Emotional or physical distress can add to the challenges of caring for children in a service setting. Toddlers' brains are not yet developed to rationalize situations and regulate the emotions they feel. The following article provides strategies you can use to comfort and soothe a toddler.
Strategies To Comfort A Crying Toddler
It helps to first take a step back and understand what caused the tears.
1. Get down to the child’s level.
2. Acknowledge the emotion Say phrases like, “I see you/hear you/I understand.” Feeling heard is the first step in any conflict resolution.
3. Name the emotion - If possible name the emotion for the child. “I see you felt bad when I said we need to leave right now.”
4. Offer a solution - You can say, “We leave in 5 minutes, you can finish the puzzle now, or you can leave it here on the table and complete it when we get back. What do you want?”Allow the child some time to process what you said rather than simply rushing him along the day.
Other strategies you can try include:
- Check For Physical Causes
The first thing one can do is to find out if the toddler is in any physical pain or discomfort. They may be in pain if they have hurt themselves somewhere; if they have a high temperature, they may have an illness that is causing them distress. Even if there aren’t any outward signs of illness, a headache or earache could be causing them to cry. If you’re not sure, check with your centre nurse or call your community health nurse to rule out physical distress in the child.
- Use HALT
If the child does not seem to be hurt or in pain, use the HALT acronym to check for non-physical causes. Like a baby, a toddler cannot express distress in words and therefore may resort to crying when they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. See if a snack or a rest helps the toddler to settle down. You could offer some quiet time like listening to music or reading a story together. Often just the experience of staying close and being calm can ease a child’s distress. Look for ways that the toddler knows that you are still there and with them; this might be by giving them a soothing hug, saying something reassuring in a soft tone of voice or maintaining eye contact with them. On the other hand, if a toddler is angry, take them somewhere safe to calm down.
- Change The Context
Sometimes a child may just need a change of scenery to calm down. Try taking the toddler outdoors for a walk or go to the park to feed the ducks, if you have the time and opportunity.
- Address Frustration
One of the most common reasons why toddlers cry is to express frustration. According to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, toddlers are at an age when they are increasingly driven to assert their autonomy. However, their physical abilities like gross and fine motor skills are still developing which is why it is not always easy to exert control over objects and situations. If this is the case with a crying toddler, try to find a solution together. For example, ‘You’re frustrated because the blocks keep falling over. Let’s try again together’. Naming an emotion lets the child know that you understand their feelings and goes a long way in making them feel better.
- Manage Tantrums
When crying and frustration are part of a tantrum, educators may need some focused strategies to manage the child’s behaviour. Toddlers are particularly prone to tantrums since they are still at an early stage of social, emotional and language development. They can’t always communicate their needs and feelings, including the desire to do things for themselves. As such tantrums are one of the ways that young children express their feelings of frustration and try to change what’s going on around them.
You can adopt several strategies to ease the crying and raging associated with tantrums. Carry the child somewhere else if needed so that they and the other children are not hurt. Once the child is in a safe place, calmly acknowledge the emotion they’re expressing – speak slowly and in a low voice. Stay quietly with the child until they calm down. Avoid reasoning with the toddler, not only because they may not yet understand natural consequences but also because logic is unlikely to reach a brain in the throes of turbulent emotions. Instead, touch or hold them if they want you to, or give them more physical space if they need it. Indeed you can also try a ‘paradoxical instruction’ which involves giving the toddler permission to scream and shout until they’re ready to stop. For example, ‘You can yell louder if you want to. It’s a big park and we’re not bothering anyone. However, be sure to comfort the child when they’ve calmed down. Also, see if the episode can offer any learning opportunities. For example, when the child is calm, you could say something like, ‘Did you throw the puzzle because you were angry when it wouldn’t fit? What else could you have done?’. Identifying the reason for distressful feelings and offering constructive ways to cope will go a long way in helping toddlers understand there are other ways of dealing with stressful situations.
