When Your Child Can’t Calm Down

I have two children; a kindergartener and a preschooler. Although they look astoundingly like my husband, they are carbon copies of two distinct sides of my personality. Unfortunately, the worst parts in my opinion.

My daughter, the youngest, is a fearless dare devil, with an attitude to match. She is well known for finger wagging and a stern voice when she wants to get her point across, or an ear-splitting wail that calls to mind Shriekly from Care Bears. More often than not she is a goofy, smiling, potty-mouth spouting little princess, in love with all things unicorns and glitter. But she is increasingly becoming that fabled punishment for every bit of sass I ever gave to my mother. ‘Got my drama from my mama’ indeed.

My eldest on the other hand has always had an above average ability to express himself, but a somewhat below average tolerance for frustration. He’s tall for his age, well spoken, and has the eidetic memory of an elephant, or Sheldon Cooper depending on how charitable I feel about his ability to remind me of the PRECISE wording of promises I’ve made in a moment of parental weakness. So he looks and talks older than he truly is, and his emotional intelligence is often a major struggle in our house because although he appears as though he’s above his grade level, emotionally he is still far younger and gets easily overwhelmed. Where my daughter received my stubbornness and single minded focus (and penchant for a quick temper), my son inherited my perfectionism, fear of failure and a brain that sometimes works faster than his emotions can keep up with.

And now, they are home. Together. Always. ALL THE TIME.

So we’ve resorted to some extreme measures just to try and keep things fresh, to help break up the days. To keep them from assaulting each other. To try and not go crazy ourselves.

Some days, we make mistakes in this effort.

While watching his favourite show (THANK YOU NETFLIX), my son witnessed the characters all have a camp out and sleepover in their living room and he immediately began to ask for the privilege of him and his sister sleeping in his play tent in his room overnight. An innocent request. But already, I was wincing as sleep is a make or break event in our house. A sleep schedule has been key to my sanity since they were born and they thrive on routine and a regular amount of hours of shut eye. Any deviation typically spells a few days of playing catch up, filled with tantrums and increased whining and then sleep refusal. Pretty much a sh*t-storm waiting to happen.

Any thought of a change to the sleeping arrangements makes me shudder with dread. A sleepover sounds innocent, but it means a different environment, another person in bed to cause distractions, and the novelty of a tent over their heads.

What could possibly go wrong?

My brain yelled: “EVERYTHING!”

Which is conveniently the same answer I would give when asked the question of what I would do to make my kids happy.

I’m assuming you’ve already guessed how this ends.

The tent is set up, a veritable truckload of blankets and pillows are lovingly constructed by my husband into the plushest sleeping surface two eager munchkins have ever had the privilege to jump on. Stuffies are gathered, blankies and sippy cups set up, and my two babies are wiggling with delight side by side with Anna, Elsa and Lightning McQueen keeping them snug. We read stories with a light machine casting swirling stars across the tent’s surface and my sweet little cherubs make whispered promises to be good.

No, we won’t fight, they vow. Yes, we will go to sleep, they nod. No Mommy, you won’t regret this, they promise.

We wish them goodnight, turn on our monitors, and head upstairs to try and enjoy a bit of quiet time together on the couch, listening to the tinny sound of giggles and whispered stories through the speakers. It’s adorable. It fills us with the gooey gratitude of parenthood that soaks into your chest and leaves you warm and content. We smile sweetly at each other in that dreamy sort of way that parents do when they’re briefly enjoying the music of innocence and childhood, admiring their handiwork at bringing such angelic precious beings into the world.

It lasted 35 minutes before it all came tumbling down.

One child needed to pee. One child wanted to throw stuffed animals. The other wanted to sing a song, but the musical selection was rejected by their less than appreciative audience and a battle ensued about the merits of the soundtracks of Trolls 2 versus Frozen 2, and no clear winner was ever decided because it devolved into screaming tears. This caused the eldest to retreat to his bed, claiming the need for space and alone time, which made the youngest inconsolable that she was now alone in the tent and her brother HAD TO COME BACK AND SLEEP BESIDE HER.

We intervened half a dozen times with various strategies to no avail. We coaxed, we calmed, we threatened and bribed. And by the time I’d made the trip up and down the stairs enough that my fitness watch congratulated me on reaching my stair climbing goal, I was done. They were done. I was soothing one who was sobbing and being ignored rudely by the other who refused to make eye contact.

So the tent came down and the real fun began.

My son had the most epic tantrum of his entire life. I’m talking full on screaming, inconsolable, manic rage. Door slamming, nearly choking with the ferocity of his yells and unwilling to accept help from anyone.

My daughter is sad, tearful and clinging, but easily transferred to bed and quieted with a cuddle and the realization she is just exhausted and does indeed want to sleep. But my son?

He’s gone. He’s not himself. He can’t find his way back.

What little comprehension he has about losing a privilege when he acts poorly has flown out the window and was probably on a transatlantic flight by that point. My husband is trying to explain to him why he lost his tent for the night, trying to instruct him to calm down, to lower his voice, to not hit and yell and scream. He’s trying to negotiate with the terrorist.

