Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Meltdowns

We often think of meltdowns and tantrums as a toddler behavior, but they still happen with older children (even adults!) Meltdowns are more common for neurodiverse children, including kids with autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorders. But any one can have one given enough stressors.

Tantrum vs. Meltdown

When you see a child throw themselves to the ground, or scream, sob, flail or hit, there are two very different things that may be happening. Understanding which it is guides your response.

Tantrum

A tantrum is when a child chooses to do these behaviors, with the goal of getting something they want or making you agree to something you’d said no to. They may be more likely to do this on a day when they’re hungry or tired or overwhelmed, but the tantrum itself is a behavior choice (an upstairs brain decision). A tantrum is a performance. They will stop if there is no audience, they’ll stop if it’s not working to get them what they want.

A tantrum is a discipline issue. You want to guide them away from choosing this behavior, and toward positive ways of achieving their goals. If they tantrum to manipulate, don’t give a lot of attention, and don’t give in. Kids who learn they can get you to change the rules if they tantrum will do it a lot! You can empathize with the feelings but restate the limit. “I hear you really want ___ and you’re upset I’m saying no. But our rule is ___.” When they discover this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, they give up on it and the tantrum ends.

TantrumMeltdown
A behavior choice – upstairs brain decisionEmotional reaction – downstairs brain hijacks
Goal-Oriented: they’re using it to get somethingOverload of emotions, stimulation, demands 
A performance for an audience; manipulationContinues whether or not someone is watching
Tantrum stops as soon as they get their wayOut of control – can’t stop even if you fix trigger

A meltdown is not a choice. It’s an emotional response to a brain on overload. Too much stimulation or too many demands or too many big feelings overload them. It can manifest as a fight or flight reaction – some children may hit, kick, bite or throw things. Others may run, hide, curl up in a ball, cover their eyes or ears. Some may shut down completely. (Freeze.)

Meltdowns are not a behavior choice, so rewards or punishment to stop the meltdowns won’t work, and trying to reason with your child won’t work. They need a different approach.

The Downstairs Brain

Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel uses an analogy for understanding the brain. The downstairs brain (brain stem, limbic system) is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain (parietal lobe, frontal lobe, prefrontal cortex) is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. The upstairs brain take years to develop – adolescence and beyond. When a person of any age is very upset, emotions block their ability to use their upstairs brain. They regress to the downstairs brain. They “flip their lid.” When they’re in this state, they can’t “use their words” or even hear yours. They can’t make good decisions, they can’t be reasoned with and they can’t “just calm down”.

Managing a meltdown

  • Often “something little” triggers a huge meltdown. It’s the last straw on top of a lot of other stress. Fixing it or explaining it won’t fix the meltdown because it’s not the real reason. Focus on calming instead.
  • Stay calm. A child in meltdown is overwhelmed by the strength of their own emotions and needs you to model emotional stability to help re-ground them.
  • Get down low, use a low voice and move slowly so you don’t trigger fight/flight.
  • Stay close by. Being nearby helps a child feel safer – they know you’re there when they’re ready for comfort. If they come to you for a hug, welcome it. But don’t crowd them – this provokes anger – they’ll yell ‘go away’.
  • Don’t ask questions or try to talk the child down with a lot of words. If you need to speak to change your child’s behavior, or move them to a safer place, give very simple commands.
  • Reduce the stimulation – go somewhere quieter or turn off the lights. Reduce the demands.
  • Don’t let your child hurt themself, other people or things. At times, you might need to physically restrain them to keep things safe. (Be sure that you’re calm enough to do this gently.) They will resist for a bit, then often shift from anger to sadness in your arms.
  • After the meltdown blows over, comfort. Name and validate emotions they were feeling. If appropriate, work on a solution for the issue that triggered the meltdown.
  • Sometimes after your child has calmed down, you are still full of tension and stress. Use self-care to help you release tension – deep breaths, a short break, or get support.
  • Talk about the meltdown later when everyone’s calm.
  • Talk about how you might work together to prevent meltdowns in the future or reduce their frequency.

