That Was Hard
“That was hard” is a judgement-free way to acknowledge that your child’s struggles are real, powerful, and valid. It shows that you have empathy for how they are feeling and strengthens your trust and connection.
At some point, all children will have a tantrum or meltdown. As adults, we often struggle to understand how we can help our children navigate these emotional firestorms. Sometimes, we can prevent them by being proactive and making sure that we watch for hunger and sleep cues, or the need for outside play. But tantrums will still happen. So what can we do? How do we help our children come through these emotions and out the other side?
Just today, James was playing independently and I’d opened the laptop to quickly map out this article. Before I knew it, James was throwing blocks across the room while shouting, “I want CHEESE!” I had totally lost track of time and missed giving him lunch!
I called back, “Cheese! Lunch! I’m so sorry that you’ve been waiting. That was hard for you.”
Minutes later, he was calm and we were eating sandwiches together at the counter. The outburst had been triggered by his need for food (and a nap), and it reminded me of when I am trapped in a traffic jam without food and water and I want to shout at cars who aren’t alternating as they merge.
I started thinking about how the words and actions of others can help us all get through physical and emotional crisis points. As adults, we hopefully don’t experience tantrums anymore, but what might push us to the edge? What can we draw from our own experiences that can help us help our child?
I immediately thought of the day my son (James’ dad) was born. The labour was short, but it was both physically and emotionally challenging. Nearing the end, I could have easily spiralled into a place of fear and lashed out. One of my midwives sat on the ground and held my foot. Her hand was calm and cool. She said, “I am your anchor.” I was overwhelmed by the power of labour, but I felt deep down that I must be okay if she was this calm and still. My husband mirrored her actions. They were both fully present. When the strongest and longest contraction was finished, I heard the midwife say, “That was hard.” My husband repeated, “That was hard.” And I repeated it. We were still. We were connected. The storm had passed. No one told me to be quiet or disturbed my personal space. It was hard. It felt good to have that acknowledged. I had made it through and out the other side, without pressure or judgement.
Think about your own memories of intense emotional experiences as a child and an adult. On a day of tantrums or meltdowns, your empathy can help you and your child positively navigate this experience together.
If feelings of fear and confusion rise up within you as your toddler has a tantrum, remember, beneath all the screaming is a little person who is just as shocked and confused as you. Remember those times when you were faced with a similar moment of crisis. Was someone there to be your anchor and express, “That was hard?”
Be aware of your physical presence as well. If you get too close to a child or hug them too tightly when they’re in the middle of a meltdown, adding “shhh…you’re okay,” might break connection with the child. They might feel controlled rather than calmed. Focus on being calm yourself. Don’t take this personally. As the parent or caregiver, this is your time to hold steady and be the anchor in the storm, and provide a safe space for this child’s big feelings. There’s no motive to a meltdown — it’s all “reptile brain”. After the stormy tantrum has passed, you can say, “That was hard.” You connect.
More tantrums and big emotions will come in future. Expect it. Kids are going to keep having big feelings as they grow. It’s healthy for them to be really angry and to feel free to express that anger. It’s not helpful for anyone to say “you’re okay” when the child is really not okay. Think about how would you feel if someone at work countered your well-founded anger with “you’re okay” and gave you a hug or a pat. You’d probably feel more angry or patronized.
So, when your child is lying on the floor screaming, stay present and breathe deeply. Remember your own struggles and lessons learned. See the child as a person who needs to vent big hard feelings rather than thinking of them as a challenging child. The child is not the behaviour. Squat down at their level and breathe.
Keep the area safe. Say, “I’m here to keep you safe. I see that you want to throw and kick. I won’t let you hurt things. I won’t let you get hurt.” You can block hits or hold the child back from getting hurt or move fragile objects out of the way. “You’re still mad, but I can’t let you throw the glass.” Move the child to a safe space with pillows and soft things to hit, if possible. She might shout at you or others. You don’t need to do anything other than acknowledge her anger. Try not to add your own feelings of anger or anxiety or frustration to the situation or to restrain the child too much. Try to be as open and empathetic as possible.
The storm will pass. This is not the time to debrief. No high level functioning was involved in those big emotions.
Three words might be all you need afterwards to sum up the emotions and help you both to move on. No judgement, just connection.
“That was hard.”