Does your child get anxious, angry or frustrated easily? In the moment, it’s often best to err on the side of support; rather than, challenging or giving logic and reason as an answer to their emotion. It’s often helpful to acknowledge the emotion, provide empathy and give time and space to let a child calm down. It can also be beneficial to spend some other time teaching them ways to settle. Many of these techniques offer the child a distraction from the upset or anger which can be enough to help them start to calm.
Best to teach these things out of the moment – Don’t wait until your child is freaking out to try teaching them how to take deep breaths. When people are angry or upset, they aren’t in a good place to learn something new. It’s far more effective to teach new skills or introduce new ideas when they are calm, or when all is well.
Make a calm down spot, an alone zone, a content apartment – In our house, this was a corner of the living room stacked with a few bean bags, pillows and favorite stuffed animals. A mom said her son liked a cardboard box with a door cutout and flashlights inside. The idea is to make a space that is inviting for your child, and is known to be a good place to go to calm down. This space shouldn’t also be tied to discipline or used for time-outs.
Make a few calm down boxes – Fill a few empty shoe boxes with small, quiet toys. This might include lacing boards, invisible ink books, or matchbox cars. We had a few boxes filled with felt board story pieces. You might hand your child a box when they need to calm down or keep a stack of boxes by your calm down spot.
Art, drawing even scribbling – In addition to calm down boxes, you might provide art supplies. Many people find painting, drawing or even making things to be calming things to do. If your child finds this helpful, it’s good to openly provide supplies and encourage their use.
Build a calm down library – It can be helpful to read and discuss children books related to any expected skill. Good books for children on calming down include:
- Calm Down Time by Verdick
- Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Meiners
- A Boy and A Bear by Lite
- Sea Otter Cove by Lite
- Cool Cats, Calm Kids by Williams
- Peaceful Piggy Meditation by MacLean
- Mermaids and Fairy Dust by Kerr
- Enchanted Meditations for Kids by Kerr
- Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids by Shapiro
Deep breathing – This is the simple one, and it can be so helpful if your child buys in. In our house this was counting five slow, deep breaths and then focus on breathing in a regular way for a few minutes, then another five slow, deep breaths and regular again then repeating until you feel calm. For a younger child, you might provide breathing shapes. This would be cutting out construction paper stars and putting a dot in one corner. Teach your child to start with the dot and take one deep breath for each corner. Others suggest it may help to describe deep breathes with a flower and candle. This is taking a deep breath in through your nose like you are smelling a flower, and then out through your mouth like you are blowing out a candle.
Counting – Counting can be enough of a distraction task to give your child a chance to calm down. This might be counting slowly to 10, or counting backwards from 20, or counting as high as they can by threes or sixes. The idea is to either slow them down or give them a slight challenge to get them thinking. As an alternative, it can be helpful to inventory something. This might be counting ceiling tiles or number of people in a crowded area.
Visual counting -This one can take several practices before it’s useful in the moment. First, help your child pick a favorite activity or sport. Let’s say it’s soccer. Then, instruct your child to close their eyes and imagine themselves kicking the soccer ball down the field and into the goal. Have them keep their eyes closed and picture it once for as many years as they are old. For a six year old, they’d picture making six goals. After a few practice rounds, let your child know that when they are getting angry or frustrated it can be helpful to close their eyes and count their soccer goals.
Think of a favorite time or place – An easier visualization task may be to have them close their eyes and think about a favorite vacation or time at their favorite playground. Again, practice a few times and then recall this in the moment.
Mantras – My own mantra is, “breathe, breathe, breathe…”Whenever I am stressed, just reminding myself to breathe and focusing on each breath is helpful. A parenting mantra might be, “no one goes to college NOT potty trained,” for that difficult stretch of time. A child’s mantra might be as simple as, “I’m okay, I’m okay…,” or, “I can do this, I can do this…,” A mantra might follow one of the other suggestions like, “let’s just count, let’s just count…,” until they can get themselves started.
Get physical, run, swing or dance – Movement is calming for lots of people. This may be repetitive movement like swinging, or more physical exercise like running or climbing. It’s great to give kids movement opportunities often and movement outlets for their negative emotions when needed.
Muscle relaxation – There are a few mucle relaxation clips for children on youtube including relaxation: clip 1 and clip 2. Once you get the hang of it, this is something you can walk your child through, or they can do it by themselves. In our social skills groups we play a few related games including Melting Snowman and Tin Soldier. We start off as ice-cold, frozen snowmen. Then, the sun comes out and ever so slowly the snowmen melt until they are just puddles on the floor. For tin soldiers, we sit as upright as we can with our arms and legs and back held straight out. Then, we turn into ragdolls and flop on the floor. The idea in both is to end up relaxing your whole body.
Yoga (gymnastics, karate, ice skating) – If a child enjoys these activities, it’s good to encourage them to continue. While the movement itself can be relaxing, there’s also the long term benefit of children learning to control their bodies and be disciplined to practice.
Fully describe something – Describing something is another way to distract from an upset. This means looking around the room and finding something to fully describe to yourself for a minute. This might be a painting or a toy.
Focus on solutions – Focusing on solutions can be calming to anyone. If I am frustrated by how messy my house is, and I continue to focus on the mess and who made it or how they don’t help, I am just upsetting myself. It can be calming to make a plan for cleaning, and make decisions about how it should look in the end. For a child who is angry about how a game is going, this is getting them to focus on the solution, how to best resolve it. Even better if they can brainstorm and come up with a few options for solving.
Music – Listening to a favorite song or happy music can be a way to help children calm. It may be useful to have them build a playlist and keep it handy.
Mindfulness – This is teaching children to stay present and to let go of worries about the past or anxieties about the future. It’s slowing down and being aware of your feelings. Here are a few fun ways to get started: midfulness clip 1 and clip2. This may include meditation. Here are a few links to meditation ideas for children: meditation clip 1 and clip 2.