Reduce Meltdowns

  • Meet physical needs: A child is less likely to melt down if rested, fed, and comfortable.
  • Set expectations: Tell them ahead of time what to expect. If things change from what was expected, remember that unexpected changes can be a trigger for a meltdown, so be supportive. Creating routines helps.
  • Emotional Literacy: Talk about emotions. Teach and model positive ways to express and manage feelings before they become too big and unmanageable. Read children’s books about emotions.
  • Be aware of triggers – things you know upset your child. Sometimes you have to be a detective to figure this out – start tracking their meltdowns and seeing what the situations have in common – is it too much noise? Smells? Scratchy clothes? Too many people? Too many decisions? Pressure to perform or accomplish something? Unpredicted changes?
  • Choose your battles. On a good day, your child can take on new challenges or do hard things. Some days that’s just too much and it’s compassionate to go easy on them.
  • Watch for early cues: Notice when your child is reaching the end of their rope. If you can notice the escalation (when a child is starting to get over-excited, or angry, or upset) when it’s starting, you may be able to ward off a meltdown by stepping in to soothe then.
  • Talk about meltdowns when they’re NOT having one. Practice coping skills, create a calm down space, and try calm down tools when they don’t need them. Praise them when they can calm themselves down.

More helpful tips:

Sensory Meltdown Survival Guide: wonderbaby.org/articles/sensory-meltdown

For helpful tools to help your child learn to notice when they’re escalating and calm themselves down, check out my posters on Expressing Emotions, and this post on the Zones of Regulation.

It can be hard keeping your cool when your child is losing theirs on a regular basis. Check out ideas for Reducing Parental Meltdowns and Coping with your own Anger

Talking to Young Children about Emergency Drills

Image from: https://www.teepublic.com/t-shirt/1684401-this-is-a-drill-this-is-only-a-drill

As adults responsible for children’s safety, parents and teachers of preschool age children need to know and to practice what we would do in case of an emergency. Fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills and, sadly, lockdown drills are an essential part of planning how to keep children safe.

But… how do we talk to children age 3 – 5 about what we’re doing and why?

My general approach to talking to young children about scary topics, is to:

  • talk about how likely something is to happen
  • talk about how we would know it was happening
  • teach children what they themselves can do to make it better and
  • explain what the adults will do to make it better.

I use this approach when doing fire drills and earthquake drills. (Read this post for all the details on how I talk with children about earthquakes.) A key point is that when you talk about the possible dangers of these emergencies, keep it gentle. The goal is to Prepare Not Scare. For example, I want them prepared by knowing that in an earthquake they need to drop down to their hands and knees because otherwise they might get knocked over and I want them to know to cover their heads / necks in case things are falling. That is information that will help to keep them safe. I do not tell them that buildings can fall down and people can die. That’s really scary and doesn’t build their ability to take safe actions.

So, that’s information I share if I know the drill is coming. However, at some facilities, they do drills without warning the staff. (The idea is that the drill is more realistic if we’re not all prepped and ready for a drill.) If I’m lucky, I have already done a pre-planned drill with this group of children so we have had a chance to talk about this before. But once, I got surprised by an unexpected drill with a group of children on their second day of class when they were still getting to know the classroom and the teachers.

In that case, we just execute all the steps of our drill, and then move on. In a class with three and four year olds, I would typically just resume the day’s activities. If they seemed unfazed by it, I wouldn’t talk it through with the whole class, but if individual kids had questions, I would answer them. With older children, I might sit them down and explain more in the moment. If you are a parent who knows that your child did a drill that day, just be aware of it. Some children will never go back and ask “why did we do that thing?” If they don’t ask, and don’t seem to have any concerns about it, I don’t worry about it. If they ask questions, or seem worried about something, then talk it through.

If they have questions or concerns about the possible emergency, such as about a fire, then I explain more details, in a realistic but non-scary way. If they have questions or concerns about why we do drills, I explain that grown-ups are responsible for keeping kids safe if an emergency happens. And the whole trick with an emergency is that we don’t know when it will happen, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.

