Soothing a frustrated child
and avoiding frustration in the first place

A mom of younger kids asked on a discussion list:
I think what *I* am wanting, and maybe the other mom too, is how to deal with things when we (we, as in the adults) make mistakes.
Pam Sorooshian replied:
There is no magic button you can push—no magic words you can say. If you've already gotten yourselves into a situation, then you can be super sympathetic and resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Like, if you suddenly realize that walking around in toys-r-us is overwhelming and now she's having a meltdown, then get yourself really calm and soft and squat down at her level and don't look tense and keep your voice gentle and say soothing things. And—don't ask questions at that time—it adds to the frustration because the poor kid is already on overload and now you're expecting her to think clearly about what it is she wants? Be honest and sympathetic - say, "Oh gosh, this place is kind of overwhelming. Let's go out and get lunch or ice cream or something, for now, and maybe come back when they aren't so busy." If she screams, "NOOOOO I don't want to go," then you can move on, very gently, with, "Oh, okay, then let's go look at the dolls for a while." In other words, you offer - don't ask. Then your response is based on her reaction. Try to develop your own interpersonal intelligence as much as you can - try to think from her point of view, try to offer what you think would help her be more happy.
The other mom:
I know that I need to be more observant and I am working my best at that. AND I am getting better, but meltdowns still happen (just much less than they used to). What I really need to know is what I can do when the meltdown is in progress. I asked Lil if she wanted to leave, but of course she didn't and she doesn't always know the words to express what is wrong.
Pam Sorooshian:
Just from your post, I felt like you're pressuring her (not meaning to) and that might be some of the source of her frustration. I'm picturing a combination of you not thinking ahead well enough and you expecting her to be able to think ahead too well. Like, you might ask her, "Do you want to go to Toys-R-Us?" and she says, "Yes," and you just take that as a complete answer. But you're the mom, you have to think deeper - why does she want to go, what is SHE thinking it will be like, when is a good time for her to be there, will she want to sit in the cart or run around, is she thinking that "go" means "buy toys" or maybe "play with toys?" You have to think about "her" - the real child and what she can handle.

And, below, you say maybe you're asking the wrong questions—I think maybe you're onto something there, but that it is that you're asking too much of her. I think maybe you're just asking too many questions. Think more in terms of offering, supporting, encouraging—less in terms of "asking" her to decide or choose. I think you'll find that reduced her frustration levels.

The other Mom:
Maybe I am not asking the wrong questions. I know what I am doing is the wrong way to deal with things. What I struggle with is having a substitute available for when *I* make mistakes. Does that make sense?
Pam Sorooshian:
Yes. So—from now on, before you go somewhere, have some ideas in mind. BEFORE you even bring it up to her, think, "Okay, thinking about going to Toys-R-Us—that means a series of possible activities—(1) getting ready and maybe interrupting ongoing activities (2) car ride (3) time in the store (4) needing to leave the store (5) time spent in line (6) car ride afterward. You have to consider each of those —play out a couple of scenarios in your head for each so you have some options in mind before you even bring it up to her.

Toys-R-Us is a pretty big deal stressful activity for a young child— took a fairly large amount of preparation—I might say: "I'm wanting to go to Toys-R-Us and here is what I have in mind—going in about an hour, eating a sandwich before we go, getting dressed in pants and shirt and shoes, listening to our new Beatles cd in the car on the way, you can sit in the cart or walk around the store and look at toys and help me pick something out for your cousin's birthday present, if you find something you want to buy that costs less than $5 we can buy that, too. Does that all sound okay to you?"

The child might have something to say about all this—"Mom, can we have turkey sandwiches?" or "I want to sit in the cart." Or whatever—me listing what I have in mind, what I'm picturing happening, is an invitation for her to add to it or object to parts of it, but mostly it means we are less likely to get into a situation where we have very different expectations.

Based on past experience, with my middle child, I would also have said, "This is one of those stores that can be totally overwhelming, so if you start to feel like that, just say so and we'll cut it short."

IF she had a meltdown in Toys-R-Us, I would figure out what the problem was and learn from it in order not to bring it about again. Generalize to other similar situations. Did I not feed her enough before we left so she was a little hungry? Then next time, bring some crackers or cheese or granola bars or something along for her to munch on in the car on the way. Was it too much to expect her to help shop for toys for another child? Then eliminate that problem by not asking her to do it again—or maybe let her pick out something for herself at the same time. And so on.

She might be, like me, really sensitive to the sound in big stores and shopping malls—that horrible "echo" kind of sound creates a lot of stress in me—over a period of half an hour the stress builds up and it is like I start not being able to think, all I can do is sort of protect my brain from that background sound. I get cranky, short- tempered, really really tired. I've mentioned this to people who claim they don't even know what "sound" I'm talking about—so obviously it doesn't affect everyone the same way. I like the "idea" of going shopping—hanging out with my friends or daughters and looking, together, at clothes and things, but the reality of it, for me, is not at all comfortable.

So—YOU have to figure this out—you are like a detective in a way, or a psychiatrist, trying to understand what your own child is like based on all the clues/evidence. You come to understand how she is experiencing the world, and then you try to support her in ways that work best for her.


Wanting an image for this page, I went to Just Add Light and Stir, looking for "soothing" and "Pam Sorooshian." This came up:
Process, not product

A disposable art material, intended for playing but not for keeping, is playdough. It's not edible, it won't keep for years, and baking it makes it brittle without extra strength. It's not an investment in permanence, which can be therapeutic in itself for some people.

Æsthetically, it's nice for children. It starts off warm (starts off hot), feels good, and smells good, especially with some of the additives Pam Sorooshian recommends here. The play is soothing and easily shared, It can all be saved in ziploc bags for a while, and eventually thrown away.

Meanwhile, children can discover color combinations from mixing bits of different batches. They can experiment with making coil pots and little sculptures, or just generally squish the dough through their fingers. If your children are older, they might still have big fun. If your children are grown, you-the-mom (or dad) might find some unexpected entertainment yourself.

The recipe is at the link below, and other notes about things to do with young children are linked from there.
photo by Holly Dodd

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