But he is past the point of logic. He cannot hear anything we are saying to him and keeps repeating the same few words, shrieking his misery at us again and again. And I know that he is well past his window of tolerance.

The Window of Tolerance (WOT) is a psychology term coined by a fellow named Dan Siegel, and it basically describes the optimal zone for our best sort of coping skills. In the WOT, our environment and our internal resources are in good balance, and we’ve got the perfect amount of feeling and physical arousal needed for us to learn, to stay engaged and to balance our emotions with our logic. It’s the sweet spot of stress. It’s being alert and challenged, but not overwhelmed. It’s being calm, but not falling asleep with boredom. It’s being present and able to tolerate whatever is happening around us.

Get ready for some science!

All of this is dictated by our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Imagine your body is a bit like a car and you’ve got your gas pedal (the sympathetic nervous system), which revs the engine up. It’s in charge of giving you energy, starting that heart pumping, and getting you through a crisis. Your brakes (the parasympathetic nervous system) obviously slow you down, bring you down a few gears, and are meant to stop you from overheating or driving too fast around those corners. You need both, but too much of one or the other can make for a bumpy ride. So your body is always trying to keep you in some sort of balance and keep you on the road, driving safely. It wants you to drive within the speed limit and between the lines, within that WOT.

Go too fast – as in hit the gas too hard, or experience too much stress and we slip into hyper-arousal. Fight or Flight mode. Panic, fear, anger, explosions of behaviour and anxiety. You’re at risk of losing control of the car and spinning out entirely.

Hit the brakes too much and we go into hypo-arousal. This is like the Freeze part of our stress response. Now you’re not even going anywhere. You feel despondent, unmotivated, with low energy. Spaced out. Zoning. You’re numb and just idling in the middle of the road.

Your body wants balance and to keep things regulated, so it is always working to tap a bit of the gas and then a bit of the brakes, and with a healthy nervous system, you can keep in your window of tolerance fairly well for most of the day with a bit of up and down.  

But my 5 year old doesn’t know how to drive.

He can’t even reach the pedals.

I’ve seen him drive a Power Wheel. I don’t trust him behind the wheel of anything bigger than a tricycle.

And yet he’s in the driver’s seat of the most complicated transportation system known to man; a human body. And he is so far into hyperarousal, he can’t even find the keys.

Knowing this piece of information helped me to quietly send my husband to tuck my daughter in while I helped my son’s parasympathetic nervous system kick in. I helped him find the brakes. How?

By helping his nervous system.

I shut off the lights. I closed the door to his room. I sat on his bed. I didn’t argue with him, raise my voice, or add to his screaming with my own words. I opened my arms in an offer of a hug and told him, in a calm, low, steady voice, that if he wanted to talk, I was ready, but only when he was able to talk calmly.

He carried on for another minute of two, but without anyone arguing with him, with no more external noises, lights or triggers, his body couldn’t keep pressing the gas pedal because no extra fuel was being added to the tank. We all run out of gas eventually – our body (especially a small one), can only create so many stress hormones until it runs out, and I set the stage that when he did run dry, he could collapse into my arms and I took him the rest of the way back to his window of tolerance.

I breathed deep and slow and he unconsciously started mimicking me. I named his feelings for him so he didn’t have to fight to feel heard. I let him tell me what happened in his own words, and quietly asked him what he thought I should do, as a Mommy, based on how he had acted – but I could only do this once he was no longer hysterical, once his little heart wasn’t pounding and he wasn’t flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Reducing the external stimulus and letting him run out of steam helped him get back into that window of tolerance on his own with just a little bit of help on my side.

He wisely acknowledged that he should lose his tent because he wasn’t being respectful. He asked if he could apologize to me and his father, which we graciously accepted and the issue was put the bed and so was he. He wasn’t happy, and he knew I wasn’t either, but I told him plainly that this issue was done and dealt with, and we would not revisit it until the morning. He eventually hiccupped himself sadly to sleep.

I have worked on this process with him as soon as I started seeing signs of his anxiety and difficulty processing larger feelings and frustrations. He knows what a breathing exercise is. He knows that he has a couple things he can ask for when he needs to calm down (a hug, his blankies, private space, to hold my hands). We even had code words that he can use to tell me what’s happening to him in his brain or in his body, so he doesn’t get frustrated trying to explain when he’s already overwhelmed. So these strategies might not work for all, and they admittedly can take some time to build on, but the key is to build them when you know everyone is well within their window of tolerance.

A lot of parents (and adults too) try to learn new skills or fix problems when they are in either hyper or hypo-arousal, and this might be why many strategies don’t click. But knowing about the WOT helps me know when I can possibly be successful convincing someone to stay calm, or use logic on them, or when I need to switch tactics and use calming strategies, mindfulness, or reduce their stressors.

In an adult, we can use certain strategies to expand our WOT, and there’s way more to say on the subject – but try keeping this general idea in the back of your mind next time you’re faced with someone who seems to be far beyond their ability to tolerate a situation. Or even yourself!

Please share your best strategies for helping to bring yourself back to your own Window of Tolerance, or how you’ve handled a massive tantrum in the past in the comments below!

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