I explain that we have to have some plans we’ve practiced in advance, just in case. Our fire drills help us practice – what if we all needed to get out of the building quickly. Our earthquake drills help us practice – what if we all need to stop moving and stay where we are. Lockdown drills help us practice – what if something dangerous was happening outside, and we all needed to gather together inside where we could all keep an eye on each other. Drills are all about practicing – listening to the grown-ups and doing what they ask you to do quickly. And we’ll probably never need to use those emergency skills, but if we do, we have all practiced them and will know how they work.

My approach to lockdown drills is a little different than natural disaster situations. I do NOT explain why we would do a lockdown. I just say “if it seems like something dangerous may be happening outside the classroom, sometimes it is safest to stay in the classroom.” I don’t talk about bad guys and guns and bullets and so on. I do not want the children in my care to be fearful that people are dangerous and that a shooting is imminent or inevitable. I want them to feel safe in their world.

[I do acknowledge that I have some privilege here – I teach in a quiet suburb of a liberal city in a state with tighter gun control laws than many other states. Your environment and needs may differ.]

Now, I might not have talked about bad guys and guns, but sometimes one of the children will! Then I can address that yes, sometimes people do bad things that harm others, including using guns. But I can go back to my message of: how likely is it to happen here – not likely. What do we do to protect ourselves? Exactly what we’re doing.

How to Talk to YOURSELF about lockdown drills…

I totally understand that you, as a parent or teacher, may have a lot of anxiety of your own about school shootings, and a lot of fear where you’ve played through in your head – “what if it happened at my child’s school.” Running a lockdown drill as a teacher, or knowing as a parent that your child participated in a lockdown drill may bring that all up for you.

I would encourage you to do some processing of your own concerns, reaching out to other parents, teachers, or therapists for support as needed so that you can get to a place where you can be calm when talking to your child about these things (or at least put on a good act of being calm). During our unexpected lockdown drill, I was grateful that I am able to remain calm in these sorts of situations and focus on getting through the mechanics of a drill without going down my personal rabbit hole of “what ifs.”

Here are some articles you may find helpful:

More about Talking with Your Child

If you want more ideas for how to have these conversations, I find this article Talking to Kids about School Lockdown Drills has some really helpful modeling of what to say. For example: “Even though we might hear about it when something like this happens in a school, there are thousands and thousand and thousands of schools where it never happens and it’s never going to happen. So nothing bad is likely to happen at our school. The school is all set up to keep you safe and the principal and the teachers… have all kinds of ideas and plans to protect your school and keep anyone bad away. … You’re practicing to be safe. That’s really important. … When you practice something enough, then you don’t even have to think about it. We practice [safety] all the time, like stopping at a corner and looking both ways before we step into the street.”

That article also has this really helpful description of understanding and calming anxiety: “Let me tell you why you feel so weird when you’re scared. There are two parts to your brain. One feels your feelings… The other part thinks. …When you get scared, you sometimes forget to take good breaths. And … your brain, which is hungry for the good oxygen… gets worried, too. … It thinks it’s supposed to panic and get you ready to run away! … Your heart is probably feeling like it’s racing as it sends out energy and blood to your arms and legs so you can run. But you’re not going to run, so there you are, just wondering why you feel like this, why your muscles feel tight. Your body takes energy away from your belly … so you feel those butterflies there…. you might feel dizzy. … But you can tell that part of your brain, the part that does the thinking, that you’re safe and okay. … By taking some good, oxygen-filled breaths, so nice and big that you fill your belly… Imagine that you’re blowing out candles on your birthday cake. You could even put up one finger and pretend it’s a candle you’re blowing out. And then when you’re good and empty of air, your body and brain want to fill up again with oxygen, so you’ll take a lovely breath in. And your brain starts to feel calm again. And when the brain is calm, your body can calm down, too. Like magic. Do it with me.”

“Tricky People” vs. “Stranger Danger”

candy

Why Not Teach Stranger Danger?

