December 27, 2016

When she was a baby, all I had to do was poke a cool toy in front of her face and she was distracted from her crying.

As she hit the early toddler years, I found that offering a little snack was my easy out when I was desperate:

Crying child: “WAHHHHH!!!

Mother: “Here, have a Cheerio.”

Child: *nom nom nom*

But as she neared three, I found it increasingly difficult to calm my toddler when she was in the crying-so-hard-she’s-gasping-for-air stage. HAVE A CHEERIO. HERE’S AN APPLESAUCE POUCH. LOOK IT’S DANIEL TIGER! LET’S PLAY CATCH! WANNA GO FOR A WALK? LET’S FACETIME AUNTIE JAMIE! …SQUIRREL!

Nothing was working, and she’d cry for what felt like hours. In reality, it was probably under half an hour, but it was torturous. I’d hold her little brother on one side and I’d hold her on the other and she’d just go at it and I would just sit there tracking Ben on my phone like a creepy stalker: Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Leave. Work. Now. Leave. Work. Now. 

Guys, I know I get all sentimental and nostalgic on my blog a lot, but there are definitely rough days. I guess I haven’t found a constructive and encouraging way to talk about them without complaining or entering an unhelpful negative zone, so I don’t usually go into much detail there. Also, I don’t want my kids to hate me in ten years for exposing their less angelic moments here…

But the crying. It’s real. The inconsolable tantrums. They happen. And I have a new favorite trick to calm the crying child down, and I wanted to share it with you just in case it works for you, too. Because when it’s one of those days, it’s these tricks that get you through the day.

Calm a Hysterical Toddler by Telling a Story

Here’s how it works:

You have a child who is approaching the edge. She has already been crying but is now about to enter the land of screaming, sobbing, red-faced, shoulder-shuddering, snot-exploding disaster. You feel helpless, looking around for a toy. She shoves it aside. You offer snacks. She doesn’t seem to hear you. You try making her laugh. It incites greater wrath and higher decibels. Wrong move, Mama.

And then it occurs to you. You just need to get her mind off of the crying, and help her latch onto something else. ANYTHING ELSE. So you start to weave a story. A calming, soothing, gentle story. About anything. Just start with the first object you think of.

“Oh man, did I tell you the crazy story of what happened to me yesterday?” I say with serious eyes and a total Girlfriend, you gotta hear this tone. Eye roll and all. I have no idea what the crazy story is, but anything can be crazy if you frame it the right way.

I hear an intake of breath, and then a shuddery pause. It’s a small window, but I take it. I plow ahead, my voice quiet and as suspenseful as I can make it, “I was driving in the car- you know, in the front, with my sunglasses on. The music was playing and I could hear the voices singing, ‘No more monkeys jumpin’ on the bed!’ The sun was out and I felt kind of warm, but not too hot.”

She is quiet now, watching me closely. It’s all in the details, my friend. Details.

“I came to a stop light, so, well, I did what any person should do: I stopped. I watched the cars going the other way: a black one… a red one… a white one…”

“And a blue one? Did you see a blue one?” she asks.

“Hm… let me think… yes, I think there must have been a blue one,” I answer. She’s into it now, and her chest has stopped heaving. Yes! We’re getting there. I continue, “So I was waiting and waiting and waiting… but the light was still red!”

I act shocked. She looks surprised with me. This is good. She’s with me.

And by the way, all the commas and ellipses are not because I’m super punctuation-happy. It’s how I tell the story: slowly, drawn out, and with lots of pauses. The pauses and lulls in my storytelling seem to pull her into a slow, calm rhythm which is exactly what I’m going for.

“Well, I was ready to keep going, but the light was not turning green. Instead, the cars going the other way just kept going… and going… and going. I watched as a man on a bike went past. He was wearing a helmet and was bent over like this, and he whizzed right past. I saw a mailman go by, and there was even a motorcycle that went vroom vroooooom very loudly, do you know what I mean?”

She nods, still captivated. The details. Keep at it with the details!

She’s calm now. I have to think of a conclusion to my lame/captivating story. And then I think of one. Are you ready for it?

“Finally, after waiting and waiting and waiting… it happened. The light… turned… green. What did that mean?”

“Green means you can GO!” she pipes up.

“Yes! Exactly! So I was finally able to move forward and go to Target. It sure took a lonnnnng wait at that light, but I made it. Quite a story, huh?”

She nods, smiling.

“So. Would you like a snack?”

“Yes, please!”

I am bowing and accepting raging applause in my head. Applause from my nerves and personified emotions. Crisis averted. Thank you, thank you.

You, too, can be the hero of this story. Give it a shot. And hey, if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll have a story to tell. :’D

Storytelling Tip: Use Descriptive Detail

I have learned that the more detailed description you add, the better. I think if you can paint a vivid image in their minds and appeal to all their senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), it helps them forget about their current reality with the sobbing and wet eyes and snot and pulls them into the moment you are describing to them. I go to town with the details, describing what I’m wearing, what the coffee smells like, the buzzing of bees, etc.

This is where the real magic is- in the details, not the actual storyline. I could tell stories about opening a door and finding no one there, about being thirsty and realizing my water bottle was empty, and about noticing that it was a cloudy day. I might introduce it as a crazy story, but it won’t really be. The last thing I want is to rile her up further. But I will make a calm, soothing, and gentle story feel as interesting as I can!

Storytelling. It’s an art worth learning, or at least trying. If it buys you some silence and a calmer child, who cares how bad your story was? Your child will never know, and with practice, you’ll get better. And if you are the parent of a 2-4 year old, my guess is you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice. Lucky you.

3 responses to “How to Calm a Crying Toddler”

  1. Nancy says:

    Fantastic!!! Great role model 🙂

  2. Rachel Kosmatka says:

    Totally works. I used this technique w Josh. He never had random meltdowns, but when he was hurt, if I didn’t stop the crying right away, it could last for a dreadfully long time. I would bring my voice way down, almost to a whisper. I’d lean in close to his ear, suck my breath in and say, “Woah! Do you see that (fill in the blank with whatever happened to be in my field of vision)? I’d tell a small story and, BOOM! No more tears. ❤ it! As he got older, I’d lean in and whisper, “Did you get hurt or did you just get scared?” Always w that same calm whisper. Kids follow your cue. If you respond calmly, it de escalates the situation. Well done, momma! Brilliant technique. This will continue to work for many more years to come.

    • joellen says:

      YES! SO happy to hear it works for another mom, too! And yes, whatever happens to be in your field of vision haha. I have told stories that started with curtains before =P. I need more of your veteran tips!

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