When it comes to calming strategies for kids, the internet has provided a vast array to choose from, but not all of them are backed by research. In fact, some of the most recommended tips - punching or screaming into a pillow and stomping feet, for example - are actually not good strategies for calming down.
But let’s back up.
Anger is a normal emotion. We often give it a bad rap because unchecked anger can certainly lead to behavioral problems, aggression, and violence. But anger itself is not bad. There are no “good” and “bad” emotions. All emotions are data, and if we listen to why our anger is visiting and what it has to say, we’ll find that it has great value.
Anger may visit to help us:
Protect ourselves from a threat
Motivate us to solve a problem
Defend our values and beliefs
Inspire social action and justice
Gain a sense of control
While we typically think of calming strategies as a way to deal with anger, that is not the only emotion for our children to regulate. Over-excitement, fear, worry, jealousy, embarrassment, guilt, overwhelm, and silliness are just a few more examples of emotions that may need calming, though please note that calm and regulated are not the same!
Calming Strategies are Really Regulating Strategies
Regulation is being able to recognize and modulate your emotions. It has nothing to do with achieving a certain state, but rather regulation is having your response to whatever emotion you are feeling be in your control. It’s mindful awareness, connecting with yourself and your emotion to listen to your needs at that moment, and this is what we can teach our children.
The message isn’t “don’t be mad” but how to be mad. Not “worry is useless,” but here’s how to calm your anxiety. When we label emotions as bad, we shut down important messages, but when we show our kids how to recognize, name, and regulate those emotions, they’ll learn true emotional intelligence.
According to a paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004), the emotional life of toddlers and preschoolers is complex. Notably, the authors say, “The emotional health of young children is closely tied to the emotional and social characteristics of the environments in which they live.”
While differences in temperament are part of their biological makeup, their experiences are coded in their brain circuitry, and what we both model and teach regarding emotions affects how their brain circuits get “wired.” The early childhood years are critical for learning positive ways to deal with one’s emotional world as the brain's emotional center and the prefrontal cortex (where empathy, reasoning, and self-control lie) rapidly develop.
This is the ideal time to introduce your child to The Time-In ToolKit and to create a CalmingCorner in your home. I’ll discuss a little more about how to incorporate these tools in some calming strategies below.
The Calming Strategies that May Do More Harm
Now back to my original point. It turns out that strategies such as punching a pillow, stomping feet, screaming into a cushion, etc., may do more harm than good. I once thought these were appropriate tools to “get the anger out,” but research now tells us that these actions do not help us calm down. In fact, they continue the adrenaline rush that fuels the hostility. Iowa State University psychologist Brad Bushman, Ph.D., says, “Expressing anger actually increases aggression.”
He and his colleagues asked subjects to write an essay, and to inspire anger, they handed it back to them with brutal critique. Next, the essay writers were asked to deliver bursts of noise to either the person who had insulted their paper or an innocent bystander. Angry participants who’d hit a punching bag before administering the sounds were twice as cruel in their choice of noise length and volume as those who had just sat quietly before performing the task. Furthermore, “they were aggressive toward both types of people,” said Bushman, “and that’s scary.”
In fact, teaching your child to hit or scream into something when angry may train their brain to link anger and aggression, creating a counterproductive cycle. The rush they get from releasing aggression may become addictive. It may quickly become difficult for your little one to keep the hitting to the pillow!
5 Calming Strategies to Help Your Child Regulate Their Emotions
1. Help your child name their emotions
The Feelings Faces Poster included in The Time-InToolKitis great for helping your child identify what they are feeling. They can then choose one of the activities from the Calming Strategies Poster to practice. This interactive Feelings Poster guides children through the process of emotional regulation by first helping them identify what emotion they are feeling and then provides suggestions for different fun activities they can use to help them calm their bodies.
2. Incorporate mindful movements
Teaching your child how to move their body mindfully to create feelings of relaxation and calmness is beneficial. Inversion is a remarkable calming tool as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, producing feelings of relaxation and calm. Here are three mindful movements to try:
Downward-facing dog. Begin on your hands and knees, curl your toes under, straighten your knees, and lift your hips! This is a relaxing inversion exercise!
Stand like a flamingo. Simply balance on one leg and then switch!
Palm presses. This is a good mindful movement for when your child needs to remain seated. Simply have them close their eyes and press their palms together firmly. Focus on the breath and the feeling of the palms.
3. Engage the five senses
This grounding exercise for calming anxiety and stress will also help dissipate anger. Choose one sense (sight, smell, hearing, feeling, taste) and focus attention on it. For example, ask your child to look (sight) for the red objects in the room and name them. Red bear. Red cup. Red pen. Likewise, feel different objects around you and name their texture. Soft bear. Bumpy cardboard. Smooth tile. Continue this exercise until your breathing and heart rate slow to normal.
4. Teach breathing exercises
Teach breathing exercises such as blowing out finger candles and elephant breathing. The first is self-explanatory but for elephant breathing, teach your child to clasp their hands together and raise their arms up high (like an elephant’s trunk) as they take a big breath in. Now exhale and bend at the waist, taking the arms (trunk) down and between the legs.
5. Teach children to do a body scan.
Start at the top of the head and scan down to the feet, noticing any tension or bad feelings in the body. Relax the parts where tension is felt.
As it turns out, these calming strategies are great for adults too. Ask me how I know.
Practice these regularly with your child when they are calm and happy so that they will feel more natural when it’s time to use them. It will take time and consistency for this to become a habit. As always when talking about child development, it won’t work 100% of the time, but teaching these calming strategies now will help your child build positive lifelong skills and increase their emotional intelligence.