Years ago I read a wonderful book on play therapy written by Paris Goodyear-Brown, LCSW, RPT-S. Her creative strategies, concocted over several years of working with children and families, have just the right ingredients: heartfelt, simple, real, honest, effective. One of my go-to strategies for soothing tantrums and meltdowns is a concept she and her colleagues developed: S.O.O.T.H.E. The acronym is pretty clever and helps keep it snug in my brain for those moments when I need to reach for something helpful! Let's explore this strategy, and perhaps even give it a try (or two, or three, or twenty four) at home or at school this week...
S = Soft Tone of Voice and Face. When children feel anxious they act out. A parent's escalation of tone of voice (loudness) and tone of face (those facial expressions that signal you're upset) won't help the situation. If a parent becomes increasingly out of control, the child will too. Think of the situation as a mirror image. Try communicating with a calm tone of voice and face, effectively breaking the cycle and allowing the child a chance at de-escalating by following your lead.
O= Organize the Child's Experience. Children need to know what to expect. This helps to reduce anxiety. Since children have difficulty sequencing information, try reflecting back what the transition expectations are and what enjoyable activity he/she has to look forward to.
O= Offer Choices. Children often experience anxiety when given too many options or too much stimulation (ex: any parent who has taken their child to a SuperStore of any kind, any where, ever, knows this experience). While children need a felt sense of control and self-direction in their choice making, the adults must try their darndest to limit the actual number of choices offered.
T= Touch or Togetherness. When a child is anxious, hungry, or exhausted, he/she is not thinking clearly. Words may seem to go in one ear and out the other. A simple back rub, hug, or snuggle can help de-escalate the child while also returning to those soothing bonds of togetherness (which help us all! truly).
H= Hear What the Underlying Concern is. During tantrums and meltdowns it's important to figure out whether the acting out is willful defiance or anxiety. In my experience, it's usually anxiety. By knowing what the underlying concern is we can change our commands and alleviate the struggle. Ex: A child putting his shoes on after having just learned how. Parent: "Please put your shoes on", Child: "No!!!", Parent: "When we learn new things we may feel nervous to try them at first. If you need help with those shoes, I'm right here and I'm proud of you."
E= End It and Let Go. Children are resilient. Children are forgiving. Children let things go much faster than adults do. After a tantrum or meltdown, we may feel raw, vulnerable, and frustrated. Reconnecting provides immediate safety and repairing of loving bonds. Parents have a right to their upset feelings, but don't let those linger any longer than a few moments. Let go. After all, as a wise friend once shared with me... "if people, things, and situations were perfect then there would be no need for love or for courage."
Credit given to Play Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Prescriptive Approach by Paris Goodyear-Brown (2010).