For decades, parents and educators have taught the idea of stranger danger. There are several flaws to this message:

  • It creates a culture of fear. It can be frightening to a child to be out in public when they’ve been told that all the strangers around them are people to be feared.
  • Talking about “bad people” means that our children are on the lookout for people who look and act evil: the mustache-twirling, black-clad villain. Most people who perpetrate crimes against children are nice looking and quite charming.
  • Talking about “odd looking” or “dangerous looking” people or “people who don’t look like us” can lead to racial profiling and prejudiced attitudes.
  • Creating fear of strangers might mean that our children are afraid to seek help from adults when needed – such as a lost child who is too frightened to approach a security guard to help find their parents, or a lost child who evades rescuers because they are strangers to him.
  • Crimes against children are relatively rare. When they do happen, it is much more likely that they are committed by someone the child knows than by a stranger.
    • For child sexual abuse, only 10% of perpetrators are strangers, 60% are non-family members who are known to the child and family, 30% are family members. Source. In 23% of reported cases the perpetrator was under the age of 18.  (Stats for Canada here.)
    • We may worry about the stereotypical kidnapping where a stranger abducts a child. There are only about 105 of those a year in the US, where there are 17 million children. In 90% of kidnapping cases, the kidnappers are family members, usually non-custodial parents. Source.
    • If our children have been taught that strangers are always bad, but that the people they know are always “safe”, then we have not protected them.

I don’t want my children to be frightened of all the new people they encounter. I want my children, and the children I work with, to feel safe in their world. Children are happiest and learn best when they feel safe. I tell children, through my words, my body language, and my interactions, that the vast majority of people are good people. Even a stranger who looks very different from the people I interact with every day is most likely a good person.

But, when children are around three years old is a good time to start talking about “tricky people.” They’re not a certain kind of people (like strangers, or like people whose skin is a different color from my own) but they are any person who displays certain odd behaviors. Those behaviors should raise red flags for a child, and let them know they should check in with a trusted adult for advice on how to respond.

What are Tricky People?

Here are some things to tell your child to watch out for. Tricky people may:

  • ask kids for help (such as help finding a lost puppy or pretending to be hurt)
    • If safe grown-ups really need help, they’ll ask other grown-ups. Your child should know that if an adult asks them for help, they should go speak to a trusted adult.
  • try to arrange for alone time with a child
    • Let your child know that it’s best not to go somewhere alone with one adult unless a trusted adult has told them it’s OK.
  • try to make one particular kid feel special, lavishing praise and gifts
    • Tell your child if someone offers to give them something (candy, money, a kitten), they shouldn’t take it and say they need to ask their parents if that is OK.
  • ask kids to do something that breaks the family rules, or just doesn’t feel right
    • Teach your child to think about whether an interaction feels fine or gives them an uncomfortable “uh-oh” feeling. Encourage them to trust their instincts.
  • ask kids to keep a secret from their parents or their teacher, or threatens something like “if you tell, you’ll be in big trouble”
    • Any time this happens, a child should tell their parent or a teacher.
  • touches a child a lot (tickling, wrestling, asking for hugs), especially if they get angry or unhappy if the child says no to the touch
  • touches a child in a private area, asks a child to touch their private parts, asks to see a child’s private areas, asks to take pictures of private area, or shows a child their private areas
  • tells the child “there’s an emergency. You need to come with me right now.” Note: For children over 5, it can be a good idea to establish a password (see below).

How to Help Your Child be “Street Smart”

Here are some things we can do to help our kids be safe:

For a child age 1 and up

  • Teach them their name and their parents’ name(s)
  • Under three years old, I don’t talk about “tricky people” or “bad people.” But, if I am in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I show it with my body language, and I tell my child “I don’t like being here… I don’t feel safe right now. We’re going to leave.” Even at this age, I want to start teaching them to trust their instincts.
  • Tell them they need to stay near you when you’re out in public, set boundaries – tell them where it’s OK to go and what’s not OK. If they step outside those limits, or refuse to hold your hand in a parking lot, or whatever guidelines you have set, then there should be consequences (e.g. you need to leave the park, or you need to carry them in the parking lot.)
  • When going anyplace where you might become separated, put your contact info somewhere on them (e.g. on a card in their pocket, on a bracelet, etc.). Also, take a picture of them that day with your phone so if you become separated you have a photo of what they look like and they are wearing.
  • Teach healthy touch: high fives and fist bumps, patting on the back, brief hugs, etc. Don’t force your child to give a hug to someone if they are not comfortable.
  • Teach them names for their body parts, including private parts. It is best to use commonly used terms (e.g. penis or vagina), not family euphemisms. Feeling comfortable with these words makes it possible for a child to explain if something inappropriate happens. (Learn more.)