- Model Emotional Regulation
Since crying is an expression of emotions like distress and frustration, teaching children self-regulation skills can be a great long-term emotional management strategy. Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and things happening around you. Though this sounds rather complex, even babies have the ability to regulate their emotions – for example, by sucking their fingers for comfort or looking away from their caregivers if they need a break from attention or are getting tired. Thus self-regulation can be taught to toddlers in age-appropriate ways so that they get used to the practice of managing their own emotions. One of the most effective ways to do this is for educators to model positive reactions to stress. So if a printer is not working in the room, you can for instance say, ‘I’m worried that if this printer does not work, we will be late in our art activity. If I take some deep breaths, it will help me stay calm and later I can go and get help’
- Support Self-regulation With The Right Language
Use music, story time, role play and puppetry to help children identify and understand different types of emotions. For example, makeup songs about different emotions; for example follow up, “When you’re happy and you know it…”, with variations like “When you’re worried/sad/curious and you know it…”. Incorporate emotional learning into routines and rituals as well. For example, as children come in the morning, have them say how they are feeling and then invite the rest of the class how they might respond to a particular feeling. So if a child says they feel scared, a friend could give a hug or if someone says they feel happy, a mate could give a hi-five. Later in the day, support children in identifying their own emotional states – “it looks like you are feeling tired; what can we do to make you feel better?” – before suggesting perhaps a nap. All these are great ways of giving toddlers the language to identify and understand their emotions; the easier they find to express their emotional states in words, the less there will be a need of crying.
- Dig Deeper
Sometimes distressed behaviour in a child may not be just a way of acting out but indicate a deeper worry. Try to find out if the toddler is anxious about something – perhaps a new baby at home or the prospect of a grandmother going away. Transitions like starting daycare or moving to a new room may also lead to children crying more than usual since this is their way of expressing their anxiety. If a toddler seems to be suffering from separation anxiety, use strategies to make drop-off times easier for both parents and the child. Give the child lots of love and reassurance so that they feel secure and know that they can count on your support. One great way is to tell the children that you are their “School Mama.” And if they ever need a mama hug, they know they can come to you for one. So the next time a child cries and says, “I miss my Mama,” you can respond by saying, “Well since I’m your school mama can I give you a good Mama Hug?”. They may not only feel better but even learn that when feeling low, they can always reach out for emotional support, like by saying, “Hey School Mama, I need a hug!”
However, if you think a toddler is exhibiting more than usual symptoms of distress like crying, and you have done everyone you could think of, have a word with the family – it could indicate deep-seated emotional problems and need support from a counsellor.
- Avoid Any Physical Punishment
Above all, do not shake or smack a crying child. Not only is any form of physical punishment completely illegal, but it does absolutely nothing to stop the distressed behaviour either at that moment or in future. For the times when you feel emotionally overwhelmed or unable to cope, look for help. Reach out to a fellow educator or talk to your leader/administrator if you can step out for some downtime. It is crucial that you take care of your own mental and emotional health on a regular basis so that you can respond to the needs of your learners with more patience and purpose.
Phases To Say To Comfort a CHild
- I am here for you.
- I understand it's difficult/hard for you.
- It is okay to be upset.
- I am right here next to you.
- I will be here when you calm down.
- It is okay to feel upset, but, it's not okay to...
- Let us breathe in breathe out (show belly breathing)
- Here, punch a pillow and get that anger out. (proceed to demonstrate)
- Can you tell me what happened?
- This was not what you wanted. (Acknowledgement helps to change the direction of the tantrum to solution seeking.)
- That is bad, I am here for you.
- You look mad, tell me, what is happening?
- Let us start over. (count to 3 together)
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- Coping With A Crying Toddler, Government Wales
- Times In Helping Toddlers Calm Down, Raising Children
- Tantrums, Raising Children
- 14 Steps To Stop The Tears, Just Reed Blog