I Used The 'Heartbeat Hug' To Calm Tantrums -- And It Still Works With My Teen

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Kristen Mae

The other day, I came across a video on Facebook that made me want to rewind the clock of parenthood. It’s a video of a toddler experiencing a doozy of a tantrum — a full-on nuclear meltdown. You know the kind, the apocalyptic ones where they scream so hard their little vocal cords rattle and scratch to the point you think they must be hurting themselves with their screams.

In the video, the toddler’s father, Joel Mitchell, is sitting next to him, not doing much of anything besides witnessing the child’s loss of control. Over the course of the three-minute video (which has obviously been trimmed), Mitchell continues simply to sit there. Eventually, toward the end of the video, the child crawls into his father’s arms and melts, finally allowing himself to receive the comfort he so needed but wasn’t able to ask for.

Even with how awful it was to listen to that child screaming, that hug at the end was everything. The message from father to child was clear: No matter what you do, I am here. Even in your hardest moments, I am here. I am here, I am here, I am here.

This is the sense of safety that every child deserves — to know they are accepted and loved unconditionally, that they always have a safe place to fall when they feel like they’re coming apart at the seams.

I was never as patient as the father in the video, but what I’ve come to call “the heartbeat hug” has been an amazing tool for me as a parent.

But the video also made me feel guilty because, especially for my first child who is almost 14 years old, I was not this patient. I wasn’t even 10% this patient. My 13-year-old got my novice attempt at parenting, my first crack. I’d read a lot of books, but as every veteran parent knows, no amount of reading can prepare you for the real thing. When my son had a tantrum, I didn’t react nearly as calmly as the father in the video. Ugh, how watching him made me wish I could rewind the parenting clock and go back and do better for my son.

Courtesy of Kristen Mae

I grew up in a world where kids obeyed their parents no matter what, and if a kid was acting out, it was because the parent had done something wrong. I think that’s probably how most gen-Xers grew up. We’ve since learned some things, namely that young children are not equipped to control their own behavior when emotions run high. Sometimes they simply need a soft place to kick and scream. It doesn’t mean they’re going to grow up to be self-absorbed, dependent assholes. In fact, allowing a young child to express their strong emotions has been shown to lead to firmer attachment and higher levels of independence and self-control overall.

With my son Lucas, if he was throwing a tantrum, I used to put him in timeout or snap at him to “stop crying.” It wasn’t until he was about six years old – and by that time I had a two-year-old daughter as well – that I learned about the power of simply being there, of simply allowing my child to express their emotions.

I learned this from a new friend who was a psychologist. She told me about how she hugged her children when they were upset rather than scolding or trying to reason with them. She sent me articles about how humans can synchronize their heartbeat and breathing via close contact. I marveled at her seemingly endless patience.

From then on, whenever one of my children was upset, I did something different. Rather than get frustrated or send them to time out, I would sit next to them and ask if they wanted a hug. If they agreed to that (they almost always did), I’d tell them to lay their head on my chest and listen to my heartbeat. This worked like magic for my kids. Telling them to listen to my heartbeat did two things: It helped them to stop crying pretty quickly because they couldn’t hear my heartbeat if they were screaming, and, when they finally heard my heartbeat, which was likely going slower than theirs in their excited state, it helped their own heart rate to decelerate.

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I was never as patient as the father in the video, but what I’ve come to call “the heartbeat hug” has been an amazing tool for me as a parent. I continue to use it with my nine-year-old daughter. My teenage son isn’t much for meltdowns anymore, at least not of the inconsolable wailing variety, but I age-up the technique for him by extending him more empathy than I am naturally inclined to give. When I want to tell him that his frustration is out of proportion with the situation, that he’s too upset, that he’s exaggerating, I think back to when I was that age and how real and enormous my frustrations felt. Even now, sometimes a long hug is enough to calm my son while also keeping me from lashing out at him.

When it comes to parenting, there are few things harder than keeping your cool when your kid is epically losing their shit. There’s only so long anyone can listen to the shrieks and cries of a melting down toddler while suffering under the sharp exhaustion of four or five hours’ sleep per night.

Whenever one of my children was upset, I would ask if they wanted a hug. If they agreed to that (they almost always did), I’d tell them to lay their head on my chest and listen to my heartbeat. This worked like magic.

But we do our best. We may not have the patience of the father in this video – though I bet even he loses his patience sometimes – but we keep learning. We begin with our instincts and all the knowledge we’ve so earnestly gathered, and then our children unravel us and humble us in that way that only children can.

And we relearn and adapt, and sometimes we fail and sometimes we fail spectacularly, and sometimes we watch a video of some parent being a better parent than we could ever imagine ourselves being, and sometimes we come up with our own genius hack that works perfectly for us and our kids, like a heartbeat hug.

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