Be the thermostat, not the thermometer

Have you ever experienced a child when they start to spiral out of control? Let’s face it, most of us have been there in some way or another. When a child is in a meltdown an adult can act as a model and guide in self-regulation.

 Children would, of course, do better with Zen Buddhists as carers or parents. But those of us who aren’t bodhisattvas should still try to achieve as calm an emotional state as possible when responding to extremely anxious and melting down children. In our previous blog we discussed ways to work towards that and to put the behaviour into context and approach it with a calm head.

Penny Williams, author and mentor (Parenting ADHD and Autism website) has distilled co-regulating into 4 steps which we discussed with the carers at the NEST camp. (This is a summary of her excellent article on managing a meltdown.)

#1 Validate Emotions and Show Empathy

Kids are people, too. Their feelings matter, even if they react in a manner out of scale for the situation and/or their age. Minimising or dismissing their thoughts and feelings makes them feel like they don’t matter. Validating their thoughts and feelings, in turn, makes them feel understood and loved — isn’t that the goal? Validating a child conveys deep empathy. While the child’s responses may seem out of scale for the situation or not age-appropriate, validating their feelings acknowledges that their emotions are understandable and acknowledging that their feelings are real and true to them.

There are many ways to validate a child’s feelings. Useful validating phrases include:

“I know it’s hard to wait…”

“That must have hurt…”

“It’s hard when you don’t do as well as you wanted to…”

“It feels bad to lose…”

“I can see you are feeling…”

“That can be really annoying…”

“I bet you are sad because…”

“I know what you mean…”

Besides making your child feel understood, you are teaching emotional awareness and regulation strategies by talking through their feelings. Emotional validation builds appropriate emotional development and regulation skills.

#2 Ask, “How Can I Help You?”

While there is no magic bullet cure for ADHD or autism (you know that’s right!), there is one phrase you can say to your child that validates feelings and, very often, improves an unwanted situation. It’s so powerful, Penny calls it the “magic phrase.”

“How can I help you?”

Is your child frustrated? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child down or sad? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child angry? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child anxious? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child struggling with homework? Say, “How can I help you?”

Yep. That’s it. That’s the magic. It seems simple and intuitive but we rarely think about it in the middle of the struggles.

Will the magic phrase work in every situation? No, of course not. But it might be worth giving it a try.

Will the magic phrase solve the underlying problem (having to do homework or the reason they got triggered)? No. Won’t do that either. That problem is still there. But once you have calmed the tone of your interaction, there is space where you can address that underlying issue.

Don’t get upset if the child’s answer to “How can I help you?” is not oppositional or rude. They might say, “You can’t,” or say, “By leaving me alone,” or any number of less-than-ideal answers to the question. The point isn’t necessarily to engage in conversation about their problem, rather, at that moment, it is to validate their feelings, diffuse the emotional turmoil, and show your child that you are in their corner. The collaborative conversation to help solve their problem can come later, when everyone is good and calm.

Remember you are the guide and the adult in the room, try not to respond to the less-than-helpful answers. Try to simply sit with them.

If the child says you can help by leaving them alone, then leave them alone for a bit (unless, of course, they’re not safe alone). We all need to be left alone at times.

Ask how you can help and then listen, truly listen to your child’s needs.

#3 Remain Calm — Be the Thermostat, not the Thermometer

As a parent or carer, it is important that you as the adult in the relationship is the one who is regulating the emotional temperature.

A strategy to remain calm is to remember that you want to be the thermostat, not the thermometer. A thermostat works to adjust the temperature rather than react. A thermometer simply offers the temperature, but does not help in adjusting it.

Your response helps to adjust the temperature of the situation.

#4 Set Your Child Up for Successes

If in the morning they need a particular pair of socks that fit ‘just right’, make sure that the socks are there in the morning so that the morning routine is not hijacked by a meltdown. If being in a supermarket is overwhelming, don’t take them there – or do the work before the trip to prepare them with strategies to cope and a ‘get-out’ plan.

Where is the child developmentally? What do they struggle with? Where do they need help? Provide the support that helps the child to bridge those gaps and learn skills so that they are less likely to feel the shame, frustration or anger that could precipitate a meltdown. Routine and schedules keep a child clear about what is coming up and what is required of them, and helps to keep them safe and calm.

Setting appropriate expectations also offers kids opportunities for successes. When expectations are based on a child’s lagging developmental age and stage, they are attainable. When expectations are attainable, kids succeed. When kids succeed, it builds their confidence and self-esteem… which preps them even more for future successes.

Determine what their strengths, interests, and talents are. Use those in everyday life to adapt situations so the child has an opportunity for success. Small but attainable opportunities for success, that consider their disabilities and developmental age, will build their own sense of capacity and self-worth.


And finally, you are not spoiling your child  or ‘indulging’ the behaviour when you adopt this approach to co-regulation. Rather, you are treating the condition of high anxiety, sensory overwhelm or emotional dysregulation. Although it may feel to you that it takes too much time or that you are reinforcing bad behaviour, remember that other punitive approaches are not going to work and the end result is a demoralised carer and a very unhappy child.


For support or to speak to someone who can assist you with this, please check out our website.

(Image from Unsplash by Tetbirt Salim)