“Reciting platitudes and inundating the conversation with toxic positivity could exacerbate children’s anxiety and anger,” says child psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, M.D. “It is detrimental to minimize their feelings or express apathy in response to their sentiments. This could exacerbate their mood state and the severity and frequency of emotional outbursts.” In other words, you telling your offspring to “calm down” is actually likely to make things even worse.
Not surprisingly, the same rings true for adults. Think back to the last time someone casually told you to “calm down” when you were angry. It didn’t exactly make you feel better, did it? Now, imagine how much more damaging it can be for kids to hear this dismissive phrase when they are still learning to understand their emotions.
Another important point to remember is that “calm down” also encourages kids to hide the way they’re actually feeling instead of dealing with them in a healthy way. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible for them to actually, well, calm down.
As parenting expert and behavior analyst Reena B. Patel LEP, BCBA explains: “If a child does not have the coping tools to calm down, how will they know what to do? Emotion regulation is something a child needs to be taught. Crying, feeling sad, or even having a tantrum is a natural behavior a child is using to communicate their needs because they have not been taught an alternative way to respond.”
OK, that’s all well and good but how exactly do we teach our kids to manage their feelings? By modeling that behavior, rather than expecting them to do as we say or, worse, shaming them for acting out. “When we use general phrases such as ‘calm down,’ ‘be nice,’ ‘be good’ or ‘show respect,’ that could mean a carpet of things,” says Patel. “If we do not clearly define, model by showing, and create an opportunity for them to show us what we mean, we as parents cannot expect our children to exhibit any of what we want.”