Lessons From the Childrearing Trenches: Pause and Problem-solve--A Handy Tool for Helping Children Get Calm and Cope

On a recent visit to a preschool, I was working with the teachers to come up with strategies to help the children learn to become good problem-solvers. The greatest obstacle to this, the teachers noted, was helping the children remain calm when facing a challenge so they can persevere to solve a problem. They find this is especially difficult for the “big reactors” who tend to go from 0-60 in the blink of an eye. Common tactics, such as deep belly breathing, weren't working as well as the teachers would have liked. They couldn’t get the kids calm enough to even use this soothing tool.

Since I have had some success with the use of cues or mantras for children—a phrase you use repeatedly to throw a monkey-wrench into a detrimental dynamic—I decided to try a new one out with a class of four-year-olds. It is designed to help build self-regulation. I call it Pause-and-Problem-Solve, and it has proven to be quite powerful for helping children regroup in a positive way when a breakdown is brewing. In this newsletter, I share how you might use this tool to encourage your children to become good problem-solvers. Here are the key steps:

  • Start by acknowledging that all of us lose it sometimes. Share an example of a time when you had a meltdown out of frustration or disappointment. This, in and of itself, can be a very powerful experience because your child sees that everyone has these moments, even adults. Then, ask your child to think about a recent time when she fell apart in the face of a challenge. If she has a hard time recalling one, share some examples you have observed. Just be sure you recount it very matter-of-factly, without any tone of criticism or negativity: “Remember when you were so disappointed and mad when you wanted grape juice at the restaurant and they didn’t have any. You were so upset that we had to leave. That made you even more mad and sad. That was a really tough day.”

  • Explain that when we lose it, our brains get flooded with feelings and we can’t use the thinking part of our brains. Refer back to the examples of times you both lost it and how this made it hard to solve the problem and just increased frustration and distress.

  • Ask your child to share a story of a time when he faced a challenge and he was able to muscle through it—how he calmed himself and persevered. You want to remind him that he has the power to persevere and how doing so resulted in something really positive for him. For example, rebuilding a tower of blocks that fell; finishing a difficult puzzle even though it took a lot of tries to find the correct spaces; or, working hard to figure out how to balance on his scooter after he almost gave up.

  • Teach your child about Pause-and-Problem-Solve. Explain that it is your job as a parent to help her learn to be a great problem-solver, and that you have a fun idea about how to do that. When she faces a challenge and starts to fall apart, you’ll use the cue “Pause and Problem-Solve” to give her a chance to take a little break to calm and regroup so she can use her amazing brain to come up with a solution. This worked great for parents I recently worked with who had the four-year-old who lost it when she couldn't have the grape juice she wanted. The next time she was faced with a similar situation, using "pause and problem-solve" enabled her to get calm, choose an alternative, and stay at the restaurant instead of having to take a walk outside when all her friends and family were still at dinner together. Her parents were then able to remind her of how great the outcome was when she was able to pause and problem-solve. This reinforced the power of the tool and went a long way toward helping this reactive little girl develop a stronger ability for self-regulation.

This tool’s positive impact is based on the way it is presented to children—that you are a helper and are being supportive, not reactive or judgmental. It inherently conveys that you have confidence in your child that he can master the challenges he faces. Thus, the association made with this strategy is positive and more likely to work. Further, the beauty of this system is that it is not just a great tool for kids, it can also be very useful for those of us, adults, who are big reactors and need help putting on the breaks.

Don't Fear Your Child's Feelings

Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong”, and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. 

Four-year-old, Trevor, had become very oppositional after his baby brother, Joseph, was born; he was also very negative about Joseph, saying “mean” things about him and asking over and over when Joseph would be going back to the hospital.  Initially, Trevor’s parents reacted punitively, telling Trevor he was not being a good big brother, and putting him repeatedly in time-outs. Trevor’s anger towards his brother and his overall defiance only increased. Further, Trevor started refusing to drink from a cup, insisting on a bottle, which really worked his parents’ last nerve. Annoyed, they told Trevor he was a big boy, not a baby, and they would not give him the bottle; a power struggle ensued, only escalating Trevor’s negativity and refusal to use “big boy” utensils. 

It is the most natural reaction to feel distressed when our children express negative feelings, whether it is anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness or fear (especially when it is directed toward a sibling). These emotions make us uncomfortable, so we either overreact, or minimize them.  But these feelings are a natural part of being human that everyone experiences. So don’t fear the feelings; they aren’t “good” or “bad”—they just are. When adults ignore or try to talk children out of their difficult feelings (“But you love your baby brother—he is looking up to you!”), we are sending the message that their feelings are not acceptable. This doesn’t make the feelings go away, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for the child…and the parent. This rarely makes anyone particularly happy.

When you acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings, it opens the door to helping them learn to cope with them in healthy ways which will serve them well in all aspects of their life as they grow.  Your job as a parent is not to protect your child from difficult emotions—that doesn’t lead to happiness in the long run. Learning to value and give voice to the full range of human emotions we all feel in does.

In the case of Trevor, since nothing was working, and things were only getting worse, Trevor’s parents knew a course correction was in order. They took a step back and looked at the situation from Trevor’s perspective; they acknowledged what a big change it was to have a new baby in the family and validated Trevor’s feelings of jealousy at having to share attention with Joseph. They stopped insisting that Trevor love the new baby, and gave him a bottle (which Trevor gave up within 2 days once it was no longer a hot-button issue). His parents continued to set appropriate limits but did so without shaming Trevor, or making him feel bad about his feelings. They focused on Trevor’s behavior—what was and was not acceptable—and imposed natural consequences (we don’t hit people–people have feelings; you can hit this object). Within a few weeks there was a clear reduction in Trevor’s acting-out behavior; he even became more loving toward his new brother.

For more on this topic, go to: First Feelings- https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/294-first-feelings-the-foundation-of-healthy-development-starting-from-birth