Dear Tammy,

I would like to help my children calm down when they get upset, but I find myself getting all upset with them, and then being no help to anyone at all. Do you have any advice?


Looking to Be Calm

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Dear Looking to Be Calm,

Your first instinct to try and help your children calm down when they are upset is coming from a place of love and concern for your children. However, the act of teaching children to calm themselves is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. The question here is how do we teach our children to calm themselves?

Let us first examine why some people (children included) have more heightened negative emotions than others. People who experience great levels of anxiety, sad thoughts, obsessive thoughts, etc. have learned to treat thoughts as absolute truths. In reality, however, our thoughts are actually subjective. In order to enjoy maximum “wellbeing” we must recognize that millions of thoughts are constantly passing through us throughout the day, and we DO NOT have to engage with every thought.

We have no control over the thoughts that come in, but we can decide whether we will take them seriously or not. For example, sometimes when my children are fighting, I have thoughts going through my mind such as, “What type of adults will they grow up to be? I can’t stand this! Can’t they just get along?” I used to take all those thoughts very seriously, and consequently raise my voice, thinking that I must take serious action before they really do grow up to be this way.

What I came to realize however, is that NONE of those thoughts in that example were helpful. I get to ask myself if any given thought is helpful or unhelpful. If it is helpful, I choose to continue thinking about it. If not, I DON’T fight it. Rather, I wait for it to settle. I like to use a misty water metaphor. When you pour a cup of water from the sink into a clear cup, you see a cloudiness. You can’t get the cloudiness out, but you CAN wait for the cloudiness to settle. The water is clear by nature, it’s just clouded by mist. We too, are clear, wise, and happy by nature, and are just clouded by our thoughts. If we wait for our thoughts to settle, we can enjoy a calm existence much more often.

It is also important for us to be aware that all human beings have a “low mood” sometimes.

When our kids are in a low mood, we have two choices: to resent their behaviors or to recognize that they are acting out their insecurities. Whenever any human being acts in a hurtful way, they are acting out their insecurities. If we are able to truly see that, we will be able to be more compassionate, and less resentful. What follows suit is calmer children.

So next time your child gets upset, realize that he or she is simply in a low mood. Show the child that you are not alarmed or concerned because it happens to everyone. Then don’t take your own thoughts too seriously about how disastrous the situation is, because that is not a helpful thought at all. Once you wait for your own thoughts to settle, you will be able to make wise choices about how to compassionately support your child. That can come in many different forms, depending on the situation: Giving space, letting the child know you are there for him or her if they need anything, offering a distraction, etc.)

Good luck, and if you can do this, you are on to a whole new calm sense of wellbeing.


By Tammy Sassoon, M.s.ed
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One of the differences between average parents and expert parents is the ability to delve into the child’s head and understand what motivates him or her.

In order for you to really make your child WANT to listen to you, a deep understanding of human motivation is required. “Nothing motivates my child” are words that I often hear from parents. Actually, we are all motivated by something. One of the differences between average parents and expert parents is the ability to delve into the child’s head and understand what motivates him or her.

Even Adults Need To Be Motivated

Imagine that you are about to pull into a parking spot that you were patiently waiting for and someone quickly takes it from you. The guy who is about to steal your spot tells you that he has to run to a dentist’s appointment, but you know that you are also running late to your own doctor’s appointment. You are upset and not ready to give away the spot.

Then, the guy says, “Please, lady if I don’t get my teeth taken care of now, it will take me two weeks to get another appointment. I’ll give you $200.00 for the spot.” Suddenly, you have no problem giving up the parking spot that was rightfully yours. Does this mean that you did not want the spot? No, it means that you wanted the $200.00 more than you wanted the spot. Our children are also gaining something by being oppositional. (Attention, entertainment, power, stimulation, etc.) Our job is to look deeply at each child, and figure out what he or she wants even more than to misbehave.

YOU Needed $200 to Give Up Something Valuable, What Does Your CHILD Need?

Though the parking spot was very valuable to you, the $200.00 was more valuable than the parking spot that you wanted. A child who is engaged in any form of misbehavior is indeed gaining something valuable from participating in the negative act. You need to figure out what is the equivalent of $200 to the child who will not give up being defiant?

What is the definition of Motivation

Motivation is the driving force within each of us that makes us choose one behavior over another. Every child is driven by different motivators. Some children get excited about being praised, while others would rather have the chance to exercise power. Some other motivators are information, acknowledgement, tangible rewards, and relationships. While most people have somewhat of a need for all of these, each of us has an individual motivational profile. That means that we each have individually intricate interests, putting more weight on some of these motivating factors and less weight on others.

Design Discipline Strategies Based on Your Child’s Motivational Profile

If you are working with a child who only cares a little bit about acknowledgement yet loves relationships, you would need to use a relationship factor as a reward in motivating this child. Let’s say that this child is having great difficulty doing his homework each night. As an insightful mentor, you might tell the child that if he completes his homework for 2 nights in a row by 8:30, he will get to go on a 20 minute walk with you to the supermarket. He craves that relationship with you so much that he becomes motivated to do his homework, which is something difficult for him. You have created a situation where it becomes more worthwhile for the child to behave than not to behave.

In contrast, if you have a different child who is struggling with homework and loves acknowledgement you can motivate him differently than the first child we discussed. You might inform him that if he completes his homework for 2 nights in a row by 8:30 you will post a certificate on the refrigerator saying that he earned the right to stay up for an extra hour that night. To him that’s exciting because his accomplishment will be acknowledged by anyone passing by.

I always find it helpful to work on a practical assignment, so feel free to accept this upon yourself this month. Think of a specific behavior that one of your children struggles with, and based on his or her motivational profile, design your own plan to help change that behavior.

Tammy Sassoon is a behavioral therapist and parenting coach. She gives live workshops as well as “train by phone” telecourses to teachers, principals, therapists, and parents, in order to help them gain compliance from even the most oppositional children. She can be contacted through her website, www.tammysassoon.com.

By Tammy Sassoon
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