Crying Over Spilled Hot Chocolate: An Opportunity for Teaching Self-Regulation, Problem-Solving, and Growth Mindset

The other day, I came home to find my 6 year old son flat on the kitchen floor, red faced, and cry-yelling, “I am so STUPID and I can’t do ANYTHING and NOTHING is working and we don’t even have any paper towels!!” A quick scan of the kitchen revealed a counter of spilled milk and a hot cocoa powder packet explosion. A myriad of questions ran through my mind, one being “where are his big sisters and why aren’t they helping?” Also, I was expecting a handful of 6th grade girls to arrive within the next 10 minutes or so for dinner. I needed my son to pull himself together and I needed to get my kitchen put back together.


Step One: Validate

I approached my son, squatted down, and said, “oh, buddy…it seems like nothing is going right for you right now.” I gestured my arms out towards him and he reached back. I was able to pick him up and give him a quick hug. I carried him to the island and put him on a stool.


Step Two: Begin Problem Solving

Since my son was still crying (calmer now, not yelling, but sniffling and still upset), I took the lead. I said, “it looks like you were making yourself some hot chocolate – wow, that’s being really independent doing that all by yourself.” I hadn’t forgotten that he was yelling about being so stupid, so I wanted to reinforce the fact that he was trying to figure out how to do something by himself. He answered, “yes! And it wasn’t working because I accidentally poured the milk too high so then I had to pour some out in the sink but then it wasn’t chocolatey enough so then I got more hot cocoa and then I ripped it the wrong way and it got all over the counter!” I tried a joke, “you know, some people say ‘don’t cry over spilled milk?’” Too soon. His anger popped out again, “STOP, MOM.” I took his lead and got back to solving the problem.

I saw that he had tried cleaning up his mess, but we ran out of paper towels so he already got out a pack of cleaning wipes. I continued with his efforts, wiping up the milk and found a roll of paper towels in our laundry room. As I cleaned I said, “thanks for trying to clean this up. I meant to pick up more paper towels on my way home, but I forgot. Luckily I remembered we had these in the laundry room. And that was good thinking on your part to get these cleaning wipes.” Again, I’m trying to reinforce for him what he did well along with point out to him that everyone makes mistakes (I forgot to get more paper towels, afterall). 

With the mess cleaned up, I said, “ok, now that that’s cleaned up, I guess you still don’t have your hot chocolate. You think we should see about fixing this or starting over?” The mug he started with was covered in sticky, spilled, chocolately milk. He decided we should start over.


Step Three: Move Forward

I grabbed a new mug from the cupboard, put it in front of him, passed him the milk carton and told him to try again. Calm now, he poured a new mug of milk. I got a new hot cocoa pack and showed him where to rip the packet. He poured it into the mug and stirred it up. I popped open the microwave door and he carried his mug over. I asked if he knew how to do the rest. He did and he did it. 


Step Four: Debrief

I continued cleaning up the kitchen and getting things ready for dinner as he drank down his hot chocolate. He was much calmer and happier now. I wanted to sum up for him what happened, without dredging up his anger again (girls were now due to arrive any minute). I decided to go for it, figuring I could drop it if I sensed that it would lead to trouble. I just said, “when I walked in, I heard you yelling that you were stupid and couldn’t do anything and nothing was going right.” He nodded his head and said, “yeah! I was just trying and trying and nothing was working.” I said, “I know – I could see you were trying and trying! When you poured too much milk, you knew what you had to do to fix it. When there wasn’t enough chocolate, you figured out how to solve that problem. When you made a mess, you didn’t just leave it for someone else, you knew you should try to clean it up. And you did try. And you tried another way when we ran out of paper towels. I’m proud of you for trying and trying and trying. And then we figured it out. How’s that hot chocolate?”


Before Step One, I needed to do a few things. 

Assess and Prioritize

In triaging the situation in front of me, I had many things to do – clean up the kitchen, get him to pull himself together, figure out where my daughters were and what they were doing, and get ready for the dinner guests. I had to figure out which to-do needed to happen first. I figured I couldn’t really move forward with anything until my son was in a better place emotionally. I knew this meant keeping my daughters out of the kitchen, meeting his hot chocolate needs, and NOT trying to correct him for anything he did wrong (i.e., make a mess, call himself stupid, yelling at me).


Be an Emotional Anchor

My son was clearly very upset. Honestly, I was actually pretty stressed and upset about the whole scene and my short time frame to get ready for our other plans. I knew, though, that the calming down and cleaning up process would go much, much faster if I stayed calm. It would help me to think clearly, it would keep me focused on what I needed to do, and it would signal to my son that this is not a crisis. 


Take Other Perspectives

To help me stay calm, I had to put myself in my son’s shoes…he’s really still just a little guy, finishing up a long day of school, trying to be a big boy and sneak in a treat before his mom had anything to say about it. He wasn’t trying to make a mess, he wasn’t trying to interfere with me getting dinner ready for guests, and he certainly didn’t want to feel like a huge failure. He was really feeling bad and he didn’t need me to pile on. With that perspective, it was easy to refrain from pointing out what he could’ve, should’ve, or shouldn’t have done. 

I also had to put myself in his sisters’ shoes…I was irritated that they (the ones “in charge”) were nowhere to be found. They know how to make hot chocolate. They could’ve helped him. They know how to clean up. They could’ve helped him. But then I remembered, I gave them a list of things they needed to do before I got home and they were probably working on that. Also, I know my son. When he’s “in a mood,” it takes a lot of patience and skill to navigate the moment successfully. They may have been walking away to avoid making the situation worse. I thought, too, about how my daughter was looking forward to having her friends over and that it would be embarrassing and stressful for her if I was in a grumpy mood…and I reminded myself, I was the one who suggested that she have friends over in the first place so it’s not really fair for me to resent this to-do. I looked around and saw that she had vacuumed up the dog hair and tidied up the mail, just as I had asked her to do. Taking her perspective helped me to stay calm, appreciate what was going well, and focus on dealing with the situation in front of me so that we could move on to the more festive part of our evening.

Posted in Articles, Emotional Regulation.