Parenting Educator Has Quick Trick to Calm Kids When They Are Angry, But Not All Experts Agree

An Australian parenting educator's simple tip spurred lively conversation among parents and experts.

An image of a mother and her child talking in a park.
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When your kid is in the midst of a temper tantrum, you might be ready to try just about anything to chill them out. But you might not have to do anything more than ask a straightforward, simple question, according to Australian parenting educator and author Maggie Dent.

Dent's "two-second trick" was recently shared on a parenting Facebook page called School Mum, stirring conversation among parents. According to Dent, when your child is having their moment, the best thing to do is to ask them a question, like, "Was that daddy's car?" or "Do you want a drink?" and "Should we go and play outside?"

The question serves as a quick, easy way to distract your child, turning their attention to something other than whatever they're frustrated about.

But many followers questioned whether this tip really gets to the heart of the matter.

One commenter wrote, "What's wrong with kids getting angry? How about deal with the source of the frustration to help them through it rather than the distraction of 'Daddy's car?'"

Another chimed in, "Don't divert, talk it over, and it's normal for kids to feel some sort of way at times, just the same as it is for us adults. Don't gaslight, deal with the situation as they occur. No wonder why some kids entering early adulthood are messed up these days, as they feel that they are not listened to, which causes built up anger, anxiety and frustration."

A third shared, "If any of my babies are angry, I honestly just tell them that it's OK to feel angry and to cry and just let it out, and I'm here if they need me."

Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of PRACTICE San Francisco, tells that the advice strikes her as falling short in a couple of ways.

"One, I think it's unlikely to actually work that well in terms of defusing tantrums or emotional dysregulation in the moment," says Dr. Kaiser. "Once kids—or any of us—reach a certain level of emotional escalation, they are no longer able to access their higher level thinking skills, the ones that they would need in order to be able to respond to a question or interact with you in a reasonable or logical kind of way. There's a point at which we as parents simply have to ride it out."

And two? Even if the strategy does work in the short-term, which it sometimes could, according to Dr. Kaiser, it fails in terms of helping children learn how to regulate their emotions in the long-run.

"By distracting and defusing in the moment of big emotions, we're invalidating their emotions by saying what they're upset about isn't worth our attention," she notes. "We're also sending our kids a message that big emotional experiences aren't OK with us and/or that we as parents can't handle or tolerate their distress."

It's also crucial for parents to support kids' ability to "go through the entire process or wave of a big emotion," adds Dr. Kaiser, so that they learn these feelings come and go, ultimately making these experiences more manageable and less upsetting. And they'll also learn from getting a chance to change how they feel using self-soothing, calming strategies—like breathing exercises—which can be truly empowering.

That said, you might want to try this alternative tip from Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale's School of Medicine and member of The Goddard School's Educational Advisory Board: "Consider taking a moment to listen carefully through the tears for what is 'wrong,'" he notes. "Say it back to the child in your own words, and ask if you understand what is upsetting them."

He continues, "After confirming you understand what is upsetting the child, refrain from showing judgment. This compassion should help soften the child's anger and help validate their feelings. Oftentimes, the validation is more important in the moment than correcting some injustice."

The Bottom Line

While it might be tempting to go for the quick fix for a tantrum in a heated moment, acknowledging a child's anger head-on and talking them through their experience might serve them best in the long-haul.

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