For a child age 3 and up

Everything listed above, plus:

  • Be sure they know their address, parents’ names, and parents’ phone numbers.
  • Help them know what adults you trust. Tell them: “if you ever feel scared or need help, then ____ and _____ are adults you can talk to.”
    • Talk to them about how to find a trustworthy stranger if they somehow become separated from you and need help. Some parents teach to look for a police officer, but they’re not always around. So, I also tell my children to look for a person who is working there – I help them identify workers – they’re standing behind the check-out counter, or they’re wearing a uniform. I also tell them they could go to another parent – someone who has a child with them. From time to time, we practice this – I ask my child to look around and identify two people who they could ask for help if needed. Also, point out “safe spots” – the places they are most likely to find helpful people.
    • Talk to them about “tricky people” and what behaviors are red flags. Don’t try to cover it all in one big “talk” – it should be an on-going dialogue.
    • If your child is uncomfortable around someone and wants to avoid that person, don’t dismiss this. Respect your child’s instincts.
  • If you go somewhere you might get separated (the zoo, an amusement park, a large event), talk to them on the way there about the importance of staying close to you the whole time. Tell them that if they look around and can’t find you, they should stop where they are and you will find them.
  • By the time they are three, teach them that the parts of their body that are covered by a swimsuit are private. They should be kept covered around other people, and other people should not touch them there, except for parents or caregivers who are briefly helping to clean them, or a doctor, when the parents are in the room.
  • Don’t label your child’s clothes or backpacks with their name in big, visible letters. “Tricky” adults often use a child’s name to convince the child they are safe.

As your child gets older, and more independent:

Everything listed above, plus

  • They should know contact info for multiple trusted adults, and have a plan for how they could contact them. (For a younger child who doesn’t have a cell phone, they should know how to seek adult help. For older kids with phones, they need plans for what to do if their phone battery dies.)
  • If going someplace  you may get separated, have a plan in advance for where you would meet up again. Make sure they can describe it to you, and from time to time, ask them “do you remember where our meet-up place is? Can you point to where it is?”
  • A responsible adult should always know where they are. Set boundaries on where they can go, ask that they check in with you from time to time, and require that they check in if their plans change.
  • In the places they frequent, they should be able to list “safe spots” where they could go for help if they were feeling worried – for example, if someone at the park was making them uncomfortable, they could go into the nearby convenience store. They should also know to avoid unsafe spots – isolated areas with no one around.
  • They should know how and in what circumstances to call 9-1-1.
  • They should know never to answer the door when they are home alone.
  • They should know never to approach a stranger’s car. If someone calls them over to a car, they should not go.
  • When out and about, they should use the buddy system, not go places alone.
  • If someone offers them money, or an easy job, they should be wary.
  • Consider a family password so that if you ever could need to send an unexpected adult to pick them up in case of emergency, your child could ask that adult for the password to be sure it’s really someone you sent. You could also use that code word or another one for your child to communicate to you “I’m feeling unsafe and I need your help.”
  • Tell them to trust their instincts. If they’re worried about something, they should talk to you or another trusted adult who can help them problem-solve. If they’re very frightened, they should call 9-1-1 or shout for help. Tell them it is better to seek help and find out that everything is actually OK than it is to not seek help when things really are bad.
  • Give kids examples of “tricky behavior”; have them describe how they would respond.
  • Don’t talk about “bad touch” because sometimes sexual touch can feel good or can “tickle.” Instead, talk about “secret touch” that the other person wants you to hide from people, or touch that makes them feel wrong after it happened. Let children know that if anyone ever touches them in an inappropriate way (or makes the child touch them), that it’s not the child’s fault and they will not be in trouble with you. Perpetrators may first involve children by showing them pornography – let your child know that if someone shows them pornography, they should let you know.
  • Explain that you’re teaching safety rules because they are more mature and ready to be responsible. You want to give them more freedom, but you also need to be reassured that they know how to stay safe.

