Don’t Try to Reason with an Upset Kid… First, Get Them Reasonable.


This happened a couple of days ago.


The kitchen. Lunch time. (But it’s a little late for lunch and that’s probably part of the problem).


I have just arrived home from the gym. Jason (my husband) is sitting next to Tristan (age 2) and they are happily chatting. Behind them, Ian (age 6) is having a total fit. Crying. Screaming. There are chairs knocked over.

Calmly, I take in the scene. Then, in a quiet voice, I ask Jason, “Is there anything in particular you want me to do?” and I nod towards Ian who is now under the table and can’t see. Jason replies calmly that, no, there’s nothing in particular I should do. He explains that Ian asked Jason to bring him a spoon for his mac and cheese. Jason did. But it wasn’t the “right spoon.” Jason told Ian it would be better if he picked out a spoon himself. A tantrum ensued.

Ah… I know this pattern so well. Secretly, I’m relieved that Jason got the brunt of it this time.


I am always so much more level-headed after exercise, so while normally a tantrum can totally stress me out, this time, it  doesn’t. I find myself in a position of calm understanding. I feel compassion for Ian. He is genuinely having a hard time, regardless of whether I think he’s being reasonable or not. He is upset. And not coping. And he’s angry.

Also, he’s hungry. And I know if he just eats food, he’ll be able to cope better.

Like Jason, I too do not want to give energy to his acting out. But, I AM going to try tactics to get him out of the upset in his head.

QUICK SIDEBAR — My sister is a scientologist. Yes, that’s the same religion that Tom Cruise is part of. And yes, I know that people often get all jumpy about it. I’m not a scientologist. When it comes to spirituality and religion, I march to the beat of my own drum and I take what makes sense from the belief systems around me. Not sure what that makes me, but it works for me.

I’ve studied some of the learnings/teachings of scientology and a lot of them make sense. They make a lot of common sense actually. Scientology is basically a toolkit for dealing with life, people, loss, upset, goals, problems, etc. In fact, it’s the most practical “religion” I’ve ever come across.

One “tool” is called the “Location Assist.” All it means is that you can help (or assist) someone who’s  upset by helping them to notice their physical surroundings (their location). When a person is upset, their attention is in their head. They are mentally immersed in the thing (or things) that’s bothering them. Their way of interacting with the world around them is not entirely rational. What I mean is, they are not thinking before acting or even really aware of whether their actions are good ones. Instead, they are doing or saying things that stem right from those strong emotions. 

Ian is clearly not in his best rational mind right now. I see that.

An ineffective tactic is to try to reason with a child when they are like this. It NEVER works. It often exacerbates the strong feelings they are feeling or creates big, new ones.

Instead, a better tactic is to help get them back to a rational state of being. And hands down, the best way to do this is to get them paying attention to their PHYSICAL surroundings.

You can do a Location Assist with someone who is crying uncontrollably. Or with someone who’s just “down.” Or it’s even interesting to do with someone who’s not upset, where it often leads to some cool “aha!” moment for the person getting the assist.

In the location assist, you tell the person: Look at that <insert blank – window, chair, doorknob, crumb, it can be anything>. The person verbally acknowledges that they’ve looked at it. They can just say, “OK” or “yup”. Or even grunt. And you say, “thank you” to acknowledge you heard them. Then you direct their attention to something else. It usually only takes 5 or 6 “items” before the person is in a much better mental space. Sometimes it takes more. Sometimes less. You can even run a location assist on yourself. I’ve done this. It works.

Back to Ian…  I know if I ask Ian to look at something, he’ll know what I’m doing and just get madder. So instead, I guide the conversation so that he will look at things while I talk.

I calmly chatted with Tristan and Jason. But I don’t exclude Ian. I just talk normally and with even-keeled emotion. A sort of “kind neutrality.”

I tell a story of when Ian was a baby. (Kids often like to hear stories of themselves. I notice they always tune right in). He does. But he’s pretending not to.

I talk about how Ian would sometimes put things in his mouth that weren’t food. But, the moment he got to taste real, solid food, he never wanted any non-food in his mouth again! Ian the baby would think, “Why would I bother with that?”

Ian used to love Kix cereal! (I hold up the box). Ian is looking at it now. I take out a few kix and hold them in my hand and say, “These little guys right here! Ian loved these!” Ian is looking. I wonder if he’s going to ask to eat some now. I don’t offer them because he’s coming down from his upset and it’s too soon to offer him food. Could send us back to square one.

Instead, I try to engage him in something else (not food related… yet).

It’s a snow day. So I say, “Oh! Ian. I wanted to ask you which friend you’d like to invite over for a playdate today since it’s a snow day.” I suggested maybe Daniel or Henry? He said, “I will only do a playdate if it’s with Leo.” … in a pouty, I’m-still-angry voice.

I calmly say, “OK, no prob. Would you like me to call him now?” (Yes. came the reply).

I call and get Leo’s mom. He wants to do a play date! … When? … After Ian eats his lunch.

I say to Ian, “Good news! Leo wants to come over to play. He can come over as soon as you’re done with lunch.”

Ian says in a nice voice, “Mommy? Will you make me new mac and cheese because mine is cold.”

I see that Jason had just made a fresh batch. I say, “Here’s some mac n’ cheese that is freshly made.” I serve him a bowl.

(But it’s the wrong color).

Ian: (big loud wail and then…) I wanted white mac and cheese and that’s orange!

Me: (in a quiet voice, kind, but not babying)… “Oh…” I pause for a convincing effect. “Hmmm…”, I say. I look like I’m really thinking. And I AM really thinking. I continue, “We have the white mac ‘n cheese in this bowl. And the orange mac ‘n cheese in this bowl. I don’t have any more right now.” Ian wails again, but it’s not very convincing. I ignore the wailing, but not in a mean way. I just calmly go about my business.

I had told the kids earlier that day that as a special treat they get to eat an ornament shaped chocolate candy after a good lunch (with protein and veggies). Charlie Grace (age 8) walks in the kitchen and asks if it’s time yet. I say, “Did you eat lunch?” She replies that yes, she had mac ‘n cheese.

I say, “That’s good. That’s a carb though. So what would you like for protein and veggies?”

I’m calm. But I exude an air of “this is how we do it” and so no one fights me on it. Ian begrudgingly starts to eat his mac n’ cheese. I pretend not to see, so he doesn’t have to feel “wrong” or like “the parents won and got him to eat.” Then Ian asks if he can have some apples and peanut butter for his protein and some carrots for his veggie. I say sure and I get them.

Smooth sailing after that.


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