Family, Kids & Relationships

What to do if your child refuses to use coping skills when upset

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There are plenty of tips out there for calming your kiddo down during a tantrum. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely tried some of them already—deep breaths, distractions, grounding exercises.

But what happens if your child simply refuses to try any of the coping strategies, further continuing the chaos? This is a common reaction for overwhelmed/agitated/emotional kids, so you’re not alone!

These next-level ideas can help when kids don’t take well to emotional regulation strategies. As a bonus, these new tools may cause you to think deeper about ways to support your kiddo (not just stop their tantrums).

What to do if your child says no or refuses to use coping skills when upset

  • Calm yourself first
  • Give them space to blow off steam
  • Move slowly and speak quietly
  • Narrate the facts
  • Take an unexpected action
  • Practice with a game

Calm yourself first

Sometimes when we immediately spring a coping tool on an upset child, it becomes yet another demand that overwhelms their system—especially when your voice or body language seems stressed, anxious, annoyed, or urgent. No wonder they don’t want to comply!

So first use one of the coping tools on yourself, like taking five deep breaths and then checking on your own stress level. Emotions can be contagious, and your self-regulation might help your child begin to find a calmer state.

Give them space to blow off steam

Stop trying to calm your child down, and focus on finding a safe place to let them thrash or yell for a while. Maybe it’s their bedroom if you’re at home, and you sit in the hallway. Or if you’re out, park the stroller in a quieter spot, while you stand a few feet away.

Then check in every few minutes, saying calmly, “Let me know when you’re ready for my help.”

Move slowly and speak quietly

When going toward your child to check on them during a tantrum, consciously slow down all the movements of your body as well as the pace of your voice, and make sure your voice is as quiet and comforting as it can be. That way you are less likely to be adding on to the turmoil that your child is feeling inside.

If your child tenses up or lashes out when you start to talk or move closer, just pause, take a step back, and continue being a calm and quiet presence from a distance. Keep waiting and then trying again until your child is ready for you to engage.

Narrate the facts

If it’s not helping when you try to validate your child’s feelings in a general way (“I understand that you’re very angry right now”), instead keep it concrete and describe the factual details of what’s happening.

Act like a calm commentator without any judgment: “Your fists are clenched and you’re kicking the stroller.”

If they’re listening, try to relate it to something that your kid is interested in: “What would happen if a giant robot was out of control and kicked our car like that? How would you reprogram it?”

Let this lead to a discussion about how certain feelings make you want to act a certain way, but there are ways to control your own body so you don’t hurt anyone or anything.

Take an unexpected action

Start ripping paper, crushing a toilet paper tube, popping bubble wrap, or folding a napkin into a tiny square. Rather than asking your child to try it (which may be met with stubborn defiance), just do it yourself without saying anything.

Narrate how it makes you feel: “Doing this helps me feel calmer because I’m taking my angry energy and pushing it hard into the paper.” Then be patient, and see if they eventually come around to trying your strategy or making up a new one.

Practice with a game

On a regular basis, when your child is calm, you can work on strategies for anger/fear management. But turn it into a fun game:

  • Press imaginary buttons on your robot/rocket ship “control panel” to make yourselves move in different ways: slow/fast, loud/quiet, shaky/smooth, etc.
  • Tickle/poke each other and practice saying “stop” or “shield up,” and the other person has to take their hands away as fast as possible.
  • Zap/stomp tiny monsters (pretend the monsters are anything that scares them in real life).

Then the next time your child is starting to lose control, use the same phrases from the game you played.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.