Letting Your Children Out of Your Sight

Here’s an example of how this could play out: My six year old wanted to be able to sit on the front porch and read while I was inside making dinner. We set boundaries: “you can sit on the porch swing. You may not leave the porch or step onto the driveway or the path to the sidewalk.” We reminded him of tricky people ideas: “we have lots of people walk by the house. Remember, that most people are good people. If they wave or say hi, you can say hi back. However, if they ask you to leave the porch, they’re being tricky and you need to come inside and get us. If they step off the sidewalk onto our driveway or path, you need to come in right away. Even if it’s someone you know from church or school, I would still want you to come inside and get me.” We let him know that as long as he could follow the rules, he could have porch-sitting privileges. But if he ever violated those rules, he would lose those privileges.

Deciding to let a child play outside unsupervised, or let an older child go places without you, requires a leap of faith on your part. It can be scary to take that risk. But remember that keeping them at home and in sight at all times also creates risks – it limits their potential to be active, independent, decision-making people.

Part of parenting is teaching our kids the skills they need to know so that later on, they don’t need us so much any more. This is just one of many things that we do to prepare them to be out in the world on their own.

Handouts: If you’re a parent educator who would like to share this information with families, I’ve created a 4 page handout and 2 page handout of this information.

Related Topics: Check out my posts on Better You Than YouTube – Having the Hard Conversations, Talking to Children about Sexuality; Talking to Children about Touch, Consent and Bodily Autonomy; and Talking about Scary Topics (e.g. violence, natural disasters, accidents, etc.)

More Resources

Picture Books about Touch and Consent

These books are aimed at children age 3 – 8, and teach many aspects of consent, types of touch, the right to bodily autonomy, and prevention of sexual abuse. You can also check out my post on how to talk to your child about touch and consent.

Most Recommended

If I had to choose just one, I might start with one of these two.

My Body Belongs to Me from My Head to My Toes by Pro Familia and Geisler. (Video) Age 3 – 6. A girl talks about the touch she likes – sitting with friends, hug from Dad, sitting on Grandma’s lap. Then about how she sometimes doesn’t like to be touched. Or touched in certain ways: tickled too much, sloppy kisses. So she says “Stop. Don’t Touch Me. I don’t want you to.” It says if someone doesn’t stop, then tell a trusted person. Ends with “your body belongs only to you.” This book probably has the clearest, most complete message about bodily autonomy. It’s long for a three year old, and not quite as fun a read as some of the books below. [Note this is different than the other “My Body Belongs to Me” by Starishevsky – see below.]

Let’s Talk about Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect by Sanders and Jennings. (Video) Ages 5 – 8. Starts with the idea of body boundaries – draw an imaginary bubble around yourself – no one should come inside that boundary without asking. If someone wants to hug someone, they should ask. The person might say yes – it’s OK to hug because both people are happy about it. The person might say no – respect that. If they say they’re not sure or don’t answer, that’s not a yes, so don’t hug. It’s OK to say no to others – it’s your body and what you say goes. If someone doesn’t respect that, tell a trusted adult. Excellent – but too long – you would want to spread it over multiple readings.

More Recommendations

Here are lots of other ideas, in order from those appropriate for the youngest audience on up. Also check out the table at the bottom which compares them.

Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) by Finison and Wiseman. (Video) Age 3 – 6. “You can hug a pug. You can hug a bug… but don’t hug Doug. He doesn’t like it.” Shows a friendly, smiling Doug spending time with lots of people, having fun, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, but turning down hugs. “Can you hug these people… There’s only one way to find out. Ask!” Very positive book about all the ways we can connect while respecting people’s personal preference about what types of touch they like.

How to Hug a Pufferfish. By Peterson. (No video available. Pictures are super cute, and text is very engaging.) Age 3 – 6. “So you want to hug a pufferfish. Who could blame you?” Shows a super cute pufferfish, talks about all the reasons you might want to give someone a hug – but you don’t want to make a pufferfish puff! “Pufferfish might welcome a hug, under the right conditions.” Pufferfish would like to see you coming, be asked for a hug first, and prefers a slow and gentle hug, or a fin shake. “And you never know, Pufferfish might show you a different way to say I love you.” [Disclaimer: the author is a friend of mine.]

