When I'm upset there are a few things I don't want to hear. Things like, "It's not that bad," or, "Stop overreacting" are bad enough, but I think the one that makes be boil the quickest is the infamous "calm down." Since it makes me so angry, saying it to my 10-year-old daughter probably won't help, either. In fact, the older she gets the more I understand my own feelings, which is simultaneously strange and empowering. So I've learned there are a few things you're really saying when you tell your kid to calm down, and I'm not so sure these are the words I want to be throwing in my girl's direction.
It's a difficult time to be the parent of a young woman on the verge of those unexplored teenage years. I mean, I still remember how I felt to be my daughter's age. Like me, my girl has always been prone to having a temper that heats rather quickly, only because she gets so emotionally invested in whatever she's doing or saying. That's part of her big, beautiful, creative heart that swallows up all her emotions and swirls them into oblivion. Sometimes it's effective for her to get her point across, and sometimes it's a huge distraction and my partner and I can't help her deal with whatever it is that's bothering her.
When I'm riled up and someone tells me to "calm down," I don't feel calm. If anything, I get angrier. With that said, here's what you might be teaching your kid when you say those same words:
"Your Feelings Are Invalid"
Telling your kid to "calm down" is the equivalent of saying their feelings don't mean anything. When my daughter is upset and I even think of mentioning the word "calm," I try to remember what her actions are telling me — she feels something, strongly, and even if I don't understand or agree, it doesn't make whatever it is she's feeling any less valid. Instead of spewing a thoughtless, unhelpful suggestion, maybe next time I'll try to empathize instead.
"I Don't Want To Listen To You"
Being a parent usually means doing multiple things simultaneously. Usually, when my daughter is fuming about something important to her, and I tell her to "calm down," I'm essentially sending the message that I'm too busy to hear her out. Whenever I'm really angry (and probably should calm down), it's helpful when someone, like my partner, intervenes to listen to my troubles. Sometimes just venting makes me feel better. My daughter wants, needs, and deserves, the same.
"You Don't Have The Right To Feel Angry"
Who am I to tell either of my kids what to feel about anything? I wouldn't want to be told an emotion I'm feeling is somehow "wrong" because someone else doesn't feel it. If it's there, inside of me, it's real. Same for my kids.
By invalidating my daughter's tantrums, I might be accidentally telling her that she doesn't have the right to feel angry. There have been many times I've immediately scolded her, only discovering (usually much later) that it's because she had a bad day and needed attention. Now I'm learning to think about her perspective before I speak, because whatever she feels is OK.
"You're Not Important Enough"
Because I have two children, I see how they fight over winning my attention at any given time. The five years between them doesn't keep them from vying for my attention. If I reduce myself to shouting "calm down," to either kid — especially my easily excitable daughter — I'm essentially telling her she isn't important enough for me to deal with in the moment. It's far from the truth, but it may be how she perceives it. Now I try to remind myself that my kids just want the best of me, always, and that won't always be the case.
"I Only Care When You're Calm"
In the end, telling my kid to "calm down" only saves me about two minutes of sanity, but creates hours of frustration. More than that, it causes problems with her self-esteem because she won't feel like I love her unless she's well-behaved. I don't want that.
The next time my kids act up and I want to tell them to "relax" or "calm down," I'm going to promise myself I'll stop and think about how they might interpret that reaction. In the end, they deserve more than me dismissing their feelings — they deserve a response that will empower them enough so they can learn to control their own actions and emotions.