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How to Comfort an Upset Child

by Molly Thompson

Nobody likes having to deal with an upset child. If your little one is hurt, scared or sad, your heart breaks for her. If she's mad, frustrated or having a tantrum, it can make you mad, frustrated or a little nuts. You want to be there for her and comfort her, but the best way to do that will depend primarily on two things: why she's upset and how old she is. Well, okay, there's a third thing: how you manage your own emotions at the time. Be calm, soothing and open-minded when trying to comfort your upset child.

Try to find out why your child is upset, because that affects how you should respond and what will be most effective in trying to comfort him. Take him aside and sit down to talk on his level, physically and emotionally. Be sure he knows he has your complete attention while he's telling you about the friend at day care who wouldn't share his new toy, his inability to hit the ball at T-ball or the "owie" he got when he fell off his new scooter. Even if you've got 20 other things you need to get done, make yourself take a break and focus on him for a few minutes.

Listen carefully to what your child says, and also pay attention to what she's not saying. If she says she's upset because "she hates her stupid school," it's your mission -- and you must "choose to accept it" -- to read between the lines. Maybe she's struggling with her alphabet, or the teacher reprimanded her in front of everybody, or she didn't get to use one of the new jump ropes at play time. Patiently listen and try to draw her out so you know what kind of problem you're dealing with -- a minor slight or something requiring a full-fledged Mama Grizzly response.

Use simple statements that validate your child's emotions and signal to him that you were listening and heard what he said. Sometimes just knowing someone hears his pain or frustration goes a long way toward comforting an upset child. Tell him you understand he is upset that he didn't get picked to take home the class fish this weekend, and you know that is disappointing. Don't make excuses or blame others, just let him know his feelings are natural and understandable. Give him permission to feel sad for a little bit or even cry a little, and give him a big hug. Then gently shift gears into helping him think of ways to get over the hurt and refocus his attention on another activity or friend.

Help your child develop coping mechanisms and tools to handle upsetting situations and comfort herself. No, you can't recommend a spa day or a couple of glasses of your favorite Cabernet. Yes, you can teach her to take a few deep breaths, try to find the silver lining in a situation and suggest she find something she might enjoy to distract her or lift her spirits. Physical activity is a great option for young ones trying to work through an "upset" -- friendly wrestling with Dad, going on a walk with Mom or playing on the playground gives them both a physical and emotional boost.

Tip

  • Remember, at this age your child probably doesn't have the tools to verbalize a lot of her emotions. Help her find a way to explain how she feels, but keep your discussion to a minimum -- she needs validation and a hug a lot more than discussions of the kind you might be able to have with an upset tween.

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

Photo Credits

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