Can I Give You a Squish. By Nelson. (Video.) Age 3 – 6. Kai the mer-boy loves hugs (squishes). He hugs everyone and everything till he tries to give a pufferfish a squish – it puffs, saying it doesn’t like to be squished. Kai feels bad. His friends suggest he tries offering a fin bump, which it likes. Kai learns his friends like tail claps, tentacle shakes and other forms of touch. “Every fish likes their own kind of squish.”

Miles is the Boss of His Body. By Schiller and Kurtzman-Counter. (Video) Age 3 – 6. It’s Miles’ birthday. Grandpa pinches his cheek, his brother gives him noogies, his mom gives him a super tight hug, etc. Even the birthday chicken wants to tickle him. Mile yells ‘I’m tired of being touched in ways I don’t like, and I’m the boss of my body.” The family respects and validates that.

Rissy No Kissies. By Howes and Engle. (Video) Age 3 – 6. Rissy is a baby lovebird. Others try to give Rissy kissies. Each time – “‘No kisses!’ Rissy chirruped with a most emphatic squeak.” Her parents worry something is wrong with her – “we know all lovebirds love kisses.” When the chicks at school squeeze too close and she squeaks “no kissies” it hurts their feelings. Rissy worries there is something wrong with her. Her mother says “there is nothing wrong with you. Your body and your heart are yours and you choose how to share.” Rissy says to the others “some birds share their love with kissies but they’re not my favorite things.” She offers that she likes to sing songs, sit close, give / get cards, and high fives. Others respect her wishes.

We Say What’s OK Series by Bowers and Munoz. (I can’t find video read-alouds, but here is an interesting companion video) Age 4 – 6. This series is on consent. The author says there are five key concepts to teach about consent: I listen to my body, I am in charge of my body, I ask permission, I check in, and I accept no. These engaging books feature characters of diverse age, race, and ability. We Listen to Our Bodies talks about tuning into cues in your body that signal that you might be scared, sad, or angry. We Ask Permission is about asking people before we touch them and tuning into body language (of people and of animals) to know if the touch is a positive experience. We Check in with Each Other is about not assuming that just because someone wanted to do something yesterday doesn’t mean they want to do it OK, and about stopping in the middle of something (like a tickle fight) to be sure that they are still OK with it.

No Means No! by Sanders and Zamazing. (Video) Age 4 – 6. Shows people asking to touch (aunt give a kiss, parents offering to help wash her private parts, cousin wrestling, friend asking to hold hands) and girl politely turning things down, and everyone happily moving on to other options, because “if I don’t want a hug or a kiss, No Means No!” “I am strong and I have a voice that is loud and clear. So when I say ‘no’, No Means No.” This is a fine book, but it feels like a lesson-teaching book, and some kids don’t engage with those as well as they engage with more story based books.

Hands Off, Harry by Wells. (Video) Age 4 – 6. Harry the Alligator likes to act silly in ways that are physically wild, bumping into other kids, sometimes making them spill paint or glue. Despite being given time outs, he keeps bumping into others. They have him wear an inflatable donut ring so he can’t touch others and he learns to respect other’s space and use his hands to help, not hurt. I don’t love this one, because there’s a punitive aspect to how his behavior is handled. It’s gentle, but still…

My Body: What I Say Goes by Sanders and Hancock. (Video) Ages 5 – 8. Talks about kinds of touch that make them feel safe, what makes them feel unsafe. Early Warning Signs that tell you something is wrong (racing heart, etc.) Have a safety network of adults, including one that’s not in your family, that you can talk to. Private parts – those covered by bathing suit and mouths – includes the vocabulary penis, vulva, etc. If someone touches those, asks you to touch theirs or shows you pictures of private parts, say “stop” and tell a trusted adults. No secrets. Book ends with 5 body safety rules. If you’re looking for a book that explicitly teaches sexual abuse prevention, this does so.

Teach Your Dragon Body Safety by Herman. (Video) Age 5- 8. A dragon shares with his human friend that a girl at school likes to hug him and he doesn’t like it. His friend says it’s OK to say no or ask for a high five. The book then goes on to talk about touches that don’t feel right, private parts, not keeping secrets and having a safety team of people you can tell if someone is touching you in a way you don’t like.

