration, which is practically-speaking an impossible task. It isn’t the feelings that are the problem, though. It is the behaviors that result from lacking the skills to regulate emotions.
When your child is acting out, resist the urge to squash it. Think about what emotion is driving the behavior and name it out loud. You are giving your child words to express their feelings and bringing awareness to the present moment
“It is so frustrating when you have to share your toys! You want them all to yourself!”
Extra Needs Extra
Your child’s brain is working extra hard in times of change and stress, and they may need extra sleep, food, attention, and affection. There may be regression in certain behaviors that you thought they had mastered such as sleeping through the night, potty training, and hitting. Consider what you can do to help your child with these essential needs. Establish routines to help your child gain a sense of predictability.
Start bedtime routine early and suggest, “Let’s snuggle and read an extra book together before bed tonight.”
When your child’s behavior is causing big problems, you can also recognize and name your own feelings. It can be tricky to find a healthy balance between responding to your child’s needs as well as your own. Young children can’t handle too much disapproval, even when you express it gently. The younger they are, the less they can handle.
“I feel upset when you are not listening.”
It’s easy to slip into “parent vs child” when your child’s behavior is spiraling out of control and causing problems for you. Work to reframe the situation so that you and your child are on the same team and working together against the out-of-control behavior. Young children need a lot of help to develop emotional regulation and solve problems. Acting as a warm, supportive coach, you can model and teach them skills to manage big feelings. And if modeling self-regulation isn’t your strong suit, learn together.
“Let’s work on this problem together. I’m going to take 3 deep breaths. Try it with me.”
Restart the Wrong
You are going to make mistakes. Lots of them. It’s okay. All parents do. A child doesn’t need a perfect parent; they need a present parent. A present parent stays aware when their reactions go off course. Admit when you get it wrong and apologize to your child. Your child can learn from seeing you model how to circle back and restart the wrong.
“I’m sorry I scared you. I was feeling mad. Can we start over again?”
Give your child a quiet, calming space or activity before circling back to problem solve.
Create a place for your child to “just be,” giving them time and a set of comfort items or calm activities as tools to learn to self-soothe. Some children may want your presence and others may want time alone. Activities like sensory bins, a swing or outdoor play area, a sand box, a reading nook with books, a large box to sit in with crayons, or even a soft cushion with a blanket can be a safe space for your child to slow down their big feelings.
“This is a safe place for you to be when you’re feeling upset. Would you like me to stay with you or give you time alone?”
Parents often think of happy moments as the best times to connect with their child, but connecting with your child when they are experiencing negative feelings can be a powerful way to build your relationship. You can’t control what your child feels and when they can feel negative emotions. However, you can anticipate that there will be many negative emotions during times of stress, transition, and change. Preparing yourself to accept and deal with them as they come will give you a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.
There are often opportunities to help a child before their feelings speed out of control. Let’s refer to them as early off-ramps. They are strategies to engage cooperation and introduce more fun into your relationship with your child. Here are a few helpful strategies for you to test out:
Being playful is one of the most effective strategies when you need your child to cooperate. It may feel exhausting at first to use play to get your child to do what you need them to do, but isn’t it also exhausting to respond when they refuse to listen to a direct command? And you still don’t get them to cooperate! Once you get the hang of it, being playful can be both fun and effective.
You can be playful in lots of ways. Here are a few to test out:
- Make objects talk: “I am super-brush! I’m here to save your teeth!”
- Pretend: “The king and queen of sugars are out to make holes in your teeth! You’ve got to stop them!”
- Play ignorant: Pointing a toothbrush to your hair, “Do I brush here?”
Give your child a choice
Offering two options that you are happy with can give your child a sense of power and helps develop their decision-making skills. “Do you want me to play a song or set the timer while you brush your teeth?”
Take swift, quiet action
There are times when swift action needs to be taken as you notice your child’s feelings are moving toward overload. It’s important to act without insulting, threatening, and punishing. “It’s my turn to brush your teeth.”
There are many excellent resources to help you develop new strategies, teach self-regulation, and cope with stress as a parent.
- First Chance for Children offers free one-time or ongoing parent education and coaching. Contact us to get started!
- If you like to read books, pick up a copy of How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. They expand on many of the strategies shared in this article.
- You can find helpful articles, videos, and podcasts on positive discipline and setting limits at Zero to Three
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has created free activities guides for developing self-regulation skills