Additional Books on Topic

My Body Belongs to Me by Starishevsky and Padron. (Video) A story of a girl whose uncle’s friend sits down next to her and “touched me in that place that no one else can see.” He tells her to keep a secret. She tells her parents, who say they are proud of her for telling them, and say she could have also told a teacher. She says it’s not her fault that it happened and moves on. I wish there had been a message from the parents that the man’s behavior was wrong and unacceptable – that doesn’t really get addressed. Personally, I would not read this book to my students or to my child because of the discomfort it might cause. But your needs and values may differ.

Hug? by Chua. (Video) A girl hugs a sick cat to make it feel better. Then a dog asks her for a hug. Then LOTS of other animals want to hug her till she’s totally overwhelmed and yells STOP! She says she doesn’t feel well, so the cat asks her if she wants a hug and it makes her feel better. Then lots of animals are shown hugging, and it says hugs are great. The book is fun and silly with great illustrations. But the book description says “There are character education connections here to compassion, tolerance and empathy, and a terrific opportunity for discussions about boundaries.” I don’t see that message come through clearly.

I said no! by King and Rama. This is really lengthy – almost a textbook for a child age 7 – 10. Good content, but too much. The read-aloud video is about 20 minutes long. It could be helpful for a parent to read, just to build a collection of ideas to teach at teachable moments spread over time, not all at once.

TitleCharactersMessageAgeEngaging
My Body Belongs… by Pro FamiliaHumans, mostly whiteSome touch is nice, some is not as nice. You can tell people ‘don’t touch me.’4 – 6Yes
Let’s Talk AboutDiverse humansConsent – ask before touching. You can say no. Tell adult if uncomfortable.5 – 8Yes, but long
Don’t Hug DougHumans, diverse age, race, ability, sizeNot everyone likes to be hugged. Ask first.3 – 6Yes!
How to Hug aSea creaturesRespect that some people only like touch under certain conditions3 – 6Yes!
Can I GiveMerpeople, sea creaturesAsk others how they like to be touched3 – 6Yes!
Miles is the…Human family, diverse skin tone, ageYou can tell people you don’t want them to touch you3 – 6Yes
Rissy No KissLovebirdsSome people don’t like kisses, and it’s OK for them to say how they like to connect3 – 6Yes
No Means NoHuman (white family, diverse classmates)If someone wants to touch you, you can say no thanks4 – 6OK
Hands OffAlligatorsDon’t bump into, poke or push others – learn personal space4 – 6Yes
My Body – What I sayHumans, white girl protagonist, diverse others5 body safety rules – early warning system, private parts, safety net5 – 8OK
Teach Your DragonDragon protagonist, humansIt’s OK to say no to hugs and other touches. If someone touches you in a way you don’t like, tell5 – 8Yes
My Body Belongs by StarishevskyHumans. Bi-racial child, white abuserWhen someone else touches your private parts, you should tell someone3 – 6Worrisome
Hug?Human girl and animalsSometimes too many friends want hugs and that’s overwhelming3 – 4Yes
I said noHumans – white boy protagonist, diverse othersTextbook on keeping private parts private7 – 10Too long

Learning More

For each book, I include an Amazon affiliate link that takes you to that book on Amazon so that you can read all the details about it and read other reviews. I do get a small referral fee if you click on those links and then purchase something on Amazon. However, I encourage you to use your local library – encourage them to have books like these in their collection! Or to purchase from local, independent booksellers. Learn more about where to find great kids’ books.

For each, I also give a link to a YouTube video of a read-aloud of the book so that you can preview the book in detail. (Note: I don’t know whether the creators of these videos had permission, or if they were violating copyright. So I tried to choose videos without ads, so the video creators don’t gain financial benefit.)

You might also be interested in these posts: Talking with Children about Touch and Consent; Books for Children about Sexuality; Talking with Children about Gender Identity (includes links to recommended children’s books on that topic) and Teaching about Tricky People, vs. Stranger Danger.

The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.